Monday, 4 June 2012

Pageant Lament

I should have known it would unleash the crazies, but there you are.
The BBC commentary on the Thames pageant was, I tweeted, "lamentable" - wondering at the same time whether I was being "over-critical".
I've been out of the BBC for a year now and suppose I must have forgotten what happens if you make a criticism about the corporation that's intended to be constructive. Stephen Fry - who has a few more followers than me - went further, calling it "mind numbingly tedious ... I'm not saying this in relation to ER II's jubilee - just expected better of the beeb". Though he did go on to reassure us he "didn't mean to upset anyone".
I'm sure he didn't ... but that doesn't stop the crazies whose hatred of the Beeb is visceral and unreasoning, believe it shouldn't exist and that the likes of me and my former colleagues should be in jail. And on cue, they leapt up to bash the corporation, asking "how did Beeb get it so wrong?" or making smart comments like "they've only had sixty years to plan" and that it was "so bad ... heads must roll". And, of course, urging us all to go over to Sky which was "far better as usual".
I did for a while. It wasn't. It was far, far worse. Their commentary lamentable for the same reasons as the BBC's but more so. Vacuous and borderline aphasic: at one point, one of the Sky team told us the Queen was "taking the weight off her teeth". Eamonn Holmes spent what felt like hours comparing the Spirit of Chartwell to a floating Chinese restaurant and seemed to think we were interested in how wet he was. We weren't.
Slow car crash
OBs are never easy - especially when you have absolutely no guarantee that everything is going to go to time. In my thirty years at the BBC, I was on the output end of dozens of the damn things - general elections, leadership elections, state openings of parliament, budgets, D Day and VE day commemorations, Diana's funeral, EU summits. Even the easy ones aren't very easy. And things that looked just great in rehearsal turn into a slow car crash on the day. Add in the foulest weather possible and you have something almost unmanageable.
You can take issue with the kind of programme the Beeb produced, too. It wasn't to my taste but I can see why they did it. The pageant was going to last something like five hours - that's a long time to have a lot of cameras trained on a lot of boats on a lot of river. And it was, after all, a party not a funeral - so it was a perfectly valid decision not to go for a 21st century Tom Fleming and to try to weave in all the other stuff, the parties and babies, the celebs on board the best boats and and and ...
Prepare, prepare and then prepare some more
But that's not what the problem was. It was the commentary.
Every commentator I've ever worked with or spoken to has told me the same thing. To make an event - sporting or national - look and sound natural and relaxed, you have to prepare, prepare and then prepare some more. You can't do it off the top of your head nor can you afford to let it sound like that's what you're doing. And on TV, it's a really bad idea to limit your commentary to what the viewers can see for themselves.
But it did sound like top of the head stuff and rarely told us very much we couldn't see or work out for ourselves.
One of the first newsrooms I worked in was in Pebble Mill, Birmingham. And one of the most important journalists there was an old hand called Barney Bamford. And one of his most important jobs was to keep the 'results book'. That was the book - in those days, a red, A4 exercise book - any commentator or newsreader who had the job of reading the football results could pick up to find those little nuggets like "that's Aston Villa's third score draw this season" or "Wolves have now gone five away games without a goal" or that a particular striker hadn't ever scored playing away from home on a Tuesday evening.
Every commentator on every event needs that kind of preparation in over-abundance; most never gets used. Some do all the prep themselves, others have it done for them. Either way, they have it and carry it with them on paper or in their heads. Or, like Test Match Special, have a Malcolm and a copy of Wisden to hand.
Bottomless bag of information
And that's what was surprising about the pageant commentary. The main voice was Paul Dickenson's - one of the Beeb's finest and most experienced sports commentators. It's impossible to imagine him going into a world championships or the Olympics, say, without a bottomless bag of bits of information about every athlete - indeed, he compares the kind of training a commentator has to do with that of the athletes themselves. It's second nature.
But that's what was missing. Every boat on the river that day had a story - but we heard hardly any. Those stories we did hear rarely went beyond what we could see and far too often, all we learned about what we could see was that it was "iconic". It would have been better, mostly, to have said nothing.
I doubt many Beeb bigwigs are thrilled at the pageant coverage. And there'll be the inevitable inquest that'll look at the whole thing from camerawork to concept, taking in climate on the way.
But I do hope that more than anything else, they get to the bottom of what went wrong with the commentary and find out how what's usually a triumph for the Beeb turned into something, well, lamentable.

9 comments:

Rod Gray said...

Got to say the pictures, when we saw them, were great especially considering the weather.
But why did my heart sink when the first voice was that of Huw Edwards? Like the Opening of Parliament, he was complete with a script of one thousand things you didn't want to know. Does he write this stuff himself or does someone do it for him? Why does he talk to me as if I was five? And then like all other live shows on the BBC today we were treated to a never ending array of BBC folk. Bit like Noah's Ark. On they came, two by two. Matt Baker and Sophie, and on it went. These folk to precendence over the live pageant. Bits the BBC missed we caught on Sky, and there were lots of them. We need some guys that know when to talk and when to shutup. Where's Eric Robson and others who insert a word now and again, and others like him. Sorry. Camerawork 7 out of 10. Audio 2/10

paul freeman said...

I agree with every sentiment if not quite every word. However I think it would be a mistake to think that the Flemings and the Dimblebys can (could) only do sombre. I imagine David D. could just as easily have done justice to this occasion.

I loved Barney Bamford: ("Papers are here!") I must have been there shortly after you moved on, he was, indeed, of the old school (ditto Geoffrey Green). I was Station Assistant/Director, and a script of his would be one of the few which never needed the dispassionate 'second pair of eyes' over it, unlike some of the others ("There are too many 'his's in that sentence, I've lost track of who said what to whom/Are you sure you mean to say that? it can't be ALMOST unique/no-one WAS injured, surely?” etc) He had a way of flicking his elbow (probably to get an arthritic crick out of his neck) before he began to write. We often fell to doing late shifts on Thursday evenings together in the days when Mastermind was predictably on then rather than wandering, vagrant-like around the schedules as it does now, and I was constantly amazed at the breadth of his knowledge; not just the general knowledge rounds, but in the specialist subjects too. I consider myself to be fairly well-read, but I never once beat him.
Good man, much missed.

susan@foxhouse said...

Kevin Marsh is so right. I was waiting to find out the stories behind the individual boats as they came past. Luckily there was a brief diagram in the Telegraph showing the order, with types of boat. After a while I turned the sound down, played a Handel cd as accompaniment, and read the paper when Sophie and Matt appeared.

Ruth Hoyles said...

Ruth Hoyles.....I was so pleased and proud to read Paul Freeman's comments about Barney Bamford.....every word was true, he was a real old trouper in his chosen profession as a journalist! I may be biased having been married to the man for a long number of years.....Ruth Hoyles formerly Bamford.....

Ruth Hoyles said...

Ruth Hoyles.....I was so pleased and proud to read Paul Freeman's comments about Barney Bamford.....every word was true, he was a real old trouper in his chosen profession as a journalist! I may be biased having been married to the man for a long number of years.....Ruth Hoyles formerly Bamford.....

Ruth Hoyles said...

Ruth Hoyles.....I was so pleased and proud to read Paul Freeman's comments about Barney Bamford.....every word was true, he was a real old trouper in his chosen profession as a journalist! I may be biased having been married to the man for a long number of years.....Ruth Hoyles formerly Bamford.....

Ruth Hoyles said...

Ruth Hoyles.....I was so pleased and proud to read Paul Freeman's comments about Barney Bamford.....every word was true, he was a real old trouper in his chosen profession as a journalist! I may be biased having been married to the man for a long number of years.....Ruth Hoyles formerly Bamford.....

Ruth Hoyles said...

Ruth Hoyles.....I was so pleased and proud to read Paul Freeman's comments about Barney Bamford.....every word was true, he was a real old trouper in his chosen profession as a journalist! I may be biased having been married to the man for a long number of years.....Ruth Hoyles formerly Bamford.....

Ruth Hoyles said...

Ruth Hoyles.....I was so pleased and proud to read Paul Freeman's comments about Barney Bamford.....every word was true, he was a real old trouper in his chosen profession as a journalist! I may be biased having been married to the man for a long number of years.....Ruth Hoyles formerly Bamford.....