Taking the Flak - The Red Button
'Taking the Flak', 9pm Wednesday 8 July BBC2
Review by John Simpson (BBC world affairs editor)
As in Stalin's Kremlin, you always start worrying in the BBC when they don't mention your name.
There on the Breakfast News couch yesterday were two of the actors from 'Taking The Flak' discussing the new BBC2 comedy about the people who report the world for television news. Martin Jarvis talked about the character he plays, the mean, pompous, lecherous, and very funny David Bradburn. Bradburn is the BBC's 'chief foreign editor'.
He and the presenters talked at length about all sorts of television newsmen whom he had based his character on. But just about the only television newsman he and the presenters didn't mention as a possible model was me. That was when I knew for sure that the BBC thought I was David Bradburn.
Well, so I am in many ways. He's lots of other people too, of course - some of them the correspondents whom Tira Shubart, the show's creator and co-writer, and I came across when we used to travel the world together for the BBC in the 1980s and 90s.
One or two of our on-the-road jokes, I'm glad to say, have made it onto the screen. There is, for instance, the television correspondent's habit of using Wales as a unit of measurement; the resentful local BBC stringer (Bruce Mackinnon) tells us that the African country where he's based is 38 times the size of Wales.
Good comedy is always sharp and painful, and this is television comedy at its best. Alas, I recognise all sorts of things about myself in David Bradburn.
There are differences. I don't go round hoovering up phony receipts, because I gave up submitting expenses to the BBC years ago. I was always bad about it, and got sick of the angry letters from the administration. Nowadays my long-suffering producer, Oggy Boytchev, pays my basic living costs and I pay for any extras myself. And unlike Bradburn I don't take copies of my books around with me to hand out to people; I prefer good literature.
But the pomposity? The self-importance? The bad temper? Well, being of bus-pass age and expected to pontificate for a living mean these things are sadly hard to avoid; though advancing age, and a three-year-old son, are bringing a surprising degree of mellowness.
David Bradburn and I have something more fundamental in common, though. We're almost the last survivors of a race of monsters which once roamed the world, dominating their environment through sheer will-power and aggression.
The television news correspondents of the past were ferociously assertive. The worst were the Americans, but there were some pretty dreadful British examples; David and I are quite mild compared with many of the genus.
Now, though, most of them have either retired or headed for the relative safety and better pay of the studio. The next generation, meanwhile, is altogether more urbane and pleasant: people like Ben Brown, Mark Austin and Tim Marshall.
And the generation after that? Well, aside from some admirable people like Ian Pannell, the BBC man in Kabul, and Paul Wood in Jerusalem, younger journalists seem markedly less eager to visit nasty places nowadays. David Bradburn and I prefer it that way, of course.
The most accurately observed character in 'Taking The Flak' is Mackenzie Crook playing the lugubrious, unhelpful desk producer back in London: a sheer delight. In fact there was only one thing I didn't recognise in 'Taking The Flak': all the sex that was going about.
'Everyone is rogering their way round the world...collecting affair miles,' says Margaret, the awkward World Service lady (Joanna Brookes) wistfully. Alas not: the BBC nowadays demands its money's worth from us. Trips are brief, days long, sleep in short supply.
Tira Shubart is one of the best news producers I've worked with. Perhaps understandably, she lets her fictional counterpart Jane (Doon Mackichan) off lightly compared with the appalling Bradburn.
The long-suffering, philosophical cameraman Jack, played by Lloyd Owen, also gets an easy ride. (The real-life cameraman who filmed the series is the famous Darren Conway, who usually works for BBC News; the quality of his work shines through.)
The locals, too, are wiser and more sympathetic than the bumbling twits from London. Fine; but satire is better when everyone is ludicrous or a swine. Who in Waugh's 'Scoop' is either wise or sympathetic?
Still, this is a quibble. The people in 'Taking The Flak' who most deserve it get thoroughly shafted, and very satisfying it is. I look forward to the rest of the series enormously. I'll be wincing as I laugh, though.