A Californian and an Englishman taking part in momentous Scottish events

Flag of Scotland: Saint Andrew's Cross, or the Saltire
Flag of Scotland: Saint Andrew’s Cross, or the Saltire

So, after weeks and months of campaigning – years and decades for some – we are coming towards the end of the Scottish independence referendum campaign. The vote on 18 September is three weeks away and the pace of debate and argument is more frantic. Many of us watched this week a heated, that is code for shouty and ill-tempered, debate between First Minister Alex Salmond, speaking for Yes Scotland, and Better Together’s Alistair Darling.

When my Californian wife Kathie Touin and I, an Englishman, moved to Orkney four years ago we never imagined we would be participating in the biggest vote in Scotland, and in the United Kingdom, for more than 300 years. It could lead to the biggest change in the United Kingdom since Ireland became independent, perhaps ever.

It is a privilege to live here at this time, and it is wonderful that – some social media abuse from a minority aside – the campaign has been conducted peacefully, politely and democratically. And, if friends in England are not sure, yes, as British citizens resident in Scotland Kathie and I do get to vote in the referendum.

There have been many public meetings to debate the issues – we went to one such event in our small village of Quoyloo. And Kathie went to a women’s conference in Kirkwall. How many years since political campaigns have inspired public meetings? I can vaguely remember as a child going to one such meeting, in Huntingdon, I think, to see Huntingdonshire MP David Renton speak at an election meeting – that must have been about 50 years ago.

Of course, the vote on 18 September will not settle everything, whether Scotland decides to go independent or to stay in the United Kingdom. Either way the future for Scotland, and the UK, is uncertain, but exciting as well. I get the feeling that folk in England are only just starting to realise and consider the possibilities. Those living in Wales and Northern Ireland, I suspect, may have given it more thought.

On the day I will be voting for… against… come now, you would not expect an old-fashioned ex-BBC employee brought up on impartiality to give that away would you?

But I will tell you this. I am concerned about the Scottish Government’s proposals for broadcasting in an independent Scotland.

Broadcasting was not mentioned as a topic in either Salmond v Darling TV debate and has only briefly, for a day or two, been in the media coverage of the debate. But, for me, it is important.

In summary, the Scottish Government, ie the Scottish National Party, proposes a Scottish Broadcasting Service (SBS), funded by the existing TV Licence fee, at the existing rate of £145.50-a-year. The SBS will provide TV, radio and online services, working in a joint venture with the BBC – not something the BBC and Licence payers in England will necessarily want.

We are told that we can expect to retain BBC Alba (Gaelic TV channel) but also to receive a new TV channel (details unspecified).

On radio, we will continue to receive the existing BBC stations Radio Scotland and Radio nan Gaidhael (Gaelic), and a new radio station (details, again, unspecified).

The SBS will also provide online services, to include a news website and a catch-up player.

In addition, SBS will have the right to opt-out of BBC One and BBC Two, as BBC Scotland does now. This proposal also has issues, will the BBC want to cede editorial control for chunks of its BBC-branded channels?

We are assured, under these proposals, that popular programmes like EastEnders, Doctor Who and Strictly Come Dancing will still be available. Leaving aside the question of why EastEnders is popular – every trail I see for it seems to be unmitigated gloom – I think this is correct. Even if BBC channels were not available in Scotland, programmes like these can easily be bought in by a Scottish broadcaster.

But how do these proposals add up when we think of the full range of BBC services? Somehow, without increasing the Licence Fee, and without taking advertising (as RTE does in Ireland), viewers and listeners in Scotland will get everything they do now plus a new TV channel and a new radio channel.

To me, it doesn’t add up. Something would have to give. For example, a BBC that no longer has to cater for Scottish licence payers could decide to turn off, or stop maintaining, transmitters north of the border. Can we guarantee getting the full range of BBC programmes? BBC Radio 4? Or BBC Radio 3? What about BBC Four? Or the BBC News channel?

We are told that people in many other countries receive BBC channels quite happily. But, in truth, they do not get the full range of services, and they are likely to be paying extra to get BBC channels. My friend in Belgium, for example, gets BBC One and BBC Two as part of his cable subscription. If he wanted to get more channels, he would have to pay more. And only some BBC Radio services are available.

I also have a concern about our local service here, BBC Radio Orkney. We get a properly staffed, professional news service, giving us a 30-minute news programme each morning, and a lunchtime bulletin, as well as a weekly request show and, during the winter months, nightly documentary, music and community programmes.

Given that the Scottish Government proposals seem to be trying to get a quart out of a pint pot – or whatever the metric equivalent might be – some cuts in existing output might be needed. Someone (in Glasgow or Edinburgh) might decide to reduce Radio Orkney to a morning-only service, or perhaps a joint service with BBC Radio Shetland, with a dedicated reporter or two in each place? Hopefully not.

Now, you might think my concern about broadcasting is mis-placed and that the Scottish Government proposals make sense. Or, you might think that voting for independence will give Scotland a chance to get its own TV and radio services and losing some BBC channels would be a price worth paying. One person on Twitter – @AAAForScotland – contacted me after I raised this issue to say: “BBC! lived without it for years out of choice I would never miss it, personal boycott in protest anti Scots.”

At the beginning of the referendum campaign I predicted that the result would be close. I stand by my prediction. Here in Orkney I would be amazed if there is a majority for independence. But across Scotland? It might just happen.

The night of Thursday 18 September could be very interesting. And not just for those of us living in Scotland.

To find out more

Scotland’s Future: Your Guide To An Independent Scotland –http://scotreferendum.com/reports/scotlands-future-your-guide-to-an-independent-scotland/

Better Together –

BBC Annual Report 2013/14 –

Lord Birt says Scotland would lose many BBC services after yes vote –http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/aug/19/lord-birt-scotland-bbc-independent

Scottish independence: ‘Yes’ vote would ‘devastate’ broadcasting –http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-28863806

Post-independence break up of BBC would be ‘devastating’ says Curran –http://news.stv.tv/scotland-decides/news/288964-post-independence-break-up-of-bbc-would-be-devastating-says-curran/

Scottish independence: BBC services might not be free, says ex-Trust member –http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-27116556

My previous blog on this subject, Across the Border: Broadcasting In An independent Scotland (2013 article) –

How would the BBC be divided if Scotland became independent? (2012 article) – http://www.theguardian.com/politics/reality-check-with-polly-curtis/2012/feb/29/how-would-the-bbc-be-divided-if-scotland-became-independent

Look and Learn: magazines I remember

This week will be the end of an era in the Brown household. I’m about to stop being a regular reader of the Radio Times.

As a child I would look forward keenly each week to the arrival of the Radio Times and the TV Times, which were delivered with the family newspaper. In particular, I seem to recall, I would look through the radio listings to see what was coming up in the next week.

I should explain for younger readers that, in those days, copyright restrictions meant that the week’s BBC TV and Radio programmes only appeared in the Radio Times, and the week’s ITV programmes only appeared in the TV Times. This was before Channel 4 existed, or any other TV channels beyond BBC One, BBC Two and ITV. But to get your full week’s listings you had to buy both the magazines. Amazing, isn’t it? How quaint we were in those days.

Newspapers at the time were allowed to publish that day’s TV and radio listings but no more. This changed – along with many other aspects of British life, for good and ill – during Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister.

An archive Radio Times cover, showing Jon Pertwee as the Doctor (image: copyright BBC)
An archive Radio Times cover, showing Jon Pertwee as the Doctor (image: copyright BBC)

My interest in broadcasting, radio in particular, obviously started at a young age and continues today – my two internet radios are my favourite gadgets (see my previous blog: Turn on, tune in, but don’t drop out).

But back to the Radio Times. The reason I have stuck with it for so long is that, unlike other listings magazines, it has a decent radio guide and, if I’m honest, because of its links with the BBC.

In fact, when I worked for the BBC I would get a free Radio Times as part of the membership fee I paid to belong to the BBC [staff] Club.

But recently I’ve found the magazine’s articles less interesting – they’re often concerned with films, for instance – and the price has crept up to £1-60. The magazine’s links with the BBC are diminished as well as it is no longer owned by BBC Worldwide, the corporation’s commercial arm.

So I’ve taken the plunge and ordered, from our splendid local shop, Isbister’s in Quoyloo, a magazine called Total TV Guide, price £1-10, which has reasonable radio coverage. I will be collecting my first copy today, we’ll see how we get on together.

But this change of habit put me in mind of other magazines I have enjoyed over the years…

Most men, I think, claim to have read comics such as The Dandy and The Beano as children, filled with the exploits of Desperate Dan, Minnie the Minx, Lord Snooty and all their pals. I recall reading these comics at school when the weather was too bad for us to play outside at lunchtime.

But as a child, as well as reading the Radio Times and TV Times, I had a magazine called Look and Learn delivered. This was presumably encouraged by my parents. The title tells it all. My memory of this publication is a bit hazy but I recall it was something like a print version of the Blue Peter TV programme, fun but with the emphasis on learning and education. I’m not complaining, I enjoyed it very much.

Later, as a young teenager, or should I say young fogey, I remember sometimes buying The Illustrated London News, a venerable publication then reaching the end of its days. Actually, I should have kept my copies, they would now be worth something significant on eBay, I imagine.

I would also read the weekly music newspapers, which no longer exist in that form. I read, though surely I could not afford the time or money for all of them every week, Sounds, Melody Maker, New Musical Express (NME) and Record Mirror. Of these, I think only NME exists today but in a very different form.

I must have read many other magazines but the next one to stick in my mind is The Face, a music-based style magazine from the 1980s. This was an odd choice for me, as I’ve never been what you would call stylish.

Later I migrated to the music magazine Q, and then its sister publication Mojo, which was more to my taste, but eventually I stopped buying this as well. How many articles can you read about how great the past was?

When I first lived in London, in the late Eighties, and for some time afterwards, I would buy Time Out each week. For those who haven’t lived in the UK capital, it is a listings magazine. I would pore over it each week looking for the best gigs, films and events to attend. I left London early in 2010 but I understand that, now, the magazine is now given away free at Tube stations.

Today I read our local monthly magazine, Living Orkney; The Scots Magazine, excellent value at £2-30; a home-made effort about Radio Caroline called Horizon magazine (published every two months); the quarterly RSPB members’ publication Birds; plus, occasional freebies and odd purchases.

Do you recall any particular magazines that were your favourites as a child, or when you were younger, or perhaps now? I’d love to hear your memories and thoughts.

Find out more







Who said that?

When I was a child I was I was frightened of clowns. I don’t remember this very well, it’s more that I remember my mother telling me – as I grew older – that I had been frightened of clowns when I was small. I do have a vague recollection of being invited to the circus with my friend and his family, and having to refuse because of my clown-phobia.

And I remember going to a friend’s birthday party when everything stopped for Doctor Who – this would have been the old black-and-white version, with the original Doctor, William Hartnell – and I had to stay with the adults away from the TV so that the monsters didn’t frighten me.

I was fine with the Daleks, they didn’t bother me. My mother’s theory, and I think she was right, was that it was a distorted human-like face that scared me.

My mother would also tell me in later life that as a small child in the early Sixties I did not like Lenny the Lion. “Not keen on Lenny Lion,” I said, apparently. Not keen? What sort of annoying child says that?

But I must have overcome my fear of Lenny quickly because I remember liking him very much. To explain, he was a lion with, and this might have been what initially put me off, a clown-like face. He was, in fact, a ventriloquist’s dummy. The ventriloquist was a man called Terry Hall who, with hindsight, was a very camp man.

I imagine Lenny the Lion must have been the beginning of my fascination with ventriloquists and their dummies.

At around the same time I remember a gentleman appearing on TV variety shows with a little girl doll called Daisy May, who spoke in a very quiet whisper. He appeared very old to me though with hindsight I don’t suppose he was. I now know his stage name to be Saveen, and he was one of the wave of British entertainers who came into showbusiness after the Second World War.

But perhaps the most famous ventriloquism team as I was growing up was Ray Alan and Lord Charles. Ray Alan was an amazing vent – you really couldn’t see anything move. His dummy, Lord Charles, though this seems a poor word for such a colourful character, was an upper-class drunk sporting a monocle. I loved him. “Silly arse,” as Lord Charles would say.

Don’t take my word for it, take a look at this video showing a master, perhaps the master, at work:

Some years ago Ray Alan presented a documentary about ventriloquists, on BBC Radio 2 as I recall. Yes, I know, a radio programme on the subject! But the fact is at least two very famous practitioners made their names through the radio, or should I say four counting the so-called dummies.

In Britain Peter Brough and his little friend Archie Andrews starred in a 1950s radio programme, Educating Archie, which at various times featured upcoming stars including Tony Hancock, Benny Hill and Julie Andrews.

Over in the United States Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy had their own radio show, from the 1930s to the 1950s, featuring some of the biggest stars of the day as guests.

Ray Alan came across in his documentary as a rounded, pleasant and, essentially, normal man. He did have hidden depths though. I’ve since read that he wrote scripts for Morecambe & Wise and The Two Ronnies under the pseudonym Ray Whyberd.

And, in later life, he wrote murder mysteries. I recently bought online, through Alibris, A Game Of Murder and Death And Deception. So far I’ve read the latter – a good holiday book, I would say, with an interesting twist.

Ray Alan told in his radio documentary that the famous US vent Edgar Bergen would, in rehearsals, be all over the place while his dummy Charlie McCarthy was word perfect.

Other aspects of voice-throwing highlighted in the programme were more unsettling, hinting at a darker side of the art. For example, the ventriloquist who habitually set a place for his dummy at the meal table; and another who strapped his dummy in the car seat when they went out.

Perhaps this is part of the fascination. Yes, ventriloquism can be very funny and the technique of those who can do it really well is a marvel. But there is something sinister about bringing a dummy to life, particularly one with a brightly-coloured scary face. Careful, we’re getting back to my clown-phobia again.

Take a look at this clip of Michael Redgrave in the 1945 Ealing film The Dead Of Night as he brilliantly portrays a man falling apart as his dummy Hugo takes him over:

Recently modern-day ventriloquist Nina Conti, and her dummy monkey Monk, appeared in two documentaries on BBC Four, Nina Conti – A Ventriloquist’s Story: Her Master’s Voice and Make Me Happy: A Monkey’s Search For Happiness.

I suppose you could say the first documentary was about Nina dealing with her past, and the second was about Nina dealing with her present. The programmes were revealing, emotional and, at times, disturbing, even uncomfortable.

But what struck me most was the way Monk – I was going to say “was used by Nina” but that seems to undervalue him – was the way Monk said what Nina felt and, in particular, said what she was too polite or introverted to say herself.

Here they are in action in Australia in 2009 (with strong language):

This has got me thinking. Perhaps I could use a dummy to say what I really think about life and people? I need to practise though. And I must avoid the word “hospital” at all costs.

PS: If you do not know why I should avoid the word “hospital”, go back and watch the Ray Alan and Lord Charles clip – I promise, your life will be better for it.

Some scary photographs

Scary vintage dummies: http://sobadsogood.com/2011/12/15/14-creepy-vintage-ventriloquist-dummies-photographs/

To find out more

Lenny the Lion: http://www.turnipnet.com/whirligig/tv/children/other/lennythelion.htm

Ray Alan: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ray_Alan

The Dead of Night: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_of_Night

Nina Conti – A Ventriloquist’s Story: Her Master’s Voice: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01jv1yr

Nina Conti website: http://www.ninaconti.co.uk/


Alibris, recommended for buying second-hand books: http://www.alibris.co.uk/