Tag Archives: 30 Rock

BBC. Fifteen amazing years. Done. Thank you.

So there we are. It’s done.

My TV/movie review slot on BBC Radio Five Live is no more.

Part of it is down to me – after 41 years of constant writing and broadcasting for radio and TV since the age of 15, I’m slowly tiring of doing this kind of presentation. The light and fluffy nonsense kind.

That said, light and fluffy has served me well. I’ve done everything I ever dreamed of doing, and way more. Written for The Two Ronnies, featured on a TV game show, hosted my own American TV travel series, which is still being shown and will probably continue running long after I’m dead; lived in, and reported from, a number of countries, been on countless adventures and assignments, interviewed thousands of interesting and not so interesting people, written nine books….and on and on. By anyone’s standards, it’s been astonishing.

But now it’s time to move on to more serious things. Things that matter and which affect people and how they see the world. A new life beckons, I must go.

Me, in the early days of the broadcast

After a decade and a half on the BBC’s Up All Night, and what has been truly the most wonderful fun with Rhod and a consistently great team, I’m done and ready to move on. The past five years were especially tough as I realized I was slowly outgrowing what I was doing. Each broadcast became a strain to do; to get enthusiastic about, to stay focused on, etc. I started saying dumb and irrelevant things just to keep my brain alive, and that’s not the way to engage in any kind of broadcasting. If you’re not loving it, leave, and let someone else take up the reins.

What a gift it’s been, though. I couldn’t have wished for better. I’m so grateful. We did some fab, entertaining stuff for the longest time, often against horrendous technical odds. But I have to face it – I’m finished. Each week my mojo was slipping a little more until I was no longer looking forward to doing the broadcast the way I once had. And the BBC people picked up on that. They felt the magic had gone too.

So how do I know it’s time to go? What were the subtle signs?

Here’s how it went. This was the paper-trail that led me to this conclusion:

  • First, the BBC fired me in 2010. One of the producers went nuts in the studio. She’d had her handbag stolen and was incredibly fragile that night, apparently. For fifteen minutes she yelled at me on the phone non-stop. It was quite bizarre. She even tried to have my pay docked secretly as a punishment. The BBC apologized for her spiteful behavior and paid up later on. Also, they reinstated me the following week. So no harm done.
  • Then, in 2011, a fresh assistant editor arrived on the scene. Part of a new breed. My theory has always been that the BBC orders these guys in bulk from a warehouse. Tags ’em, numbers ’em, implants ’em with a special political correctness chip, programs ’em, boots ’em up, and just lets ’em loose, whether they know what they’re doing or not. Somehow, impossibly, unstoppably, they then rise and rise within the Corporation. It’s a marvel to behold. Anyway, back to the point: we got this new editor. A nice enough person actually. Young. Pretty competent, no doubt. Alas, within months, he’d fired me too, only to relent somewhat and rehire me later. As Rhod told me at the time, with a weary sigh and shake of the head, “He doesn’t know what he wants, he just knows what he doesn’t want, and he doesn’t want you.” Anyway, who cares? No hard feelings. The guy was just carrying out orders, I’m sure.
  • Now, in 2012, yet another new assistant editor has taken over in his place, and…. you can probably guess the rest.

I don’t know about you, but I see a pattern building up. Only this time, even if they offered to rehire me, I’d refuse. I’d have to. Out of sheer self-respect. Someone has to draw a line in the sand. The annual firing ritual was becoming a joke.

Of course, from the BBC’s side, the axing of my Slot was a bureaucratic decision, rather than an artistic one done with the audience in mind. We know this because vociferous protests and petitions from so many faithful listeners were powerless to stop it.

[UPDATE: December 19th 2012: the guy at the top of Radio Five Live has been cantilevered from his position, and into another one. Deary me. It’s beginning to sound a lot like karma.]

The previous assistant editor called one day, very annoyed by the audience uprising and blaming me for taking it seriously. “We have a huge listenership, Cash,” he said. “Four hundred people writing in to support you is not a lot of people.”

Really?  Are you sure?

Have you ever known four hundred people voluntarily do anything in the middle of the night, much less send in petitions and write to the controller of the network? It’s almost unheard of, and I was totally blown away by the reaction. Secretly, I think the BBC was too, but management stuck with the decision anyway. Many listeners are still boycotting Up All Night as a result.

[UPDATE: Almost eighteen months on, I still receive messages and tweets almost every day, saying how much the audience misses the Slot. Crazy, really.]

Essentially I was silenced. The Slot was sacrificed on the altar of political correctness and removed from the air, albeit in a low-key, long-haul way, so that I could no longer offer my true opinion on things that the BBC felt was unsuitable for its audience’s ears. This happens on every network, by the way; they’re not alone. It’s a sign of the corporate times. Fear governs editorial decisions in Britain nowadays, I’ve learned to my cost, and this excessive editorial control is leading to the sad passing of yet another tenet of life we broadcasters used to take for granted – free speech.

Example: for years I would play clips of TV shows during my Slot to illustrate the points I was making. One night I ran a brief snippet from one of the most brilliant sitcoms on American television, 30 Rock. A snippet that aired during primetime here, when kids are watching, so it’s deemed completely inoffensive. In it, Alec Baldwin called someone “a douchebag.”

Well, next day, all bloomin’ heck broke loose within the BBC. Seems a few listeners had complained about the word douchebag. Listeners who were, in fact, douchebags themselves, I’m sure. In my experience, any person who has the time to complain to a broadcasting organization is lonely, bored with their life, jealous, or not getting enough of the right kind of sex. Instead, they fixate on minor stuff, and they channel their unspent energy into making total nuisances of themselves. If they were happy, they wouldn’t bother. What better thing to do, if you’re a miserable loser, than make other people miserable too?

One particular douchebag I came across a while ago had collected transcripts of every conversation Rhod and I had had on the air for ten years. Not because he’s a fan, but, incomprehensibly, because he devotes his life to monitoring the BBC for bias and wants to prove that my TV review slot is politically motivated, so that he can complain about it. Seriously. Can you imagine a more soul-crushing, deadbeat kind of existence than that?

You just want to take someone like him to one side and explain, “Do you know how precious life is? How short it is? How many of those precious days you have left before, pouff, you’re gone? Why not use your life like it means something? Why waste even a second on petty sniping and nitpicking? Live, my friend. Go out there and be constructive with your time instead of complaining. Inspire others. Encourage, build, enhance. Just do something.”

But do you think he’d listen? Not bloody likely.

In the 30 Rock example, rather than just ignoring the complainants, which is the correct way of dealing with them, the BBC office went crazy. The next morning, I received a slew of emails and phone calls from panicking producers and assistants in London telling me that I was banned from playing clips in future – not just clips like that, but all clips – unless they had been screened and okayed by editors in the UK the day before the Slot went out. A ridiculous overreaction. And impossible. I was in L.A., using a borrowed studio – the editing and sending over of material a day prior to the broadcast was simply not feasible. So that was the end of it – I was forced to do a TV review slot featuring no clips at all of the TV shows I was discussing. That’s how bonkers things have become at the BBC.

But I digress.

My own reason for leaving the Slot did not coincide with their reason for axing it. These were two separate things. In the end, however, the result was the same, and it’s a good thing. 15 amazing years. Done.

To dwell on the cancellation scenario is pointless and only makes me sound bitter, which I’m not. Baffled and disappointed on some level, yes, but I feel we should rejoice, not carp, about this change. Delight ourselves with how excellent it was to have that lone voice of comic spontaneity, clear and uncensored, on the radio each week for all that time. An era of vocal highwire-walking may have come and gone, and at some level we mourn its demise, but it sure was great at the time, right?

I’ve said enough. But if you want more, then I’m reposting below a blog entry I wrote last year after news of the second axing broke. This gives the bigger picture and ties everything up nicely.

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This post was written in October 2011 and published in December.

Making magic: how to do a TV review when you don’t own a TV

What’s fascinating to me is that the slot wasn’t even supposed to be a slot at all. It began as little more than a serendipitous coming together of a lost journalist and a struggling network with time to fill and nothing to fill it with. That was in 1997.

I’d been in Hollywood a matter of weeks and things weren’t going well. Thoroughly depressed, I was facing the serious possibility of having to return home soon if my life didn’t shape up. Then, one day, everything changed. A close friend of mine, who happened to be working on a relatively new BBC radio nocturnal magazine show called Up All Night, catering mainly to truck drivers and milkmen, rang me in some panic and said, “Our U.S. TV critic has vanished, or possibly died. Anyway, he’s not answering his phone. Would you be a poppet and review some television for us for a couple of weeks while we find a replacement? We’ll pay.”

Pay? Great heavens!

Unfortunately, I didn’t own a TV at the time, which would make reviewing shows difficult, I told them, though not impossible. Friends had televisions; I could muscle in on those. So…

“Yes,” I gushed. “I’d love to do it.”

In Hollywood, you always say yes, whatever the question. It’s one of the rules.

For the next month, as producers in London trawled the States for someone, anyone, who knew slightly more about American television than I did – there were roughly 380 million candidates at the time – I filled the gap. And for another month after that as well. And another. After which I guess they gave up trawling, because a year later I was still doing it, even though I still didn’t own a TV. Someone else in the house had one; I wasn’t flying completely blind. But I could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be regarded as a professional TV critic. Additionally, before each broadcast I’d pop down to Ralph’s, our local supermarket, and hover around the checkout reading TV magazines and tabloids, researching something to talk about.

It was all very laissez-faire. Nobody appeared to care that I knew nothing, as long as it was entertaining. The slot was a three-minute filler, that’s all, which is an eye-blink in radio terms, so patches of ignorance could easily be masked by a guy being funny, talking very fast, and giggling more than is right. Plus, it was done on the phone, lessening its integrity still further.

Problem was, I didn’t have a phone either! I shared a party line. This in itself presented countless problems.

Quite often, I would be sitting in my scruffy, mouse-infested apartment to the rear of the otherwise very beautiful Samuel Goldwyn Mansion right in the middle of Hollywood, jabbering live on-air to the BBC, giving my honest opinion about some show I’d not seen, when someone elsewhere in the house would come on the line and start talking over me. Or they’d suddenly dial a number and my voice would be drowned out by peeping noises. Or they’d go, “Hello? Hello? Who’s this?” The slot never went off without a hitch. It was always acutely awkward and nerve-wracking. But at the same time it was real! Real and spontaneous and entertaining and unpredictable – qualities that were valued back then; not stiff, over-prepared, and read word-for-word from a script, the way all other TV reviews were (and are). That’s what made it so refreshing and so un-BBC-like. Structure’s not my strong point, as you know – for instance, look at the way I’m rambling here – so I must applaud the producers of Up All Night for sticking with me, and it, for as long as they did.

Once, I remember, we’d just gone live; I was chatting happily to the presenter in London, when a well-hung naked black man climbed in through my window and ran across the room and out the door. He was being chased by another man, this one clothed and armed with a pitchfork, who also climbed in through the window and ran out the door. It was very dramatic, and, I should add, entirely representative of the madness that went on daily in that mansion. I’m surprised none of us got killed. Anyway, in that moment of crisis, as I expostulated, “Oh my god, there’s a big black man running across my room!”, history was made. I switched from talking about TV – which, let’s face it, I knew nothing about anyway – to discussing who the black guy was and why he was naked, which I knew A LOT about.

And that’s how it got started. The chatting, the cheekiness, the crazy Hollywood reporting about my life. For the first time, it gave people in Britain a chance to experience the real L.A., and what it’s like to live in this weird, mad place, from the inside – something they couldn’t find anywhere else on the radio. In time, it became known as ‘My Lovely Slot.’

Listeners, of course, adore stuff like this. And very soon what began as a brief fling turned into an ongoing affair. Within a couple of years I’d been upgraded from a three-minute filler on the phone to a five-minute filler on the phone, then ten minutes, then fifteen, until eventually I was given an entire half-hour every week to do my comedy thing, despite the usual complaints and protests. There’s always a small portion of your audience that, feeling helpless and unheard, takes their self-loathing out on other people, and usually – because they’re an easy target – media people, by endlessly writing in to whine about something you’ve said. When you’re in broadcasting, you accept that.

However, some of the protests originated within the show itself. That was the shocker.

They came from the creator and presenter of Up All Night, Rhod Sharp, who, according to one of the producers, took a rebellious stand in the beginning against their new  ‘TV critic’  getting any more air-time – “But why?” he groaned. “He’s not a real journalist!” – and even campaigned for the slot to be cut back. One of the producers told me this before I went on-air one night. The reasoning, though, was flawed. Of course I’m not a real journalist. That’s the whole point of the slot. Even so, a more persuasive argument would have been: “But why? He doesn’t own a television.” Now, that might have worked.

But Rhod’s a sweetie-pie. Eventually he mellowed, as we know, and nowadays we’re practically in love.

The spirits speak

With the passing of the years, the half hour became a little more professional, I must say.

I quit giggling as much, for example. Then, in year two, I actually went crazy and bought a TV, so that I could start getting my information first-hand, which was a vast improvement. I invested in a phone, that’s another thing. And later I even managed to wangle a real, and quite fabulous, studio in downtown L.A. to broadcast from. During those early bleak days, this little slot of mine, as silly and insignificant as it seemed, was my life-saver. Without it I could not have made it in L.A. The pay was risibly small, but it was enough. Enough to get me from week to week, if I didn’t eat much and walked everywhere instead of taking the bus.

The whole traveling-to-America thing had been a monstrous gamble anyway. I arrived here on spec with almost no money to my name and unable to earn any because I didn’t have a green card, so I was forced to rely totally on the kindness of strangers. And since strangers in L.A. are not exactly renowned for their kindness, that meant I was in survival mode every single day. Now, though, it’s been fourteen years and I’m no longer in survival mode, am I? I’m living quite the life. Things turned around in the end. I wrote books, had my own TV travel show, and got a regular gig on NPR over here.  So for the last half-decade or so, the slot has been done for pleasure only. Mine, if nobody else’s.

Rhod called me at home in October, the day after the axe fell. “Don’t be downcast,” he said, sounding just like he does on the radio. “There’ll be other opportunities.”

And yes, there probably will. But I don’t think he quite gets where I’m coming from on this. The ending of the BBC slot is not a bad thing. It’s a ‘thing’, that’s all. I tend not to fight change, I embrace it readily, and even a little starry-eyed at times, on the assumption that when one situation falls away, it’s only to make room for something bigger and better. It’s always been that way for me. And in this case that’s definitely going to be what happens.

How do I know? A psychic told me.

(Don’t you dare roll your eyes!!)

Back in September, I had one of my regular readings with a quite brilliant channeler guy in Oregon, and for the first time I heard myself ask, “When will my BBC slot end?” Don’t know why I was prompted to raise the issue, but I did. And he laughed, saying, cryptically, “Well, it won’t be less than a month, but it will be over by the end of the year. Just accept it.”

Oh my lordy! That soon?

He seemed very sure.  “You want me to go without a fight? Seriously?”

“Yup.”

So when the day came and I heard the actual words: “It’s over”, it should have been no surprise. Yet I admit I was caught off-guard. I didn’t yelp or squeal or do anything girly, but I think I may have emitted a gasp.

“It  probably should have happened after ten years, not fourteen years,” I told the assistant editor. Which is true. I remember joking on-air with Rhod only a month before. I said they’d have to take me away in a body bag before I’d ever give up my Slot. But I’d already talked with the psychic by then. I knew I was done for.

[UPDATE: when I chatted with the psychic again in the spring and told him I was doing monthly film reviews now, he sighed heavily and said, “Oh god, you shouldn’t have done that. It will be like a long slow fade to black, and it will end mid-year.” Bang on yet again!]

Winding things up, the BBC way

The young BBC man who called was extraordinarily polite and cordial, and probably nervous, wondering if I’d go bananas when I heard I’d been dropped. After all, he was most likely still studying for his GCSEs when I started this thing. To avert a crisis, he apologized sincerely for putting me out to pasture in this way, congratulating and thanking me as he did so for my long, devoted service, inadvertently making me feel gloriously cherished, brutally discarded, and very, very old, all at the same time.

I could have announced, I suppose, that it was my decision to leave, for the sake of my pride. But why?

Because if we’re heading down that road, why not go the whole way and issue one of those robotic statements that are euphemisms for ‘He’s been fired”, and which bruised artists routinely use to shield their pride?

“Cash is leaving to spend more time with his family.” (Which, since I don’t have a family, would make it an even bigger lie), or: “Cash is leaving to work on other projects.” (Okay. But strictly speaking is retirement another project?) Or even: “We’re taking the show in a new direction. We’re hoping to use someone who won’t cause as many listeners to complain.” (Er….oh…well, that might be nearer the mark, I suppose. Yes, use that.)

Anyway, that’s it – the bulk of it. We’re all squared away. Everyone’s happy. There’s no going back now.

[EDIT POINT: Both guys who authorized my firing – the editor of the show and also the head of the network have since been shunted sideways and replaced. Remarkable.]

Okay, I’ll take any questions.

Yes, you over there in bold, carrying the big Q.

Q. Will you miss doing your slot?       For a while, sure. It was engraved into my calendar all those years, week in week out – how could I not?

Q. Is your ego fragile right now?      It’s been a couple of months since I found out, so no, I’m over it.

Q. Does this make you feel old and over the hill?    Not as much as it used to when Rhod would go on vacation for a couple of weeks and be replaced by what sounded like bubbly children’s TV presenters.

These, I assumed, were considered the BBC’s best hope for the future. One or two were great – Giles Dilnot being one; now THAT guy has a career ahead of him – but the majority were mediocre, I thought. Humorless, awkward, and often floundering in the face of unscripted spontaneity, in ways that would have been inconceivable a few years ago, when you needed to have talent and years of broadcast experience to get on national radio, not merely a degree in media studies and lashings of youthful enthusiasm.

It struck me many times as I was doing the slot that, if this was how far down the bar had been lowered in terms of presenter acceptability, then inevitably the BBC would soon be wielding the axe on its more seasoned professionals. It’d have to, if only as a way to make the newcomers seem less like struggling amateurs.

Q. Will the audience miss you?      Hm, not sure about that. Some, maybe. But I know how I am with people who disappear from my life. I move on very quickly.

Q. Would you stay if the BBC insisted?      They’re not going to insist.

Q. This whole cancellation lark sounds very fishy. Why would the BBC axe something that is incredibly popular with listeners? Is there something you’re not telling us?   Ah, well…

How hate, not love, sometimes prevails

If anyone asks, the only reason I continued doing my slot for as long as I did was because, each time I so much as hinted that I might stop, I’d be deluged the next day with emails, tweets, and Facebook messages begging me to keep going. “You’re the highlight of my week,” some milkman in Cheshire would say, or a matron stuck on overnights in Essex, or a cab driver trekking around rain-soaked Liverpool in the dead of winter. “Your slot brightens my life. Please don’t go.”

Ah, but I must, you see. The other day, I said there more reasons why I’m leaving. The first was by far the most significant: it’s time to go. It just is. And here’s another. Reason #2 was:

The corporation’s new “Delivering Quality First” initiative.

In much the same way that the Bush Administration’s topsy-turvy “No Child Left Behind” policy led to almost every child getting left behind, and now nobody in America under 25 can spell, add up, speak in full sentences, or find their home town on a map, the BBC is delivering quality first at its news and talk flagship Radio Five Live by seemingly eviscerating it; cutting £5 million per annum, I’m told, from a network whose budgets are already pinched like an Irish pie-crust, inevitably forcing editors over the next couple of years to sweep aside anything that isn’t cheap or nailed down.

I regret to say that this includes me. I’m not nailed down; I have to leave. It’s progress.

A compromise idea was tabled: how about I give up my slot but continue to contribute to Up All Night the way I do to any other radio or TV network – casually, informally, and as needed? To me that feels like a horrible demotion. Agreeing to it would mean I was just so desperate to stay on the radio that I’d do anything.

But then fate stepped in anyway. A couple of days later, I received my very first piece of direct hate mail, at which point everything changed.

Haters are very vocal. 10,000 listeners may love what you do, but of course they won’t write to the BBC and say so. I myself adored the sitcom Better Off Ted, and was mortified when ABC axed it last year. Did I write in and tell them that? Nope. I’m too lazy.

Haters and whiners, on the other hand, are not lazy. Also, they seem to have a lot more time on their hands than the rest of us. They’re always writing in. Years ago, before emails and texts, they had to send letters, which were easily misplaced or ignored. Now, though, they have the immediacy of the Internet, and they use it to the fullest extent – especially, it seems, when it comes to my little slot. And so the final reason for my leaving is this:

Reason 3: there have been complaints. 

Uh-oh.

Face it, whatever you say on the radio is going to offend someone. If I suggest that the latest series of Doctor Who is shallow drivel, which it is, dozens of easily-pleased people with no taste will write in, saying I’m wrong and it was the best ever.

For every stand you take, there’s someone out there poised to take the opposite side. And that’s fine. It’s democracy in action. The more the merrier. As long as – and this is the important part – as long as producers, editors, and network controllers don’t yield to pressure and let a tiny minority dictate program policy, or, worse still, let them silence voices they don’t happen to agree with. Because then the tail’s wagging the dog and you’ve strayed into very dangerous territory indeed.

Years ago, when broadcasters received hatemail, it was seen as a good, even important, thing. A strong listener response  meant you’d pushed buttons and stirred up passions to the point where they’d been compelled to get off their indolent arses and physicalize their anger. And what’s art, really, if not an attempt to arouse passions in people?

But you can see the dangers, right? For creativity to flourish, artists need to be protected. They need editors and managers with a backbone, who believe that every kind of voice should be heard, not just the ones that try to please all the listeners all the time. Managers who place self-expression first and their own promotion prospects second. Managers who understand the value of originality and defend it, if only as a way to resist the relentless, slow, downward drag into mediocrity that haters represent. Managers with real balls, in other words. They do exist, both inside the BBC and out, and I’ve worked for a couple in my time, but I need hardly tell you – in a world of shaved budgets and increasingly homogenized blandness, they are rare.

Times are tough. Backbone is scarce. You can’t buy it in packs of six, not like in the old days. To stand your ground and support something of value when you’re under fire and anxious to keep your job – that’s a lot to expect. If the choice is to either fall on their sword in the name of integrity, or to take the easy way out by buckling to the irate demands of a few loony listeners (and maybe a couple of complainers within the BBC too, naming no names), my guess is that most producers and editors will buckle. I probably would too.

One piece of hatemail helped clinch the deal

But none of that is important. For me, there was one specific piece of hatemail that made all the difference. The exact-same day, unbelievably, that the BBC man called, I received my first-ever angry tweet about the slot. Came from a new follower in Essex. It was uncanny how it happened. A bizarre coincidence.

“I’m following you,” he announced, “so I can tell you that you make me cringe every time I hear you on the radio. You’re a buffoon.” This was quickly followed by a second tweet. He’d thought of something else: “Oh, by the way, just how affected can an accent be? Answers on a postcard…”

Nothing to be concerned about, you might think. Just a guy I don’t know venting his feelings about an affected buffoon he doesn’t know, and with every right to say what he said. But that’s not the point. I don’t believe in coincidences. Nothing happens by accident.

This listener wasn’t aware of it, but he’d sent his tweet at a watershed moment. On any other day his intentionally cruel words might not have mattered. But somehow, that one insignificant little nugget of malice felt to me like a sign. A sign of changing tides. Same way the BBC is changing. We’re told it’s about to start delivering quality first. Well, good. About time. And I’m sure savage budget cuts, a reduced talent pool, and overall limited resources will help bring that goal nicely to fruition. However, the very nature of the terminology tells you that there’s no room for me in that scenario.

After fifteen years of the best fun I could possibly have had in broadcasting, I’m feeling cornered. There’s no air in here any more. Broadcasters find themselves hemmed in by watchdogs, whiners, and waves of insidious, way-over-the-top political correctness, the fascist kind imposed by the fanatical minority, that crushes the human spirit and ruins everything for everyone else. It’s like waking up in the night to find your longterm lover trying to suffocate you with a pillow.

So we’re drawing things to a close.

No doubt all those people, like the hater guy in Essex, who loathed the slot – and there are many others, including a couple of the lesser-talented stand-in hosts –  will be rejoicing, popping corks, and organizing singalongs and pageants of their own at this news. And so they should. They won. Their efforts paid off. Let’s not shy away from the truth, nor take even an ounce of their victory away from them. Whatever jubilation they feel today was earned through rugged persistence over many months and years, even if their triumph is, when viewed in a fuller perspective, tiny, since it was only a matter of time before I left anyway. A month, three months, six months down the line – at some point relatively soon the slot would have drawn to a close. It had to. Which brings us full circle, back to the main reason, which is:

Quite simply: I’m done. The affair is over.

To conclude, then, because I really am rambling now…

My friend, the one who started it all off by calling me in a panic in 1997, was quick to reply when I told him what had happened. “Given that it was initially a temporary thing,” he said, “fifteen years is not bad.”

He’s right, it’s not bad. Actually, it’s better than not bad, it’s brilliant! And it extends to a time way before 1997, because I’m not just ending my BBC slot, I’m ending all my media involvement – TV, radio, the works.

I climbed aboard the broadcasting carousel at the age of 15, doing pieces for BBC Radio Manchester. At 16, a short animated film I made was shown on BBC1. Also at 16, I began contributing material to BBC  comedy programs, first for radio, then later – at 17 – for TV, with The Two Ronnies and Talking Telephone Numbers.  And it’s been going on ever since, alternating between radio and TV, both in the UK and more recently in America. That’s some carousel, my friends. It’s been terrific in every conceivable way, I couldn’t have wished for more. But now it’s time to climb off.

The wind-down began last year when I left Marketplace, the U.S. public radio show I’d been contributing to for more than a decade, and quit being a reporter. Already I’m no longer up to date on world happenings, because I don’t watch the news any more. To me, it’s a bunch of contentious white noise – complete strangers telling me in the gravest tones what I should be worried or frightened about. Well, I can do without that, thank you.

Better still, in January, with no slot to research, I plan to get rid of my TV altogether. This prospect makes me very happy indeed. No more surfing endless channels of nothingness looking for topics to discuss. No more setting TiVo for programs I would never record otherwise. No more having to magic an opinion out of thin air about some vacuous fly-by-night celebrity or a mindlessly indulgent and derivative sitcom that’s going to be cancelled in a month’s time anyway.

Above all, I can quit judging things. Things, shows, ideas, ratings.  That’s the best development of all. I was not put on this earth to be a critic of other people’s work, or to poke fun at their efforts, even though it’s what I’ve done for twenty years. My remit has a broader reach than that. There are the handwriting analysis skils I have, for instance, which are mind-blowing. Also, my new mystery novel has just been published: Force of Habit – Sister Madeleine Investigates. That’s waaaaaay more representative of the kind of artist I am, I think. I was born to create, not to tear down.

Which is why, hanging up the phone on the assistant editor on the day of the axing in October 2011, I found I had a peculiar fizzing sensation in my crotch, as if someone had poured champagne into my pants. This only happens on two occasions: a) when someone really has poured champagne into my pants; and  b) when massive life changes are afoot.

And that’s where I’m at as I write this. I’m embarking on a massive life change, switching from being a media guy, which I’ve been since I was a kid, to being a very happy and non-involved civilian. My career has been living proof that you can have anything you want, anything at all, if you’ll just dream big and be persistent. In my teens, I had a bunch of what seemed like impossible dreams, and every last one of them came true. I’ve been living in a bubble ever since, letting my childhood dreams play out. Now, though, I’m done. Today I have a whole raft of new dreams. Grown-up dreams that don’t involve broadcasting, and which will take the rest of my days to fulfill.

For some reason – don’t ask me why – I have a peculiar feeling that my life is just beginning.

So that’s it really. It’s been great. Thanks to Rhod, all the BBC studio managers, producers, and editors I had dealings with, most of whom were fantastic and exemplary pros, and of course the fans – all 15 of you – not only in the UK (13)  but worldwide (2), who tuned in each week, and who sent me such wonderfully supportive messages. To quote Gabriel García Márquez: “No llores porque ya se terminó… sonríe, porque sucedió.”

In English: don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.

Two final things:

1) Late breaking news: here are a couple of blog posts some lovely listeners wrote about the ending of the slot. One from Hugh McCallion and another from Stephen Duncan. Am I touched? Oh, for sure.

2) After so many fans of the slot wrote to him, the controller of Five Live, Adrian Van Klaveren, started sending out a robo-tweet: “Sometimes you have to make changes to keep progs fresh and try out new ideas/voices but we hope Cash will still appear on UAN…”. (It’s Twitter, so he probably ran out of characters, and meant to continue: “…doing something dull and safe that will upset fewer people.”)

Okay, time’s up. Gotta go before this gets maudlin. Or worse, bitter.

Missing you already.

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A Casual Friday treat. To you with love.

It’s Casual Friday here on TV Swami.  Where I come from, that means you quit work early – in my case before you’ve written anything – and do something more fun instead. And because we live in a world where everything’s take take take, I thought I’d buck the trend by giving for a change.

TV viewers in Britain are backward, we all know that. After a hit show has been broadcast in America, they don’t get to see it for ages. The tape has to be unspooled off the machine in New York, packed in a box, and mailed to London, where it can sit for days waiting for someone from the BBC or ITV  to pop down the post office, pick it up, cycle back to the studio with it, unwrap it, watch it for rude bits just in case, then spool it onto a machine, cue it up, and on and on and on….honestly, it’s a whole rigmarole. 

As a result, they don’t get to see fresh new 30 Rock episodes when we do. In fact, I believe NBC has fixed it so that foreigners can’t watch their rerun website Hulu.com either, preserving the sanctity of copyright so that shows don’t blow their load in foreign markets too soon.

That’s why, if you’re foreign, you’ll be glad you stopped by TV Swami today.

Last night was the finale of the third season of 30 Rock. Jack Donaghy has finally tracked down his biological dad and found to his surprise that it’s Alan Alda. Not only that, but Milton Green, the character Alda plays, has been looking for his biological son too, not out of love but because he needs a kidney. So Jack does what any truly self-serving  TV executive with love in his heart and a full Rolodex would do – he ropes in Elvis Costello, Cyndi Lauper, the Beastie Boys, and a bunch of others for a charity video.

Therefore, as your Casual Friday treat, especially for people overseas not fortunate enough to live  between these great shores and see TV shows when they’re made rather than years later after we’re done with them, here is the Give a Kidney Now song, courtesy of the Huffington Post, from last night’s season finale of 30 Rock.

Enjoy.

 

The 30 Rock third season has been spectacular and gets five magic carpets out of five.

TV Swami – he say YES.

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Drop everything! We’re forming our own army.

It’s rare I feel strongly enough about a show to actually fear for the life of it, but that’s how I am with ABC’s Better Off Ted right now.

Superbly written, acted, produced, entirely original, daring, envelope-pushing, and setting a new standard for “funny as hell” – in any fair and just world that would be the perfect combo to guarantee the extended life of a new series. It certainly worked for 30 Rock. But that’s because 30 Rock had Lorne Michaels and a bold NBC management behind it, so it lived on long enough to become a cult hit.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case with Better Off Ted, which is still a nervous fledgling fighting for survival, and I’m not sure the weaselly suits at ABC  have the balls to stick with it. Currently, my spidey sense tells me that this genius of a sitcom isn’t doing well enough and could be cancelled.

Why? Because it’s simply too good for us. Fact.  

The premise is easy enough: Ted is a good-looking, smooth-talking, moralistic R&D guy at a big immoral corporation, Veridian Dynamics, one of those sprawling faceless global leviathans that makes everything from “pills that look like candy” to “hurricane-proofing for dogs.” His days are spent locked in battle with his boss, Veronica – played by Ellen Degeneres’s husband Portia di Rossi – an ambitious, feisty blonde with a viper’s tongue and both eyes of the tiger. She would never settle for just one.

Half the fun of the show is seeing these two locked in battle, negotiating the tricky problems that go hand in hand with introducing new products to a world gone mad. Last night it was a solar-powered microwave oven that is perfectly safe until it’s exposed to sunlight, at which point it kills anyone using it.

The week before, it was money-saving sensors that reflect off a person’s skin as they enter a room to automatically turn on lights, elevators, water-fountains. Only one flaw: the sensors don’t work on dark skin, which means the building is full of black clerks trapped in elevators and black lab technicans unable to go home because the doors won’t open. The solution Veronica comes up with is ingenious: she hires a white intern for every black person, to walk behind them everywhere they go. 

Now, please, tell me that isn’t funny, daring, and everything else I said!   

And because it is, I think it’s doomed.

I’ve said this before: too many viewers now are poorly-educated, lazy, and dim. They want straightforward humor. Slapstick, fart jokes, and sometimes witty banter, but only if it’s accompanied by strange facial expressions or lots of manic gesturing.  That’s why The Simpsons does so well. Oceans of stupidity, bright colors, and movement.

What doesn’t do so well is stuff the audience has to think about. Where they have to put two and two together and stick with something – a joke, a situation, a story arc – ’til it pays off, and do so without the help of a laugh track. When TV executives in the 1950s invented the laugh track it was because they understood the mentality of their viewers – those unaccounted-for millions who make up the audience figures, and who are basically content to sit idly in an armchair all night with a six-pack and a bag of doughnuts, watching almost anything that’s put before them, as long as it has bright colors, explosions, emergencies, shouting, running about, a sappy “you’re perfect just as you are” kind of message crowbarred in two minutes before the end, and can be squeezed in between bathroom breaks. 

That’s not Better Off Ted, alas. You have to stick with it to like it.  You have to use your brain. You have to have a sense of humor that’s triggered by actual humor, not by a sign saying “laugh now.”

So, like some of my other favorite shows – Journeyman, Surface, and a wonderful little thing I loved called Stranded With Cash Peters – this one looks destined for the scrapheap.

Unless, that is, we do something to save it.

Making sure we tune in and don’t miss an episode, that’s one way. The old way. The old way that leaves people to make their own minds up – which we know is extremely dangerous and doesn’t work. Look at the 2000 and ’04 elections. One catastrophe after another.

No, this new way I’m thinking of is to form a small private battalion – you, me , and a few others, coalescing into an unarmed but brutal militia that goes door to door on Wednesday nights in every corner of America and makes sure everybody with a TV is glued to Better Off Ted. And if they’re not, we ridicule them. Ridicule them hard. And wherever possible make them feel small, using the only weapons at our disposal: our intelligence, superior sense of style, and wit.

Good, eh? So what do you say?   

The idea’s only at its formative stages yet – like solar-powered microwave ovens that kill people – but I think it might work. Are you in?

 

Better Off Ted gets five magic carpets out of five.

TV Swami – he say YES.

www.cashpeters.com.

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