I love television: I love watching it, I love working in it and I love talking about it. We produce hundreds of hours of TV in this country and inevitably much of it passes by largely unnoticed after its first airing. But when it's good it can be very good, it can catch the national imagination in an arresting and powerful way - "social putty" Alan Bennett once called it. I have always been fascinated by the stories of how those moments come about; what little touch of magic suddenly allows a show to capture the public mood or to speak to a particular moment in time; what elevates the good to the special?
So, the chance to work on Britain In A Box is a real thrill for me. I get to talk to people who were there when some special shows were getting started and to hear the how's and why's of what made them click in that comparatively rare way. Jeff Anderson was the last editor of World in Action, Mike Appleton was the first and last producer of Old Grey Whistle Test; both are old colleagues and it was a huge pleasure to get the chance to talk to them about programmes that have been so important in their lives. I've never worked on a series with either Simon Nye or Beryl Vertue, but they are brilliant comedy practitioners whom I know well and greatly admire. I've never worked in the field of documentary at all but I remember very well watching an early episode of Driving School and thinking: this is a different, the game has just ever so slightly changed.
One disadvantage of sitting down with all these experienced and interesting people, is that we always seem to gather too many good stories to fit into the half hour shows. This year I was lucky enough to talk to one of the great figures of our business, Jeremy Isaacs about his very early career working on a predecessor to World in Action, Searchlight. He told me that at the end of the first series of that show, the production team had been called to a meeting with the then regulators, the IBA, and told that virtually every edition had breached the broadcasting rules by pursuing a clear argument one way or the other. It was possible, they heard, the show on cruelty to children had not needed a balancing voice in favour of such activity but the regulator wasn't totally sure. No room for that in a show where we had great difficulty telling the rich history of World in Action itself in 28 minutes.
Mike Appleton is probably responsible for introducing more recording artists to the British public than any other single person, having been the final arbiter of who appeared on OGWT throughout its long life. He told me about finding an unmarked promo copy of a new band on his desk one day (a white label they were called) and being totally unable to find out who had put it there. He loved the music so he played a track on that week's show and asked if anyone knew who it was performing. Quite a few people were happy to inform him it was Queen making their TV debut. That didn't make the cut either.
We also get to access to items I have only previously heard about. In an earlier show working with producer, Paul Kobrak, I had the thrill of visiting the archives at the University of Sussex and opening boxes of files containing Frank Muir's original scripts, marked with his hand written notes and there amongst them was 'Balham: Gateway to the South', a script for Peter Sellers that had, so long ago, helped me fall in love with comedy. This series we were amazed to be allowed to see the infamous pilot episode of Men Behaving Badly. It was never shown, having been remade for the original Thames series but we've managed to get hold of a copy. Listen to that episode on Feb 19th and you will hear a bit.
Sometimes of course we just don't get exactly what we want. This time, I really wanted to talk to Maureen Rees, the star of Driving School and as such one of the very first 'ordinary prople' to become a big celebrity on TV - an instigator of a huge trend in our national life. Ironically, she has pretty much withdrawn from the limelight now.
Paul Jackson is presenter of Britain in a Box
- Listen to the second episode of Britain in a Box, about The Old Grey Whistle Test, on Radio 4 this morning at 1030.
- Read producer Paul Kobrak's blog post about the series (and listen to a fascinating clip that wasn't used in the first episode, about World in Action) in last week's blog post.
- Bob Harris's web site has a gallery of pictures from The Old Grey Whistle Test.
- The video shows Robert Wyatt's remarkable performance of Shipbuilding from The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1983.