The Day I Met An Avenger – or – Happy Birthday Patrick Macnee

Parental advisory: contains strong language (but not until near the end).

In a few weeks’ time it will be five years since my wife Kathie Touin and I moved to Orkney – it hardly seems possible, the time has flown by.

Some of you will know that before Orkney I worked at the BBC – in fact, I spent nearly 24 years working in the BBC Press Office.

Frequently people who I met outside work – hairdressers, for example – would say, “Oh, you must meet lots of famous people.” They were always a bit disappointed in my answer that no, not really, I work in the corporate Press Office so we deal with press questions about BBC policy. At evenings and weekends as the duty press office we field press enquiries about everything from EastEnders to Radio 1 but that does not involve meeting the stars.

By this time the hairdresser would be losing interest. Saying that I saw famous people about the place was not quite what they wanted to hear. Frankly, it might have been easier to say yes, I meet lots of famous people but I can’t talk about it.

Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee in The Avengers (image: BFI)
Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee in The Avengers (image: BFI)

Recently I have been watching old black-and-white episodes of the TV fantasy crime adventure series The Avengers, on the True Entertainment channel, and this got me thinking about famous people I have met. More of that later but – spoiler alert – I can tell you it was sadly not Diana Rigg.

Most of the famous people I met I interviewed when I was working in English local newspapers in West Norfolk (Lynn News & Advertiser) and Peterborough (Evening Telegraph). My time in Rugby and Corby did not throw up much excitement.

My interviews included a clutch of DJs: Ed Stewart (post-Junior Choice, “there is life after the BBC,” he told me – and I discovered he was right), Mark Wesley (anyone remember Radio Luxembourg?), Mike Read and Anne Nightingale. Somewhere I have a photograph of Annie and me, I must find that to show you.

I also spoke to stunt motorcyclist Eddie Kidd – I remember seeing how frightened his partner looked just before his display – and Richard Noble who, at the time, held the land-speed record of 633.468 mph.

Once I interviewed the then BBC Director-General, Alasdair Milne, on a train as part of the launch of BBC Radio Cambridgeshire.

I also spoke to a few music stars, including the soul band Odyssey (my main memory is that they were really pleasant people) and the band Rich Kids which included Midge Ure and, recently ex-Sex Pistols, Glen Matlock. Looking back, Midge Ure was the particularly helpful one with the PR focus – in the same way that Paul McCartney was in The Beatles (sorry, I didn’t meet any of the Fab Four).

And I interviewed a famous Sixties soul singer who was a favourite of my News Editor (boss) at King’s Lynn – the singer’s name is lurking in the back of my mind and I’ll probably remember it after I have posted this blog.

But I do recall that at the North Norfolk Roman Catholic shrine of Walsingham I shook hands with the then Archbishop of Westminster, the highly respected Basil Hume.

And, chillingly in retrospect, I spoke on the phone to Jimmy Savile. I was visiting Stoke Mandeville Hospital to report on the progress of a local man who was a patient and, while I was in the hospital office, he happened to ring up. I was put on the phone to him and, knowing I was from the Peterborough Evening Telegraph, his opening gambit was “How is the Peterborough Effect?”, an advertising slogan of the time.

Once on a film set in West Norfolk I interviewed a most gracious older actress. This is awful – I am not sure of her name either. Not sure? Let’s be honest, I have forgotten. But I can picture her still, walking elegantly through the French doors of a country house during filming on a summer’s day.

But let’s move quickly on to a memorable day when I was sent to the Nene Valley Railway at Peterborough. It is a steam heritage railway which was, and probably still is, used frequently by film crews because of its relative proximity to London. Remember the James Bond film Octopussy, when he drives along railway tracks? That sequence was filmed at the Nene Valley Railway.

Anyway, on the day of my visit, sometime around 1985, a pilot episode was being filmed for an American TV series called Lime Street, about two insurance investigators played by Robert Wagner and John Standing.

And, yes, I got to meet both of these gentlemen though, of course, the photographer and I had to wait some time before we were admitted to Mr Wagner’s caravan.

But what made the day really special for me was the guest star in this episode – Patrick Macnee, who I loved as John Steed in The Avengers when I was a child.

I still enjoy his performances today and I’m heartened to read on Wikipedia that today, 6 February, as I write, Patrick is celebrating his 93rd birthday. Happy Birthday, Sir.

I also liked his character John Steed’s Bentley car, of late Twenties vintage I would say – ancient now but only about 35 years old when the programmes were being made.

This car was similar to the Bentleys which won the Le Mans 24-hour race five times from 1924 to 1930. I was fascinated by them – I’m not sure if I had my interest in the cars as a result of The Avengers, or whether it was because of a book I read as a child about someone entering a vintage Bentley in the Le Mans 24-hour race years after their heyday.

Inevitably the day’s filming at the Nene Valley Railway was slow and interrupted and, after I had formally interviewed Patrick Macnee, I found myself standing on a platform chatting to him while he waited for the rain to stop so he could continue work.

His persona was polite and helpful, and not a million miles from his on-screen role in The Avengers. I should emphasise that I do not mean he could not act – I saw him in The Avengers recently playing a double with a very different personality. He was, I think, simply a polite and gracious man.

Two stories stick in my mind. He spoke about a recent media report about his friend Angela Lansbury in which they had disclosed her age. He was outraged they could do such a thing to “a lady”.

And – this is where we get to the bad language – the subject of This Is Your Life came up. I should explain, for younger readers, this was a TV show in which the presenter, carrying a large red book, would surprise a famous person and whisk them off to a studio to relive their life, complete with guests and reunions.

I established Patrick Macnee had been the subject of This Is Your Life and said something like: “That must really throw you, when they jump out with the big red book.” 

I will never forget his reply.

“Dear boy, fucked up my whole day, I was just going for lunch at the time.”

Postscript

Re-discovered! Bruce Carter's book Speed Six!
Re-discovered! Bruce Carter’s book Speed Six!

Since writing this blog I have finally re-discovered my childhood book about the Bentley going to Le Mans. It is Speed Six by Bruce Carter, and seems to have been published in 1953 which would make the storyline a little more credible, if still fanciful. I must have read a 1960s paperback edition. But – here is the exciting news – I’ve found a 1970s edition on eBay which should be on its way to me in Orkney.

To find out more

True Entertainment channel is available in the UK on Freeview channel 61 (except Wales), Freesat channel 142, Sky channel 184 (+1 on channel 261) and Virgin Media (channel 189). The Avengers is being shown at 11.00am and 8.00pm on weekdays. 

Patrick Macnee website: http://www.patrickmacnee.com/

Wikipedia on Patrick Macnee: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Macnee

Wikipedia on The Avengers: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Avengers_(TV_series)

Wikipedia on Lime Street: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lime_Street_(TV_series)

Nene Valley Railway website: http://www.nvr.org.uk/

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 –
http://bettertogether.net/

BBC Annual Report 2013/14 –
http://www.bbc.co.uk/annualreport/2014/home/

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) –
https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2013/06/27/broadcasting-in-scotland/

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

Across the Border: Broadcasting in an independent Scotland

 

BBC Scotland HQ in Glasgow. (photo: Stewart Priest)
BBC Scotland HQ in Glasgow (photo: Stewart Priest)

The devil is in the detail. What a great expression. And like many old sayings it carries great truth.

Here in Scotland we are moving towards our vote on whether to become an independent country. The referendum will be held on Thursday 18 September, 2014. I think the vote will be against independence but we shall see – much can and will happen over the next 15 months.

Many want Scotland to be independent come what may and they will not change their view before the referendum. Others believe Scotland should remain an integral part of the UK and, again, will not change their view.

But in between are the “don’t know” or “undecided” folk who will vote largely, I think, on economic issues. They will make a calculation about how independence will affect them and their families as the debate unfolds and as those devilish details are teased out.

The uncertainty of going into an independent future may make many undecided voters stick with the UK. What about public services, will there be sufficient money for them? How strong will Scotland’s economy be in the big wide world? What about the SNP proposal to keep sterling – how will that work? Will Scotland be accepted into the EU, with or without the Euro?

People will probably be less concerned about services such as health and education which have been run by Scottish governments since devolution re-established the Scottish Parliament in 1999 – provided, that is, they calculate that there will be enough money to fund them.

But there is a tricky area of services which currently operate across the border between England and Scotland. Railways is one example – how would that work? Would English-operated trains be expected to stop at the border. How far would ScotRail trains be allowed to operate into England?

And what about the military? Would a Scottish army, navy and air force be anything more than a token defence?

Personally I’m particularly concerned about broadcasting. For all its faults, we in the UK currently benefit from the BBC, an operation that is surely unequalled anywhere in the world.

For £145.50 a year (per household) we get a wonderful range of TV and radio stations – and online content – that provides something, in fact, lots of things, for everyone.

But what kind of public service broadcasting might we see in an independent Scotland? 

In August 2012 Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond outlined his ideas. The Guardian reported that he wants a new public service broadcaster, built on the assets and staff of BBC Scotland and funded mainly by licence fee payers. But he refused to rule out the prospect of the network carrying advertising alongside its public funding.

For me one of the joys of living in the UK is publicly-funded broadcasting which I am able to enjoy without advertising interrupting the flow of dramas, documentaries and sporting events. Do we really want to throw that away?

In mid-2011 there were 2.37 million households in Scotland (source: General Register Office for Scotland). Let’s be generous and assume every one of those households has a colour TV Licence. That will give a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation an income – without advertising – of less than £345m a year.

So, what can you get for £345m a year? I expect the BBC to publish its 2012/13 annual report and accounts later this month but the 2011/12 figures will give us a pretty good idea.

And it doesn’t make good reading for those who favour a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation.

To run BBC Two cost £416.6m in content – £537.1m by the time you have added in distribution and infrastructure/support – so there’s the budget gone straight away before you’ve got one TV channel, albeit a very good one, on the air. For the record, to run BBC One costs £1,041.1m in content which is approximately three times the projected income. Anyone fancy a three times increase in the Licence Fee?

The good news is that radio is cheaper. BBC Radio Scotland and the Gaelic service BBC Radio nan Gaidheal cost, including add-ons, £38.1m a year.

But the combined costs of BBC Radios 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 Live comes to £348.8m a year – roughly equivalent to our projected income for a Scottish public service broadcaster.

Many people in Scotland, most even, will not want to sacrifice all these services in return for a single under-funded new TV channel to run alongside BBC Radio Scotland.

And don’t expect the majority of TV Licence Fee payers in England to happily pay for existing BBC services to be broadcast for free in an independent Scotland.

Yes, the Scottish Broadcasting Corporation could buy in some of the popular programmes such as EastEnders, Strictly Come Dancing and David Attenborough documentaries – but this will quickly eat into the small budget.

And will we manage without BBC Radio 4 altogether? Or Radio 2?

Alex Salmond is right when he identifies the fact that “we do not have an English-language public service broadcasting channel of our own” in Scotland. But I don’t think his latest ideas are the right way to go about getting one.

To find out more

Guardian: Alex Salmond outlines plans to replace BBC Scotland –http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/aug/24/alex-salmond-replace-bbc-scotland

Guardian: Scottish referendum: BBC Scotland to invest £5m in extra programming –http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2013/may/21/scottish-referendum-bbc-scotland

BBC Annual Report 2012 –
http://www.bbc.co.uk/annualreport/2012/

TV Licensing –
http://www.tvlicensing.co.uk/