Uncertain Vision – Management as a neutron bomb

The entry below is from Georgina Born’s Uncertain Vision, her ethnography of the BBC. The book examines the changes to the BBC brought about under John Birt and Greg Dyke. This excerpt talks about the structural changes to the Drama Group within the BBC brought about under John Birt’s leadership in 1996. Michael Wearing was then head of Drama Serials, previously he had been head of Drama at Pebble Mill.

Michael Wearing in 2009

Michael Wearing in 2009

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Diary entry 1996 Georgina Born:

It is late 1996, five months after the restructuring and everything remains supremely confused in Drama Group. Almost all the critical issues impacting on how the drama departments will operate have still to be clarified of even, it has become plain, decided. For Drama, the restructuring has an apocalyptic quality. Everyone knows that Birt has removed all certainties; but nothing has come in to fill the vacuum. It is management as neutron bomb. There is paralysis and seething frustration. We are in a Drama Editorial Board and it seems that today a few things might become clearer. Charles Denton, former head of Drama Group, has left. The acting head reports that ‘the new head of Drama Group, when he or she is announced, will be bi-medial and will embrace a larger territory including radio drama and the World Service’. Michael Wearing and Mark Shivas, the two most experienced and respect editorial heads, have received letters from the chief executive of BBC Production informing them that there is still time to apply for the job of CE of Drama Group, but Michael muses, ‘What’s really going on in this letter is evasive. It looks as though we’re being required to reapply for our own jobs.’ The acting head reports that there will henceforth be two rather than one Business Affairs departments, in Broadcast and Production. The drama executives are sceptical: ‘Surely that risks two sets of business practice competing with one another, let alone unnecessary duplication of jobs? Michael comments that such duplication will ensure that production departments continue to carry huge overheads, like before – one of the problems the restructuring was meant to overcome: ‘What a bloody mess.’

The acting head continues that leading figures in Broadcast have made clear that when disputes arise between Broadcast and Production, Broadcast will be the moderators: the final power will reside with Broadcast. They move to discuss the interface between the drama production departments and Broadcast, which is only just emerging. Drama’s independent commissioning group will move into Broadcast; and the proposal is that the drama units from the national regions – Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland – will also move into Broadcast, while London in-house and Birmingham will sit in Production. No one understands why. Several people express concern about the fragmentation of editorial purpose that will ensue; there seems to be a common desire to retain an integrated Drama Editorial Board.

Born, G. (2004) page 135-6, Uncertain Vision: Birt, Dyke and the Reinvention of the BBC. London: Secker & Warburg

 

The following comments were left on the Pebble Mill Facebook page:

David Shute: “Birt, who wasn’t even on a salary at the start of his damaging reign (tax dodge of course) brought in the dreaded McKinsey and the march of the suits began, that’s why I allowed myself to be head-hunted away from the Corporation I’d loved for a lot of wonderful years. Sadly I wasn’t alone but in my new life I was privileged to employ many of the talented PebbleMill professionals on a freelance basis.”

Tim Manning: “As a footnote to this, it’s worth remembering that – following an interim period where drama in the newly-created BBC Production was overseen by Ruth Caleb (from BBC Wales) and Alan Yentob – Colin Adams, who many will remember from his time as Head of Network Television at Pebble Mill, became Head of BBC Drama Production. Some months later, I also joined the London-based Senior Management Team of the department as Production Services Director.”

 

Noel Ford on Bob Monkhouse

Copyright Noel Ford, no reproduction without permission

Copyright Bob Monkhouse, no reproduction without permission

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[Cartoonist Noel Ford wrote the following memories of his trips to BBC Pebble Mill]

“I do remember going there [Pebble Mill] on several occasions for various broadcasts. I did a TV chat about my cartoon work (Midlands Today?). What I remember most about that is that I really don’t like rehearsing – the spontaneous responses to questions lose something vital when re-hashed for the recording. I was also a guest on Woman’s Hour on one occasion and recall being surprised at the melting effect another guest, a particularly handsome, macho bloke, had on some of those otherwise hard-nosed, professional ladies. And I was also a little jealous, if truth be told!

I do remember, much more clearly, that Morning Story [Radio 4] recording session. I wrote two stories that Bob recorded (though the Radio Times Genome only appears to list one). They were both broadcast around the same time, so it would actually have been in 1976-7). I hadn’t met Bob before and was pleasantly surprised to find he was exactly the same off and on the air, a thoroughly nice man. And so professional. He recorded the fifteen minute story with only a couple of tiny re-takes. I had presented him with a cartoon I had drawn for the occasion (I do have a copy, somewhere) and he unhesitatingly produced pen and paper and drew one right back for me. I have attached a copy, below. It was also the first time I had met that other lovely bloke, producer, David Shute – a meeting that led to us doing a lot of work together after he left the BBC.”

Noel Ford

Noel Ford, Bob Monkhouse, David Shute

Noel Ford (left), Peter Belham? (SM), Bob Monkhouse (in the studio), David Shute (right)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are the entries from the Radio Times, of the two episodes of Morning Story written by Noel Ford and read by Bob Monkhouse, from the BBC Genome project:

http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/97ba2076043b4814bb4a343c181909ce

Driving Lesson by NOEL FORD Read by Bob Monkhouse
‘ When you go to a party with a good line in chat to impress the ladies, make sure you know the thickness of the ice you’re skating on.’ Producer DAVID SHUTE BBC Birmingham

http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/dc5215a22fa74123b1b854a4349bc6dd

Security Risk by NOEL FORD
Read by Bob Monkhouse
No he wasn’t a nocturnal delivery man for a chocolate manufacturer. The midnight prowler had something else on his mind which wasn’t as dubious as it first appeared. Producer DAVID SHUTE BBC Birmingham

Radio Studio 3 Control Room

Studio 3 control room, Recorded effects playout area MF

2 Shortcut 360 effects players to replace the PEG.

2 Shortcut 360 effects players to replace the PEG.

Sony mixer and patching

Sony mixer and patching

2 x Widebody EMT 950 turntables

2 x Widebody EMT 950 turntables

Studers

Studers

Main Sony mixer with PPM on top

Main Sony mixer with PPM on top

Photos by Martin Fenton, no reproduction without permission.

These photos are of Radio Studio 3 at Pebble Mill. This was used by Network Radio dramas. They were taken by Martin in autumn 2003.

“Studio 3 control room. Recorded effects submixer. Note the Shortcuts – practically obsolete when they were purchased by somebody who wasn’t expected to use them.”

Martin Fenton

The following comments were left on the Pebble Mill Facebook page:

David Shute: ‘Some of us remember the time when the empty studio was recording atoms’ for later edit usage. A senior member of staff chose the location to have a stand-up row with his mistress and it was all recorded. I wonder if anyone kept a copy?’

Roy Ronnie

Roy Ronnie AGW

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright resides with the original holder, no reproduction without permission.

Roy Ronnie died on 18th September 2015. He produced an enormous number of shows from Pebble Mill, including 77 editions of Saturday Night at the Mill between 1976-81. Annie Gumbley-Williams was Production Secretary for the last three series, and Production Assistant on other programmes with Roy, including the fishing series, Hooked. She remembers Roy being great fun to work with, and a very talented, witty and kind man.

This photo of Roy was taken when he was Midland Region News Assistant, taken in February 1961.

Thanks to Annie Gumbley-Williams for passing on this sad news, and the information about Roy.

The following comments were left on the Pebble Mill Facebook page:

Julie Hill:’ So sorry to read about Roy Ronnie and send condolences to his family. Saturday Night at The Mill was a fantastic show attracting great performers & a large audience. My great friend Penny Arcatinis and I were responsible for serving wine to the public before the show! They’d scavenge through the plastic cups in search of the largest ones I recall…
Happy days. RIP Roy. You were a top Producer.’

Susan Astle: ‘Sad news, I worked on many Saturday Night at the Mill. They were always great fun and, at times, unpredictable! I think alcohol may have played a small part. Susie Bankers.’

Tim Dann: ‘Very sad…I enjoyed my time as Designer on the first series of Saturday Night at the Mill…with the two Roy’s…& again with them both on the Kate Bush special….Those ‘daze’ will never be repeated!’

David Shute: ‘Another good one’s gone. I remember doing the warm-up for Sat Night. He was a great man for encouraging people to do more than they thought possible. Super chap.’

A Funny Thing Happened – David Shute

Copyright resides with the original holder, no reproduction without permission

Copyright resides with the original holder, no reproduction without permission

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This photo was taken just a short time before we moved shop to Pebble Mill – late 1960s/1970.

Some of the under-dressed cast of A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum.  Top left the amazing Jenny Brewer, next to her Olive McCosh (I hope that’s right ) bottom Left, Sandy Sutton wife of the redoubtable vision-mixer Roger Sutton.  This was BBC AmDram Society and producer David Shute caused quite a stir when he insisted that all the ladies auditioned in bikinis!  The amazing cast won a rare 5 star rating from the Birmingham Post & Mail’s theatre critic. We had to re-stage the show some months later for a second week’s run. What a hoot!

David Shute