Fear and Loathing at the BBC

Brian writes…

Impressed by my apparent expertise on the subject of podcasting and “user generated content”, I was contracted to manage the BBC’s online comedy team in the spring of 2007, so I was back at the Beeb faster than I’d anticipated. This time, Georgina and I planned carefully how we were going to balance producing our podcast with me working at Television Centre, and I was determined not to experience the frustrations I’d suffered working for Endemol at Television Centre the previous year.

One of my briefs during this temporary contract was to add more audio and video content to the BBC comedy website and I threw myself into the project with my usual smiley enthusiasm at being back at the home of British broadcasting. I have a love-hate relationship with the BBC, intensely disliking the way the corporation is run in the twenty first century, but at the same time having a deep fondness for Auntie the way she used to be. One of my very first jobs after leaving school was working in the video tape library at TV Centre, and in those days it was an exciting, almost magical place.

Many of the Beeb’s most famous comedy shows were being recorded at that time -The Good Life, Till Death Us Do Part, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em – all those shows were rotating around the studios while I was there. I once stepped into a lift with Morecambe and Wise, and all that went through my mind was that Eric Morecambe wasn’t as tall as I thought he’d be. Nowadays when I walk around those evocative circular corridors, I can literally feel the ghosts of those great performers, and I wonder if the BBC will ever again return to such glory days.

Georgina says I view my spells at the BBC as a sign of defeat – an admittance that I’m not clever enough to earn a full-time living as a comedy writer or broadcaster in my own right. I hope she’s wrong about that. My problem is I have an extremely low tolerance of static situations – sitting in the same claustrophobic office day after day drives me insane. Taking the same crowded tube train to work. Having to deal on a daily basis with completely institutionalized staff. To me, all of these things are like a prison cell.

On the exact day I started my contract in BBC online comedy, the whole department, along with the rest of the BBC, was completely re-structured, with the effect that nobody in the entire place knew what the fuck they were supposed to be doing. The online department suddenly appeared to be called “The Vision Multiplatform Studio”.

“Can I see my production budget?” I asked on my first morning.
“You don’t have a budget,” replied the Interactive Executive.
“How can I manage a website if I don’t know what’s in my budget?” I said.
“I don’t know,” said the Exec.
“Do you have a budget?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” he said.

I rang Georgina. “How can you manage a website if you don’t know what’s in your budget?” she said.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“What do you want for dinner,” she said.
“Kalashnikov and tonic,” I replied.

I spent the next couple of days familiarising myself with the BBC comedy site for which I was now responsible, and was delighted to discover that I myself was listed as a scriptwriter within the pages of its vast online Comedy Guide.
“That’s me!” I said to the web producer sitting next to me. “You’ve got one of my Channel Five writing credits on your site. Great!”
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that,” she said.
“We’re cutting costs on the Comedy Guide.”
“So one of your main jobs while you’re here will be to oversee the removal of all the non-BBC credits.”
“Including mine?” I asked.
“Starting with yours,” she said.

The BBC is a fantastically frustrating place to work. Even jobs which sound exciting can fast turn into experiences in which you might consider taking your own life. Let me give you an example. I was charged with the task of creating a fully animated, interactive website for The Mighty Boosh – one of the BBC’s flagship comedy shows. In other words, the kind of project your average media student would chew off their right arm to undertake.

I set about visiting some vibrant young web design agencies in the West End of London, and within a few days found an agency I thought would do a great job.
“You can’t do that,” said a BBC Jobsworth.
“You can’t just go and talk to people.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. How am I going to find the right web design agency for The Boosh if I don’t go and talk to people?”
“Because that’s not fair,” said the BBC Jobsworth. “If you go and talk to people you might give one agency an advantage over another.”
I was lost for words. “So what do I do?” I asked.
“You use the BBC’s Online Commissioning System,” he said proudly.
“And how does that work?” I enquired.
“It’s simple. I’ll give you a username and a password…”
My heart sank. “Then you login and the system will give you a long list of all the skills you think your agency might need to build a nice website for The Mighty Boosh.”
“Next to each useful skill on the list is a little tick box.”
I had died and gone to Hell.
“You place a tick in the box next to the skills you need, and the Online Commissioning System will cleverly give you a list of all the web agencies in the world who might be able to do the job for you.”

I felt myself slowly sinking down into my BBC chair. “Then what do I do?” I asked.
“You make a long shortlist of the ten or twelve agencies who get the highest points on your scoresheet.”
“Can I talk to them then?” I ventured.
“Of course not,” said Jobsworth. “That would be unfair. First, you have to fill out a 30 page Request for Proposal form, and email it to each agency.”
“Where do I get the form from?”
“I’ll give you a username and a password,” he said.
“When you’ve received official pitches for the work from all of the agencies on the long shortlist, you can go ahead and make a short shortlist.”
“How short should it be?” I asked.
“Ooh, I don’t know, seven or eight agencies is usually a good number.”
“And then I can talk to them?”
“Absolutely not,” he snapped. “Then it’s their job to come in here and pitch to the BBC for the work.”
“Seven agencies?” I squeaked
“All on the same day, yes,” he added. 
“Why does it have to be on the same day?” I asked. But I guessed before he could answer.
“Don’t tell me,” I said. “If the pitches for work are not all delivered to the BBC on the same day, some of the agencies might have more time to prepare than others.”
“I can see you’re getting the hang of this,” he said.

I rang Georgina.
“How long does all this take?” she asked.
“He says they can usually rush the procedure through in about two years,” I said.
“I thought you said the programme’s on the air in six weeks!”
“It is,” I said.
“Well you should have started sooner,” said Georgina helpfully.

Every time I go and work at the BBC the corporation seems to be hit by some kind of major crisis. I’m pretty sure none of these incidents have been my fault, but it is rather an odd coincidence.

During my previous contract, Greg Dyke had been hounded out of his post as Director General following the Hutton Report, and on this occasion it was the crisis that became known as “Crowngate”. During a press launch for the BBC Autumn Season, the Controller of BBC1, Peter Fincham had shown the press a clip of what appeared to be the Queen angrily storming out of a room. It later transpired that scenes had been deliberately re-edited to make the sequence appear more interesting and controversial, and that the Queen had actually been storming into the room at that moment. Of course, no-one at the press launch really gave a toss which way the Queen was storming, but Buckingham Palace kicked up a stink and heads began to roll.

Then, only a few weeks later, the BBC’s flagship childrens’ programme Blue Peter admitted that it had deliberately fixed the result of a viewer competition. The effect of both of these unrelated scandals – one after the other – was that the BBC’s general trustworthiness was called into question, and the corporation went into total panic-mode, issuing apologies for everything it had ever done and sacking staff left, right and centre.

That week all competitions were banned on all BBC programmes, and staff were marched into Nazi-like briefing sessions, me included. We were instructed to blow the whistle on any fellow staff we knew to have deceived viewers in any way. There would be an “amnesty”, they said. No-one would be punished, they said. So, like idiots, dozens of BBC staff routinely shopped their colleagues for any minor deceptions they could think of. A few days later, equally routinely, most of those named and shamed by their colleagues were disciplined or sacked. They’re lucky they weren’t put up against a wall and stoned.

The result of all this, was that most BBC staff were afraid of their own shadows. We were running a page on the BBC comedy website with an interactive game called Numberwang – based on a ridiculous non-existent gameshow in a sketch series called Mitchell and Webb. I actually received a call from the Managing Editor of BBC Online, saying that the Editorial Policy department had asked for the page to be removed, because it was clearly a competition.
“Have you ever seen the Mitchell and Webb Show?” I asked him.
“No,” he replied.
“There is no such game as Numberwang. How could there be a game called Numberwang? It’s a sketch. A comedy sketch.”
“Just checking,” he said, and quietly put the phone down.

But I wasn’t going to get involved in this witch-hunt, was I? It was simply my job to put more video onto the BBC comedy website. So, off I went to the Edinburgh Fringe to direct some comedy clips. Co-financed by BBC New Talent, the idea was to talent-spot some up-and-coming comedians, and give them a showcase online. To my amazement, even during production of this innocent little web project, the corporation’s astonishing paranoia kicked in. I was warned by EdPol (the BBC’s equivalent of the SS) that they might have to pull the plug on our shoot because showcasing new talent might imply a potential offer of future work by the BBC, and that might, in turn, be construed, by some viewers, as a sort of prize, which meant that what we were doing could be considered a form of competition. Which was no longer allowed at the BBC. There seemed no escape, even in Edinburgh, from the utter lunacy that was the BBC following “Crowngate”.