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Andy Wilman on why Clarkson, Hammond and May should be Director General
I know this seems a bit late to wade into the whole BBC Director General hoo-ha that kicked off a while back, but I’ve been busy on Top Gear. Now however, with the series over, I’d like to share my thoughts on the matter. A couple of months ago I was driving to work, the BBC was at that point Director General-less, and John Humphrys and David Dimbleby were nattering away on Radio 4, discussing what sort of person should fill the vacant seat. In truth you only had to listen for a few moments to realise the solution, which was to give the job to Humphrys and Dimbleby, a partnership that would have the DG’s office bursting at the seams with intelligence, wise toughness, passion and common sense. However Dimbleby is apparently too old, and we can’t spare Humphrys from his day job of terrorising lying politicians, so it’s not to be.
Then, a mile or so later, as I sat at the traffic lights staring at a poster for The Expendables 2, the answer hit me: Top Gear - as in Jeremy, Richard and James – they could be the new Director General. I’ll pause for a second whilst you get your laughing done, and then let me explain my logic. Firstly, they wouldn’t need paying. All you’d need is a man in a white coat delivering their tasks for the day in a gold envelope – “You will now go to No.10 and sort out the Licence Fee” or whatever – and they wouldn’t even realise they were doing the job; they’d just think Top Gear had got a bit more boring.
Secondly, it’s now quite clear that Director General of the world’s biggest media organisation is too big a role for one person, but our three could divide the workload. James for example, is a micro management (pedant) type of guy, and I could really see him getting to grips with grass roots staff issues at the BBC. Let’s say the chief technician at Radio Cumbria has a problem with a wonky table leg in the main studio. He rings the DG Hotline, he gets put straight through to James in his Situation Room, who will then don a brown store coat, grab his toolbox, head up North in his economical Panda, and fix the table leg in no more than a day or three. The rank and file at the BBC constantly complain about how out of touch senior management is, but when you’ve got one third of the Director General turning up to take care of snagging jobs, you’re going to do wonders for morale.
Jeremy by contrast, as you probably can guess, is not a micro manager. He’s more of a big ideas, low on details kind of chap, but this is another vital skill that’s needed. The thing is, the papers are full of stories about how the BBC is top heavy with bureaucracy and management, and it’s hard to argue when there’s 92 heads of Marketing and you see adverts for jobs such as “Head of Downstream Upstream Digital Interface”. Everyone is pretty much agreed something needs to be done, but the problem is it’s like reforming the NHS. You take one look at the ginormous Rubik’s Cube of departmental management and think: “Jesus”. That’s where Clarkson comes in. Since his main hobbies are sitting down and giving opinions, he is match fit for issuing detail-free edicts on the streamlining process. Health and Safety, that section would be closed and replaced by a phone message, pre-recorded by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, that says “use your common sense” whenever someone rings up. If you do have an accident, there’ll be a second line dispensing cheery thoughts such as “nothing ventured, nothing gained”, and “still, you’ll have a cracking anecdote for the pub”. The rest of the BBC structure would likewise be massively simplified. Basically you need someone to do the catering, an electrician to mend the lifts, plenty of parking and people to commission and make programmes. Anybody who isn’t involved in those activities will find the exits clearly marked.
This laser beam simplicity of thought will also be excellent for dealing with the plague of crappy Management Consultant agencies. Basically every time there’s a crisis at the BBC they come knocking, saying: “Your staff clearly need a refresher course on ‘Fair Values in Broadcasting’, and we’ll provide it for just £900 million”. This is all completely unnecessary. The BBC has a brilliant Editorial Policy department you can refer issues to, and a book on Producer Guidelines that is thick, totally comprehensive and has been well formulated over time. Now I’m not saying people who make the Queen look like she’s storming out of a room when she isn’t shouldn’t be sacked. They should be birched out of the building. And fast. What I’m saying is the BBC already has all the tools it needs to keep the editorial compass pointing in the right direction. So, when a Management Consultant comes into the DG’s office trying to flog expensive courses on “Fair Trading in a Fair Trade Workplace” and “Anti-Bribery For Vegans”, I envisage Jeremy’s sense of theatre kicking in as he presses a big comedy button and the ground opening beneath the Management Consultant’s chair as he’s tipped into a brushed aluminium tank full of killer sharks. And the cost savings, which are by now already massive, wouldn’t stop there because Richard Hammond could be waiting down below, ready to film the Consultant’s unfortunate accident for a new episode of “Genius of Nature”. “See how the shark protects its teeth by avoiding biting into his Blackberry…etc etc.”
This brings us to the third part of the Director General, Hammond himself. I see Richard as the man to win back the hearts of all the people in the regions who despair that the BBC is run by a bunch of London Lefties eating mezze in Islington. He hates all modern city stuff like electricity, shoes and buildings, and loves nothing more than judging a Funniest Druid contest in Wiltshire. He is a man of the mud. Granted you’d have to stop him putting Crufts on at 8pm every night of the week, but you get my drift. Furthermore he wouldn’t try and engage with the nation via some grandiose New Labour style scheme like moving everyone to Salford. Instead, because of his background in radio, I see him dusting off the old Radio One Roadshow operation, and using it to tour the country, canvassing the opinions of licence payers. He is a very good listener, but also short tempered and likes a fight, so if your complaint goes on for too long he will punch you. On the plus side that should keep viewers focussed, enabling him to cover more ground.
The more I think about this, the more clouds I see parting before me. Their use as the DG just doesn’t stop. James for example has a pilot’s licence and a dreary old aeroplane, so for those big, solemn State funerals, he could provide a quite sombre and extremely pedestrian flypast at very little cost. Hammond however has a helicopter, so for the jollier occasions such as Jubilees, he could whizz around in that for a bit and drop sweets out of it.
You also read those outrage stories in the Daily Mail of the Director General splashing out thousands of pounds on corporate hospitality for concerts at the Albert Hall. That too would be a thing of the past if Jeremy were in charge, because unfortunately he only likes prog rock, so when he invites guests to an evening of King Crimson and Wishbone Ash at Croydon Town Hall, he will get very few takers.
I doubt, despite the impressiveness of the case I’m outlining here, that Jeremy, James and Richard will ever actually get the call to arms. And that’s a shame, because although they may come across as the motorised Marx Brothers, the three of them have a very clear understanding and appreciation of the fact that when you make a programme, you make it for the viewer, not for other people in media. They also recognise when Top Gear’s actually done something wrong, as opposed to when the Daily Mail says we’ve done something wrong. This last point is very important because the BBC will, given its size and the nature of its work, occasionally cock up. When that happens you need a DG who will take firm action that the licence payer can relate to, but not one who feels compelled to break out the hair shirt every time the papers or MPs start a campaign. For example in the wake of that odious predator Savile, an enquiry had to happen, but honestly, do we really need three? Do we really need the one that’s looking at the BBC’s existing “policies and processes relating to sexual harassment”? Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I should ask the Controller of my channel, a woman, or the Head of Commissioning in my department, a woman, or consult one of my two excellent bosses in Editorial Policy, both women, our publicity manager, a woman, or maybe the BBC lawyer who so brilliantly handled our defence in the Tesla case - again, someone who sometimes wears a dress to work. I’ve no doubt in the ‘70s the BBC was more like the set of Life on Mars but trust me - and thank God to the Heavens - it isn’t like that anymore.
At the end of the day we need a DG who instinctively recognises that programme makers at the coalface work like dogs, and as a consequence clears every obstacle out of their path to help them create good stuff for viewers and listeners. We also need one for whom standing up and fighting for the BBC comes as naturally as breathing; because, for all its faults, the BBC is an institution founded on magnificent principles. And trust me, you do not want a broadcasting world where it doesn’t exist. You really don’t. I have seen Italian telly.
Now you may or may not like Top Gear, but I like to think that in our own little world we do right by much of the above. Apparently though, they’ve already got a new DG, so I suppose we’d best just stick to filming cars.