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29 October 2014
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John Willis


John Willis

Director of Factual & Learning

The Royal Television Society Christmas lecture - The Long and Winding Road

Wednesday 24 November 2004
Printable version

Two weeks ago I stood in a line of television's great and good, snaking around Newcastle Cathedral for Andrea Wonfor's Memorial Service.

It can only be described as a motley queue.

Andrea was an extraordinary person and, of course, a hugely effective Chair of the RTS.

She crackled with so much energy you could have plugged her into the National Grid and she would have lit up all of the North East of England on her own.

As the audience saw Andrea's life and career unfold before us in words and music, I wondered if we were not just saying goodbye to an astonishing woman but also witnessing the fading embers of the television of social engagement born in the 60s and 70s and now finally dying out in the flickering fireplace of multi-channel television.

Or whether the digital age with its increased opportunities for interaction, for personalisation, for wider access to individual creativity, means that the future will be at least as exciting as the past?

I've called this Christmas Lecture The Long and Winding Road because I've been round more bends, hurdled through more chicanes than Michael Schumacher.

And I've had a couple of pile-ups on the way. Tonight I had planned to take you through the epic journey of my career but it is so damn long and complicated that we'd be here all night if I tried.

In my time I have worked for, or been associated with every UK terrestrial broadcaster – the BBC, Channel 4, Yorkshire, Granada, LWT, and Meridian, Anglia and LWT through United Productions.

I was on the board of ITN and Channel 5, and ran the programmes at WGBH Boston. Only S4C has escaped my attentions. So watch out Cardiff, you're next.

I have always passionately believed, indeed will always passionately believe that television should be used for the public good.

How that is defined or redefined in a multi channel digital age is the challenge.

Until I joined the BBC all the public service programmes I was responsible for, from Johnny Go Home to Trainspotting, from First Tuesday to Alan Bleasdale's Oliver Twist, were funded by advertising, those vital three minutes in the middle of programmes when you can kick the cat, tickle the dog, kiss the kids goodnight or boil a cup 'o' soup.

Indeed, I spotted the importance of advertising early on. I was executive producer of a documentary set on Death Row in the USA.

It was full of dramatic shots of old sparky, the electric chair, complemented a chillingly clinical description by a warder, the aptly name Seargent Dye.

An hour before transmission a sixth sense told me to telephone the advertising sales department. There it was, in the list of commercials right after these moody shots of the electric chair.

An advert for the Yorkshire electricity board, cooking with clean simplicity.

At Channel 4 advertising continued to be critical to the funding of our public service mission.

In the early days our afternoon schedule squeezed from meagre resources was mainly black and white films so that almost all the money could be spent on peak-time.

As a result I spent inordinate amounts of time dining with men from Philosan and Stannah Stair Lifts.

As a colleague once said: "There's an unusual film on Channel 4 this afternoon. One of the actors is still alive."

In its purest commercial advertiser-driven form, as seen in America, television can move products.

But public television has a duty to move the imagination. Like Andrea Wonfor, however, I don't believe that public service television is cultural cod liver oil, what you are about to see is good for you, whether you like it or not.

It is about the social and cultural engagement that emerges from a much wider range of programmes than the narrow even elitist, coned-off television lanes defined by politicians and opinion formers.

Public service television is about The Office as well as the Opera House, Glastonbury as well as Glyndebourne.

Watchdog and What Not to Wear as well as working with Simon Schama.

My father was a writer and as a child we were the first family in our block of flats to own a television set. So I realised early on that television can reflect and mediate the epic: the Olympic Games, a royal wedding, and a war but received in the home it is particularly good at portraying the everyday, the extraordinary world of the ordinary.

It can reflect whatever part of the society we inhabit but also illuminate the world of others for us. At the moment on the BBC we can peer into the worlds of medical ethics and magicians, truants and teachers, and both British geology and genealogy.

And a powerful new series on social workers, Someone to Watch Over Me sits alongside Snooker and Strictly Come Dancing.

It's a rich mix for just two terrestrial channels and the range is probably little different from the factual programmes on television when I joined Yorkshire thirty years ago.

The most obvious difference is that then it was also ITV that reflected a diverse range of factual work. Now with an occasional late night exception that responsibility is left to the BBC and others.

At YTV we were encouraged to take risks in the knowledge of secure funding and devolved commissioning, before the birth of a network centre.

We could make films about Hannah Hauxwell scraping out a living in the Yorkshire Dales or Soviet soldiers trapped in the hell of an Afghan war.

At First Tuesday I used this freedom to gather documentary talent like a snowball going downhill. Peter Kosminsky, Clive Gordon, Peter Moore, James Cutler, Peter Gordon and Kevin Sim have all won Baftas and other major awards.

It was only after 17 terrific years that I left New York – the name of the village in the Yorkshire Dales where I lived – for Charlotte Street and Channel 4.

Perhaps I had started to do too well in Richard Whiteley's Look Alike contests as I increasingly became mistaken for my friend, the eponymous presenter of Countdown.

It reached a head when I passed a queue of snowy haired women waiting for a Countdown recording. As I passed there was a visible surge in excitement and they started shouting, "Here he is. Richard sign my book!"

Despite my protests they wouldn't take no for an answer and I signed twenty five autographs 'love Richard'.


I wreaked my revenge a few years later when I was at a TV party and as I arrived I heard someone say to Richard Whiteley, "John, the Channel 4 censorship season was terrific!"

In 1988 I moved to Channel 4 as Controller of Factual Programmes. Funded by a completely different revenue stream, and with a distinctive remit.

Channel 4 complemented the BBC's public service role well. It could be edgier, more dangerous, more adversarial and allow space to disenfranchised voices.

It was actually Channel 4's job from time to time to be what Alanis Morrisette called "a jagged little pill".

So we developed Secret History as a revisionist alternative to Time Watch, True Stories to give freedom in the schedule to documentary authorship and offered a platform for the views, rarely heard then, of gay men and lesbians, or poll tax rioters and even pornographers.

When I moved up to be Director of Programmes I enjoyed working across drama, film and comedy for the first time.

Father Ted, Rory Bremner, Train Spotting, The Politician's Wife, Chris Evans, and Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies all emerged at this time all displaying the distinctiveness that was a Channel 4 hallmark.

Much of our output, in fact and fiction, had the Witch Finder generals over at the Daily Mail frothing at the mouth.

One of our female commissioning editors hit the Mail headlines. The charges against her – she was a lesbian and to compound the crime she actually lived in Haringey, the moral equivalent to the Mail of living in a crack den or opium factory.

Now, of course, the scenes look late on Friday night in The Word which the Mail so despised, like eating insects or crawling through snake pit, are peak time ITV entertainment in I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, and slavishly written about in the same tabloid press.

Channel 4 has always had to balance commerce and culture and it's harder than ever. For a time Channel 4 seemed seduced by demographics and marketing, all that positioning as "upstream of mainstream".

Now there are signs that although the young audience will continue to drive income the diversity and the mischief that have always been part of Channel 4's DNA, is better represented.

Hamburg Cell, Sex Traffic, The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off; the restoration of Dispatches to a regular slot are all good examples.

Channel 4 always needs to be Punch and Judy as well as Richard and Judy.

Channel 4 also gave me the chance of working with independent producers whose energy and talent had been held in check until the dam broke with the start of Channel in 1982.

Mind you for commissioning editors that flood brought its own problems. Some departments received 150 proposals a week.

We would be handed them anywhere. I was in the dentist's chair and hovering over me with a large needle he said just before jabbing me: "Would you mind reading a script for a friend who's an independent producer." In the interests of pain avoidance I said yes.

I've received proposals on schools parents evenings, watching a cubs football match and, twice, on the motor rail home from – where else – Tuscany.

One of my Channel 4 colleagues was even sitting in a stall in the gents and two proposals were mysteriously shoved under the door.

After Channel 4 I joined United News and Media who owned a quarter of ITV at the time, to build up their network production.

Again I found talent – Alan Bleasdale, Paul Watson, Peter Kosminsky and historian David Starkey – and just ran with them.

After three enjoyable years at United, the company was swallowed by Granada. They had bought the United house for a high price and felt like we, the staff were merely the fixtures and fittings, the carpets and curtains.

So a year later I moved to America. Here my love affair with public service television intensified, running programmes for WGBH Boston, who make 30 per cent of the network programmes for public television in the USA.

Subjected to the mindless political cheerleading of so much American factual television during the Gulf War, I soon craved for the independence and integrity of the BBC and other UK channels.

I felt like a thirsty man in the desert searching for the oasis of the World Service or Radio 4 via my computer. On visits home I had to be peeled away from the screen because I was so firmly glued to Channel 4 News or Newsnight.

Knowledge Networks and the University of Maryland polled 3000 viewers about coverage of the first phase of Iraq war.

Viewers of Fox News were four times more likely than viewers of public television to have a serious misunderstanding of the situation in Iraq including a large number who believed that weapons of mass destruction had already been found.

As my WGBH predecessor Peter McGhee put it: "Most American television enters our body politic not as food for thought but as embalming fluid."

Public television with its talented programme makers could be a counterweight to so much of this, but it is so financially anorexic that PBS sits irredeemably on the margins of US broadcasting.

What little money they do have sits inside a funding mechanism so complex it would need an Enigma machine to decode it.

Making factual programmes, news and documentary, is a sacred public trust. In a democracy, the unshakeable independence of our television journalists is a cornerstone of our civic life.

Alas, in the most powerful democracy in the world you don't need to be a heat seeking missile to understand that by and large commerce comes before independence or integrity.

How else can you explain the dictat from Sinclair Broadcasting that its 62 television stations should replace its regular programming with an anti-Kerry documentary Stolen Honour, just two weeks before the election, including stations in the swing states of Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania?

The film's director was Carlton Sherwood, a consultant to the Bush's administration's Department of Homeland Security.

Former Federal Communications Chairman, Reed Hunt, wrote to Sinclair Broadcasting: "How can it be part of a broadcaster's public interest obligation to aspire to alter the perceptions of the audience by showing biased content that in no way reflects either breaking news or even handed treatment of the issues."

Since Janet Jackson exposed her breast in the half time Super Bowl show this year American Television has been caught up in a moral panic as well as political cravenness.

Following Nipplegate, as it was called PBS, even had to edit a lithograph of a naked woman out of the Antiques Road Show.

Ten days ago more than 20 US TV stations boycotted a Veterans Day screening of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan because of fears of regulatory fines. Yet, the movie had been shown on network televised twice already, completely uncut.

And just to remind you. Although it hasn't happened yet, there is still a welcome mat, outside the front door of ITV for American companies.

Returning to Britain after a stimulating stay in America it was a relief to sit down in front of British television and radio. But living in America had increased my sense of just how complex, how fluid and how interlinked our world was.

Returning home to Britain it was a relief to have available more information and clearer facts than the Americans. But our television was missing something too; it had grown short on ideas. What did we understand, for example, about the Koran?

Apart from football, when did we last have an insight into the society or politics of Central and South America?

As Richard Wurman notes in his book Information Anxiety citizens are subjected to so much information that "we are like a thirsty person who has been condemned to use a thimble to drink from a fire hydrant".

In a globalized world we need to find understanding amongst the overload of facts to make sense of the interlocking stories that dominate our shared world.

Look at the response to Adam Curtis's wonderful series The Power of Nightmares, playful and compelling at the same time, this was a series firmly about ideas.

You may not necessarily agree with Adam's thesis but it provoked every viewer, made us all think.

As American journalist Fred Friendly said: "Our job is not to make up anyone's mind but to make the agony of decision making so intense you can only escape by thinking."

A section of our society fell upon the series with the desperation of people who had been fed almost solely on a diet of conformity.

It was remarkable for its rarity as well as its brilliance, although Laurence Rees' powerful series Auschwitz, due next year, shares some of the same intellectual rigour and fresh thinking.

In a formulaic culture, The Power Of Nightmares illuminates our need for authorship and diversity of thinking. As documentary makers are corralled into neat slots or safe subjects.

British television needs to nurture the next generation of Adam Curtis' or Paul Watsons or Molly Dineens.

For factual television is not always about predictable outcomes or well ordered hierarchies.

Sometimes it's the untidy and ragged processes that spark the surprising results. Opinion, argument, dissent, unconventional thinking unheard voices, heterodox ideas should all be more part of the television landscape.

We have too much e number television, homogenised, only vaguely tasting of something real and with a long shelf life.

It's hard to imagine anyone now being as direct as John Grierson's sister, Ruby, saying to a contributor when making Housing Problems in 1935: "Here's the microphone – now tell the bastards what it's like to live in slums!"

Sometimes I think I should change the name of my department from Factual and Learning, F & L, to the Department of PC, Passion and Curiosity.

In my career I have been an enabler of talent from documentary makers like Peter Kosminsky or Paul Watson to writers like Alan Bleasdale or Paula Milne. I have worked with the best.

So I know that this is a profession that is not about buildings or machinery. Our core asset is people, talent of all skills and of all varieties.

In the commodified world of so much television we need to encourage, even celebrate the individuals, the authors, the oddballs, the mavericks who create so many of our best programmes.

British television is an area of outstanding natural beauty. The oil slick of reality TV won't disappear because compared to scripted work the economics are so tasty. But there are signs that it is receding.

Both here and in the States there are indications that although the remarkable successes like I'm A Celebrity or Big Brother will endure the phenomenon is slowing down.

The Block failed spectacularly on ITV and, in the States, viewing is even down for hit series like The Bachelor and The Apprentice.

Audiences are now becoming as discerning about reality programmes as they have been with any other genre.

In the meantime there are encouraging signs that real reality TV in the shape of documentaries and current affairs seems to be finding fresh audiences.

Investigative journalism is back with The Secret Policeman and The Secret Agent in peak time on BBC ONE. Dispatches is back in volume on Channel 4.

Documentary is finding a cinema home for itself with Fahrenheit 9/11, Touching The Void and others. But as the audience seeks answers to some of the complex questions we all face the genre is also on the increase across virtually all British television channels.

More muscular or innovative drama is also much in evidence with State of Play, Shameless, Blackpool and Sex Traffic.

So returning to my opening question, the fires of the authentic, sometimes idiosyncratic television of the kind that both Andrea and myself have always supported are certainly not dying out but producers and broadcasters are both going to have to keep a pair of bellows close at hand.

As a publically funded broadcaster the BBC has a special role to play and particular challenges to overcome.

It is a great national and international institution – Britain's only counterweight of scale against the power of Sky or US major media companies.

So a key responsibility is to play a leading role, with partners, to drive Britain successfully towards becoming a digital culture.

That means developing on-demand television services just as the BBC has with radio, creating a schools service that utilises the interactive potential of digital and opening up the BBC's rich archive in fresh and creative ways for the licence fee payers.

As increasing sections of the audience self-schedule they will want the programmes when they want and on whatever device they choose to view or listen on.

Broadcasters need to respond to this new and different relationship with our audience.

But beyond that, in my view, the BBC has a critical social role to play, a modern version of the social engagement I specialised in as a documentary maker.

In a fragmented and disparate society the BBC must be relevant to the needs of all our viewers and listeners.

It must use its public service potential to bridge the digital divide, to offer learning to the children and adults who are of little or no interest to commercial companies, to stretch out the harder to reach parts of broadcasting audiences, to support important programme genres neglected elsewhere like situation comedy or consumer journalism.

But to do all this, not in a patronising or po-faced way, but with wit and humour and engagement.

That does not mean that the BBC should not compete - a universal licence fee demands programmes attracting wide audiences - but the BBC has to offer its viewers a public value beyond audience size and popularity.

Television is important. As Bart told his dad on The Simpsons, "It's hard to give up television. It's spent more time raising us than you have."

Clearly it is more than just a commodity, "a toaster with pictures", as Regan's FCC Chairman Mark Fowler famously once said.

Listening to the BBC World Service on the streets of Baghdad or even in my comfortable home in Boston, Massachusetts, is a sharp reminder of how important the BBC is to the values both real and perceived that Britain stands for.

And at home all broadcasters but particularly the BBC because of its local, national and international reach as well as its public purpose can help condition a society that is well informed, tolerant and open.

That does not mean that the BBC should, as one critic put it, "propagate a unifying cultural voice" but that by encouraging a range of views and voices we help create a diverse and not a homogeneous culture.

But none of this can happen without investing in talent and developing the next generation of young people able to entertain and inform us all.

Today anything is possible. A reporter can go undercover in the Manchester police armed with a camera the size of a thumbnail. Boundaries between drama and documentary have come crashing down.

The coming together of science and arts through computer skills is exciting. Young talent is inspired by the Blair Witch Project, Big Brother and Bernardo Bertolucci.

Going forward the independent sector will have an additional responsibility.

They have nurtured and encouraged an enormous amount of young talent. But as they become more corporate, as the Big Five Super Indies swallow up smaller companies and win a bigger slice of the UK production sector it will be in the whole industry's interest to take a longer term view and develop a less casualised sector than we have currently.

Find the talent, train and nurture them and give them a stable platform to work from. That is not necessarily inefficient.

The elimination of waste is important but the key to anyone for success is not to confuse creative efficiency, the development and delivery of the freshest ideas, with financial efficiency.

No one has summed up the wonders of television better than Dennis Potter.

As he writes so much better than I will ever manage, let me end by quoting his MacTaggart lecture:

"I first saw television when I was in my late teens. It made my heart pound. Here was a medium of great power, of potentially wondourous delights that could slice through all the tedious hierarchies of the printed word and help to emancipate ourselves from the stifling tyrannies of class and status and gutter press ignorance.

"We are privileged if we can work in this, the most entrancing of the many palaces of variety."

Potter was right. So was Andrea Wonfor. This is a privilege but it is not privilege without challenges. It is also not a privilege without responsibilities.


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