BBC’s WW1 centenary season

The BBC have had a pretty shoddy few years. Savile and Newsnight; pay-offs and salary disputes, camera trickery and other sleight of hand within its management. The organisation – not something everyone would deem it fit to be called – is so vast that many who work there consider it a corporation of mini corporations. But for all its many faults, the BBC continue to produce some of the most watchable, popular and educative programming anywhere in the world. Who else could even contemplate competing with the ambition they have shown in their World War One “centenary season”?

Of course, a centenary only happens once, and let’s not be naive: the BBC, like all companies, needs success – now more than ever. Success for them is in numbers, eyeballs, readers and consumers, so there’s no grander way to prove their worth than by dramatising parts of our history whose stories have yet to be properly told. And why not start with the bloodiest of conflicts? Seems as good a place as any.

The scale of this project is startling in its ambition. iWonder guides (digital interactive content); 1400 separate local stories; apps and microsites; nine or ten TV documentaries on TV, yet more on radio. Fully-fledged films. Programmes dedicated to the art and music born during the war. There’s even a radio programme called Day By Day broadcast every day between June and August showing the build-up to the war, “live”, 100 years on. The list goes on.

As a friend said the other day, the only annoyance is the pre-curtain-raiser anxiety of knowing that you can’t possibly watch everything, but there’s a part of me which wouldn’t mind putting my life on hold for a few months and gobbling it all up. I’ve been fascinated by World War Two all my life – I think most of my generation are, in fact – but know little of its predecessor. The BBC’s going to change that and I’ll happily pay my licence fee for that.

Talking of which…

* * *

It’s coming to that time of the year when I have to renew my TV licence. I always hold an unjustifiable grudge about this; I love the BBC, its programming, authority and balance. Well yes – the scandals are a bit of a blight, as are the pay rows and bonuses, and some of the output is outrageously repetitive and often the presenters talk to us as though we’re imbeciles and I hate it when the local news people with enormous shiny faces just appear in between programmes “with YOUR 90 second update” (it’s mine? Oh, thanks, but no thanks).

But apart from all that, I admire the BBC and watch its channels (and listen to its radio) more than any other broadcaster, and £145 a year represents incredible value for money.

Anyway. This came up recently while C and I were comparing Portuguese and British media (we are thrill-seekers). In Portugal the equivalent licence fee is included with their electricity and costs roughly €3/month, but all they get for that are two measly TV channels (RTP1 and RTP2) and some radio. The rest is privately owned and, overall, the quality is fairly mixed. Their daily national evening news, for example, lasts an interminable hour-and-a-half, every night. And on their commercialised channels, you can forget brief four-minute advert breaks. You have enough time to make dinner and, in some cases, gobble it up, salted cod and all. In contrast, not only is our news distilled to about 25 minutes, but we have a stack of regionalised news centres around the country.

£145 is a lot of money, but we get a vast amount. BBC 1, 2, 3 and 4, and BBC News. The entire BBC website is free and uncommercialised. Mobile apps; catch-up apps, supportive apps and other appy apps. The BBC World Service, the largest international broadcaster. BBC Radio. And bear in mind, when the licence fee was first established in 1948, it cost £2/year – the equivalent to over £70 in 2010, but you didn’t get much for your money.

We are a nation of moaners, and that’s a good thing, but we really have no idea how lucky we are to have the BBC.

I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue

Don’t worry. I haven’t turned into Cricket365 with their Addiction To Capitilaising Every Word In Headlines. I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue is my favourite show, on TV or radio, and returns for its fiftieth series on Monday at 6.30pm on BBC Radio 4. It is brilliantly stupid and gets better and better. If you’ve never heard it before, try to catch it tomorrow. You’ll thank me.

This from the Guardian’s Leader tomorrow:

Mrs Trellis of north Wales will no doubt be sitting by her wireless at 6.30pm this evening when the start of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue’s 50th series is announced by the show’s bumbling brass theme (based on a tune by Haydn). What follows is guaranteed to be brilliant. It always is. Listening is like being welcomed back into a comfortable club on a wet winter’s night, a cheerful refuge from a dour, serious world outside. There may be people who are tired of its routines, its in-jokes and innuendo – but they are the sort of humourless listeners who write in to the BBC asking for the rules of Mornington Crescent to be explained (200 do every series), who wonder why Samantha hasn’t read out the score in years and probably question the need for the licence fee to fund Humph’s expensive laser display board, too. Everyone else appreciates the show’s relaxed brilliance. Many things contribute to this, starting with Humphrey Littleton, who has chaired the show since it began in 1972, getting funnier and bolder through the years. He does deadpan gags better than anybody else in broadcasting and gets more smut past the BBC, too. Without him the show would not have made it through 10 series, let alone 50, a magnificent score matched only by the even longer-lived Just A Minute. By rights Clue should have stopped being funny years ago. But there is nothing dusty or exhausted about a programme that still asks silly people to do silly things, and gets away with it every time.

And a very late arrival at pharmacists’ ball, would you please welcome Mr and Mrs Bollock-Steroids and their charming – if well-built – daughter Anna.

Bong: Trevor McDonald in shock comeback

Trevor McDonald

Unconfirmed rumours from Channel 4 News (no less) that Trevor McDonald, the Trinidad-born newsreader and chum of cricket, is to come out of retirement to front ITV’s pathetic attempt to take on the BBC (again) with News at Ten. Well, I hope he does. No one reads the news quite as laboriously and….with odd pauses as well as long sentences without breaking as Trevvvvvvvor McDonald.

A united Middle East, of sorts

Nice observation from Richard Sambrook on three friends united by journalism and varying degrees of trauma.

I was talking to Alan Johnston earlier this week (yes he is as decent and remarkable as he appears). He told me something which keeps playing in my mind. A little while before 9/11 he was one of three BBC correspondents having dinner one night in Cairo. They all had a deep interest in the Middle East and were discussing how events were likely to play out. The other two were Frank Gardner, later shot and badly injured in Saudi Arabia and Caroline Hawley who reported from Baghdad for a number of years until she took a break in Amman on the night a suicide bomber blew up her hotel (she was uninjured). Alan of course was kidnapped in Gaza earlier this year. His story is being told by Panorama next week. Three very talented and commited reporters, friends, who together have experienced the sharpest end of the Middle East.

Sambit Bal on Test Match Special

Pretty cool moment for us today when Sambit Bal, our editor, was invited onto Test Match Special during the tea interval of the 2nd Test at Trent Bridge. Jonathan Agnew knows and likes Cricinfo, but it was nevertheless oddly exciting to hear him be so amazed at how Sambit (and us) manage to produce a site of such breadth and depth. Anyway, it might be online if you fancy a listen – check TMS’s site.

Watching cricket on Ceefax

Remember a screen like this?

Ceefax page 340

Ceefax was the lifeline most tragic cricket fans relied on, and Rod reminds me just what an invaluable tool it was. 341 was always on in our house. “Don’t change the channel, I’m watching the cricket!” I remember sprinting home from school when Mike Atherton and Jack Russell did the unthinkable, and was amazed to see both their names in white at stumps. Ah, great days they were. Ceefax has gone all interactive and flashy, nowadays (does look pretty good though, I admit).

Some geek’s put up the whole Ceefax, live, on t’interweb. Knock yourselves out.

Test Match Special at 50

Is it not time for more female voices on TMS? “I hoped Claire Connor might be the one, but I don’t worry too much about not having a female,” said Baxter.

“The audience have to be comfortable with the commentators and most female voices need to be pitched a bit lower. You need an alto, not a soprano. Clare Balding has a perfect voice for radio.” And what advice would he have for his successor?

“I hope he (Baxter presumes it will be a man) doesn’t lose sight of the fact the commentary is the main thing,” he said.

So says Peter Baxter, Test Match Special’s producer since time began. Interesting comments, and not something I’d ever considered. Personally, I find Balding’s voice almost indistinguishable from a man’s. Indeed, listening to her and Willie Carson speaking, it’s difficult to determine who exactly wears the trousers. So to speak.

Anyway, well done TMS. I don’t listen to it these days as we’re glued to the screen, for obvious reasons, but it remains the best of British. But for how long? With Baxter hanging up his microphone, he sounds an ominous warning note to his successor

“Five Live have people who are in charge of things called “station sound” and that rings a few alarm bells. The whole point of TMS is that it doesn’t sound like other commentaries.”

Station sound? I shudder at the thought. There’s every chance that some shallow-sighted media freaks could ruin a British institution, turning it into a brash (and by proxy, dull) service. Come on BBC: leave it alone. Change is not always for the best. There will be quite a few TMS pieces on Cricinfo tomorrow and over the week, starting with Andrew Miller’s interview with Baxter, so keep your mince pies peeled.

Who were your favourite commentators? What do you make of the current crop? Favourite TMS moment? etc. Not that I listen nearly as much as I’d like, but I think Mike Selvey is particularly brilliant and works well with Vic Marks.

Petition to enable ex-pats access to BBC overseas

Crafty Leak writes:

It is SHOCKING that the BBC (and I guess ABC in Australia) do not allow an “international” tournament (with half empty cricket grounds!) to be broadcast on-line “outside the UK”! Do they want to help cricket grow as a sport or not?

So what if you are a UK TV license fee payer who lives abroad? You pay for the BBC, then they deny you rights to their services because you are outside the UK – IT’S DAYLIGHT ROBBERY!

There is a campaign on the 10 Downing Street website to allow non-UK users access to BBC services:

http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/BBC-4-Expats/

Check it out and SIGN it! All it involves is entering your passport number – simple really, as the technology is there!

Worth signing. I have friends overseas who are continually frustrated by the lack of access to TMS while still holding their UK passport. I don’t doubt it’s technically possible, but there is no doubt a whole mile-long length of red tape to go through first. So…sign up.

Online radio stations covering the World Cup

Adrian pleads:

This may have been addressed previously, however I have noticed that there is
no mention of world cup coverage on the BBC, have TMS lost the radio rights ?
And, if so, who has them in the UK, Talk Sport (lord’elp us!)

Before the last Ashes series you were kind enough to post my suggested thread
asking if anyone knew of non UK radio stations that broadcast commentary on the
net; any chance of doing the same again. I am a huge fan of All India Radio’s
coverage, stemming from an enjoyable couple of months there last year, and
recommend it wholeheartedly.

BBC’s TMS site says their next coverage will be the World Cup but, as yet, their schedule hasn’t been published. So if you know of any online radio stations covering it, leave a comment and rock on.

Technology of covering and following cricket

Technology has moved on massively even in the short time I’ve followed the game. Back then, in the familiar gloom of the 1990s, few people bothered with Sky. It required a “dish” which implied a small and unobtrusive space-age work of genius. In fact, they were the size of a small car and were concreted onto the sides of flats which almost collapsed under the weight. They were also bright white, or they were until the pigeons took aim.

All change. The dishes are now properly unobtrusive – digital, even – and are sucked onto the walls of every estate in Britain. And here is the BBC’s Test Match Special producer, Caroline, with their own version.

Caroline from the BBC with a satellite dish

I miss the old days sometimes. Ceefax, waiting for the colours to change (not out batsmen were in white, I think, and those dismissed turned green. Appropriately.) Can’t remember what blue meant. But there was a thrill in watching the screen, if the radio was knackered, waiting for it to change. And there was usually (but not always) a delay in updates if a wicket had fallen…so you’d sit there, sweaty palmed, and wait for the batsman to turn green.

This was all before Cricinfo came along. Now that we’re doing ball-by-ball commentary editorially – with more of a voice, colour, interesting facts etc – the response has been incredible. We even get emails from fishermen at sea…in the middle of the bloody sea, reading our website and following commentary. It’s ridiculous.

So I don’t miss the old days that much. There is too much cricket being played; the game is played at a new, frenetic pace (except when Collingwood’s batting); Zimbabwe are, well, whatever. But the coverage, and access of cricket news for the fans, is unprecedentedly broad. It’s pretty damn good.

What do you miss from the dark old black-and-white (or white and green) days and what modern marvels do you like the most?