Thursday, 30 October 2008

Politely, Frank Muir says Francis Urquhart

Or possibly Felix Unger. Frank Muir was a writer, presenter and producer of comedy, satire and light entertainment programmes. In the early 1960s he was working for the BBC.
After a holiday abroad I returned to find a general election about to happen and the television schedules polluted with party political broadcasts. Incensed by these (and I take a bit of incensing) I wrote a letter to The Times, which they printed. I wrote:

Sir, when I was at school and we were coming up to the end-of-term exams I wrote a letter to my headmaster (in brown ink for some reason, which angered him) and gave it as my view that if the purpose of an exam was to test how much information and wisdom had penetrated our natural defences, then swotting to pass the exam was a form of cheating. The Head did not feel able to fall in with this theory, but I believe there is truth in it. By the same reasoning I believe that we should vote for a political party on its proven record not on wild promises for the future made in party political broadcasts which the party has a snowflake's chance in hell of fulfilling. Thus party political broadcasts are quite clearly only another form of cheating.

What I did not know, as I had just returned from abroad, was that a few days earlier the DG [Director General] had written a keynote letter to the papers saying how important party political broadcasts were to the political health of our democracy. What I also did not know, or had forgotten, was that BBC employees were strictly forbidden to write letters to newspapers expressing their personal views on television and political matters.

A memo emerged from the DG's office in Broadcasting House. The memo was kindly, mainly curious how I could ignore such an important rule as the one preventing staff from blabbing to the press. But the memo then descended from one management office to another, the file growing more threatening and larger as it went like a snowball rolling downhill. Eventually it landed with a thud on Huw Wheldon's desk. Huw passed the huge file on to me with a scribbled note attached saying:

You have an unusual contract but it states quite clearly that you will obey staff rules and regulations as laid down in the Staff Handbook, a copy of which you were given on joining. Full explanation, please. Immediately. (Or when you are not too busy.)

I replied:

Dear Huw,
I am so sorry to have wasted so many important people's time and I would certainly not have written to The Times had I known that it was forbidden so to do. The trouble is I did not read the Staff Handbook thoroughly and commit it to memeory as I should have done. In fact, I thought the rather slim booklet was my electric blanket guarantee and I filed it away at hiome under Domestic Items.
But I do think that you should get Mrs Mary Whitehouse to ban party political broadcasts. To this end could you not persuade the political parties to record their promises in the nude?

And that was the last I heard of the matter.
From A Kentish Lad, pp262-3.

No comments: