The Return of Tim Davie as BBC Boss

Tim Davie BBC

Tim Davie, who has just been unveiled as the BBC’s next Director General, had a particular technique when talking to large gatherings of staff.  Before beginning his spiel, he would ask us if it would be ok if he removed his jacket. I can’t imagine any of us were going to object, but in this small act he achieved two things. First, by asking our permission, he seemed to be according us a degree of respect and, secondly, by removing his jacket, he gave the impression of informality. He didn’t need to ask us if he could remove his tie, because he rarely wore one and it was that same informality that drew some criticism the last time he was given the top job. That was back in 2012, after fallout from the Jimmy Savile scandal claimed the head of George Entwistle.  I remember meeting Tim in his office in the days before Entwistle’s departure. I had gone to London for yet another meeting to discuss budget cuts and popped in to see Tim with a tiny idea I’d had about an online comedy calendar. Tim was in charge of BBC Audio and Music at the time and I thought he could give us access to the BBC archive of radio comedy to make the calendar a reality. I could not have picked a worst moment to talk to him because he was clearly distracted by the internal shenanigans at the BBC’s top level.

“I was having a conversation with my wife last night,” he told me, “And we were trying to think who they will choose to be the acting DG if George is forced to resign.  We worked out it might be me. It’s frightening.”

And they did choose him, of course, because more likely candidates were already embroiled in the Savile scandal and others were trying to distance themselves from the story. It was a horrible time and I remember programme makers in Scotland were feeling the shame of working for an organisation that had harboured one of Britain’s worst paedophiles. One producer told me she had been harangued while trying to record material for an arts programme. Others were so distressed by the situation that they were in tears.

I had once met Savile at a Radio Hall of Fame gathering in London. I wrote about that in the Red Light Zone He was a grotesque character who had gone around every table after being presented with his award. In his shiny tracksuit and coloured sunglasses, he had laid hands on every second woman’s shoulders as he offered his thanks for the honour. Most of them shivered at his touch. I had also written about the encounter on my BBC blog, but when the scandal broke, that entry was removed on the grounds of “taste”.

A few days after my comedy calendar meeting, Tim was named as acting DG and news crews were waiting for him when he arrived at work that morning, tie-less as usual and clutching a paper cup of takeaway coffee. The attacks began almost immediately, and everything was thrown at him including a good dollop of class prejudice about his “barrow boy” background.  I’m sure he was glad to hand the job over to Tony Hall and go on to more fun things as Director of BBC Worldwide.

I had two other memorable encounters with Tim Davie.  One was when he addressed a meeting of staff at Pacific Quay and told us that the quota system that guaranteed a nine percent share of commissions for television producers in Scotland would never apply to those of us who worked in radio. I felt I had no alternative to stand up and object to that if, for no other reason, so that my own staff could see that I didn’t agree. My last encounter came when I applied for the job as Director of BBC Scotland. The interview went well until we got into the topic of Brexit and I lambasted the BBC’s news coverage of that story as shallow and personality driven. Tim, probably remembering my outburst at the last staff meeting, suggested I might be not be a good ambassador for the Corporation.  Well, maybe he was right. Lets face it, I’m the kind of bloke who leaves and then writes a ‘laugh ‘n’ tell’ book about what it was like to work there.  Still available from all online retailers at £8.99, by the way.

Lockdown at Lollipop Lodge

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Chapter One.

“I might be the luckiest girl in Scotland,” Fiona said as the girl in Tesco handed her the receipt and asked her if she had any plans for the rest of the day. The poor girl looked so downtrodden and fed up. And that calamity of a hairstyle! Poor dear. Fiona decided there would be no harm in sharing news of her own good fortune.
“I’ve just met the most perfect man and he’s invited me to stay with him on his very own island.”
“That’s nice,” said the girl who was already looking at the next customer and crooking a finger to beckon him through the two-metre distance marker. She had to change that to an open-palmed ‘halt’ when she realised Fiona was still talking to her.
“And what’s amazing is that I only met him last night. We were on a blind date, one of those computer-matching thingies, but we hit it off right away and now…”
“That’s nice,” said the checkout girl who realised her premature come-on to the next customer had created chaos in the queue as the line of twelve people all tried to move back to their original positions. She heard the crash of trolleys and more than a few swear words.
“And now this whole lockdown nonsense has been announced and I was absolutely hating the idea of living alone for the next three weeks and so Hamish, that’s his name, Hamish said I could come to his little island for the duration.”
“Uh huh, well, if you’ll excuse me, I need to…”
“Of course he’d had a bit to drink and I wondered if he might have been joking, but I phoned him first thing this morning to tell him how beautiful the dawn was looking and I asked him outright if he still felt the same way.”
“I’m sorry but…”
“And he was so funny, pretending he’d even forgotten my name and all that. Quite a tease, he is, but I do like a man with a sense of humour. Anyway, he’s picking me up tomorrow and that’s what made me remember that there’s late night shopping on a Thursday. So I’ve been in a mad whirl for the past few hours, picking the right things to wear for the island. I’ve got plenty of cocktail dresses of course, but most of them are last season, so I phoned Hamish again and asked him what I should bring. And do you know what he said?”
“No, but…”
“Toilet rolls! What a hoot. Anyway, I thought I’ll show him I’ve also got a funny bone or two, so that’s why I came in here. That’s why I’ve bought all these loo rolls. Three twelve-packs. They only had two left on the shelf, but there was an old dear in one of those electric scooter contraptions. So I followed her around the aisles until the big multi-pack tumbled from her tiny basket. I’m quite the commando sometimes and it will be a funny story to tell Hamish in the morning.”
“Is there a problem here?”
The store manager had arrived, alerted by the logjam behind the till. Fiona didn’t much like the look of him with his clip-on tie and neck tattoos. He also gave off a whiff of cheap after-shave, probably the supermarket’s own brand she thought.
“No problem,” she told him, “Except this lovely girl here has been holding me back with all her chit-chat. Goodness, is that the time?”
Fiona had glanced at her wristwatch. It had been a gift from Daddy on her 21st birthday. Oh, he did spoil her! This cute Rolex for her birthday, the little BMW for Christmas…she was, indeed the luckiest girl in Scotland.
“It’s almost eight o’clock and I still have so much to do before tomorrow. I’ll be off then. Bye bye everyone.”
As she pushed her trolley away from the till, the people in the queue broke into a round of applause so she turned and gave them a little wave. How sweet of them! It was the same when she went outside. People were hanging from their windows, whistling and cheering and some were even banging pots and pans. But how could they have known? Was it written on her face that she was already, totally, madly in love?
She called Hamish three more times that night just to check a few details about the trip. Each time he took a little longer to answer, which was a tiny bit annoying. It was almost as if he couldn’t see the importance of her questions about swimming cozzies and hair straighteners, but her last call of the night was really urgent because she’d completely forgotten to tell him about Gooseberry.
“Gooseberry?” he had said, sounding a bit off-hand.
“Yes, Gooseberry. I forgot to tell you I would have to bring Gooseberry. He’s my dog, well, my best friend really.”
“I see,” said Hamish, “And what kind of dog is he?”
“Oh, Hamish, he’s the most adorable Irish Setter you have ever met. He’s my cuddle-chum.”
“And there’s no one who could look after him for you? Gooseberry, I mean.”
“Well that’s the thing. I completely forgot that Mummy and Daddy are away on one of their silly cruises. They set off weeks ago and now there’s been some kind of nonsense on board. They’re not letting people get off or fly home. Something about a virus. Mummy sounded quite upset about it all.”
“It’s the corona,” said Hamish
“No, no, it’s called the Ocean Princess or something like that. Anyway, that’s not the point. I will have to bring Gooseberry along. You don’t mind, do you? Tell me you don’t.”
“That’s fine,” said Hamish, “I’ll see you in the morning er…”
“Fiona. Silly boy!”
“Aye well, I’ll pick you up at half past eight, Fiona. So, you get some sleep, we’ll have a long drive ahead of us.”
“Oh, I can’t wait. Your island sounds so romantic. Just me and you and the crashing waves.”
“And Gooseberry” said Hamish and then the line went dead.
TO BE CONTINUED

Borrowed Voices

There wont be many live author appearances for a while, of course. In my case, just as well, given that recent tongue surgery has left my voice with an underwater quality. I can only hope that dolphins and whales are organising some kind of post-lockdown literary festival.

Government instructions to ‘stay at home’ does give me ample time to be working on my next book, but I’ve been procrastinating.  I’ve opened a Soundcloud account to deposit the various extracts I was able to record before going into hospital. Much better were those performed by the radio chums I persuaded to lend me their voices. So thank you, again, Richard Melvin, Julia Sutherland and Gary Robertson.

If you’re also in procrastination mood yourself, have a listen.

 

Thank the Lord

PSBF

There I was in the Salmon Bothy, settling myself for my stint at the fantastic Portsoy Book Festival yesterday, when the Festival Treasurer handed me a mysterious package.

“This,” she said, “Is from the Lord Lieutenant. He says he knows you?”

I know my face must have looked blank and I didn’t want to appear rude, but for the life of me I couldn’t think who she meant. For those unfamiliar with the title of Lord Lieutenant, it’s a throwback to the days when the monarch appointed a representative for each of the old Scottish counties. In the past, the Lord Lieutenant had the power to raise a militia of local people in order to quell any uprisings.  These days it tend to be a title bestowed on retired people with a good record of public or community service.

It was only when I opened the package that it all became clear, because inside was a book. It was the history of Elgin High School and there was a card marking the chapter about the BBC Scotland SoundTown project which set up camp in the school back in 2005. We built a radio station with the pupils and spent a school year organising a range of activities linked to the output of the BBC.  The headmaster at the time was Andy Simpson and he, it now turned out, was the new Lord Lieutenant of Banffshire.  In the card he offered apologies for not being able to attend my event at the festival but he also recalled how we had swapped jobs for a day. I’d spent a  few hours shadowing his job as Headmaster at Elgin and he’d come to Glasgow to sort out BBC Radio Scotland.

I had often wondered if that SoundTown project made any difference to the schools we  invaded over the years, but Andy put my mind to rest by writing:

“SoundTown was an important moment for Elgin High School. It undoubtedly raised aspirations amongst the pupils as well as the profile of the school both locally and across the country. We were able to build on this in different ways and subsequently saw exam passes and career progression routes develop in very positive ways.”

That was a really terrific thing to read. And from a Lord, no less!

 

LLieutenant

The book that keeps on giving.

Review

Write a book and get it published.  It probably wont make you rich but the fringe benefits are terrific. The Red Light Zone rolled off the presses more than a year ago, but the rewards just keep on coming. I’m not talking about the monthly royalty payments – which barely fund my out-of-control addiction to fresh blueberries – I’m really talking about the unexpected emails I get from happy readers and old friends. One such came into the other day from a girl I knew at school called Mary O’Hagan.  She’s now Mary McCarthy, a successful magazine journalist living in Spain. She got in touch to remind me of a an essay I’d written in fourth year English class.  It was a critique of  Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, but I’d written it in the style of the book’s protagonist Holden Caulfield. I’d forgotten all about that, but Mary assured me that the teacher read it aloud to the class and I might have got a round of applause. What a nice memory to contrast with all the times I dodged school entirely and spent day after day riding the bus into the centre of Glasgow and staying out of the rain by exploring all the libraries, museums and pie shops.  Inevitably the Truant Officer tracked me down, blabbed to my parents, and my days as a carefree teen-about-town were over.

Then there’s the unexpected press reviews, like the eight-star ‘One To Read’ piece that has been popping up in local papers around Scotland. I’m trying to be positive so wont spend too many sleepless nights wondering why I dropped two stars. Honestly.  But why? WHY?

And of course there are the invitations to speak at book festivals like the one I’m attending in Portsoy this Sunday morning. I’m dispensing with most of my usual props and PowerPoint slides (although I’m keeping the coconut) and simply punctuating my chat with clips of audio. The book is about radio after all.

As I say, write a book. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. I might even do it again.

No Time To Die…

PortsoyBF

… I’ve got a book festival to attend. The Portsoy Book Festival, to be precise. It was something I was invited to do months ago, but I did think of cancelling when tongue surgery left me with a voice that sounded a bit like something from a Muppet version of The Elephant Man. Happily, week by week, my speech is improving and I’m looking at that Portsoy date – 8th March – as a personal challenge. Just in case, though, I’ve made some calls to a few radio chums and asked them if I can borrow their voices for five minutes. I’ve asked them to record some extracts from The Red Light Zone, so if I get a bit tongue-tied on the day, I can hit the play button on my laptop and give myself and the audience a break. It’s times like this when you appreciate the support of your friends. Frankly I’ve been blown away with the messages of love and congratulations I received when I posted the latest news about my condition on Facebook this weekend. Great news it was too. No spread of the cancer to my lymph nodes, so no need for radiation therapy. In fact, the consultant confirmed, I am now officially cancer free. Imagine that! I was diagnosed on the 12th of December and officially cured on the 15th of February. How’s that for a super National Health Service?

So, it’s back to the keyboard now and continuing work on my next book. I’ll be revealing a bit about that at Portsoy and, thinking ahead, I did manage to record an extract from that before I went into hospital. There might even be a musical interlude of sorts too because, as part of my speech therapy, I’ve been singing Sinatra songs every morning to get my newly reconditioned tongue moving. Unsurprisingly, I don’t sound anything like ol’ Blue Eyes . Not yet, anyway. Give me another few weeks.

Be great to see you in Portsoy. If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.

Nine Nights in Ninewells

Jeff in Ninewells (2)

In case you were wondering, I didn’t die.  I woke up on my 57th birthday connected to various tubes, drips and drains. There were monitors beeping intermittent alerts about my blood pressure and oxygen levels.  A nurse was telling me that everything had gone to plan. She gave me a button to press if I needed more morphine then she sat on a chair at the foot of my bed and made frequent notes about my condition. If I coughed, she scribbled something on my chart. If I pressed the morphine button, another scribble. I wasn’t in any real pain, but give a man a button to press and he’s going to press it just for the hell of it. This was the intensive care unit at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee.  There were other beds with other patients. Six in total, maybe more. My view was restricted. It was a busy place; each bed had a nurse stationed at its foot and there was a central desk where sat green-suited figures peering into computer monitors and occasionally disappearing into side rooms to attend to mysterious patients set apart from the rest of us.

I’d lost a day. The 21st January to be precise, or at least most of it.  At nine that morning a jolly anaesthetist had been joking about getting me to reveal the PIN number of my bank account as he injected me with the first of his sleeping potions. I remember telling him I could feel it taking effect and then nothing. Absolutely nothing. No dreams, no sojourns into the afterlife, no white lights. Nothing.  I had no sense of time passing. If you’d woke me and told me I’d had a five minute nap, I’d have believed you. But it wasn’t five minutes, It was 24 hours and nine hours of that I’d been in the operating theatre while a crack team cut out the tumour from my tongue, replaced it with a skin graft taken from my left forearm and then patched that with another graft taken from my abdomen.  For good measure they sliced into my neck to take a hefty sample of my lymph nodes. I’d felt nothing. And now I was awake and, despite everything, I could still speak. Or at least, I could make enough recognisable sounds to tell doctors and visitors that I was feeling ok. Anything more sophisticated than that required the use of a small white board and marker pen.

I couldn’t sleep though. Every time I nodded off an irritating cough would jump-start me awake again.  I discovered afterwards that I’d taken a bad reaction to a blood pressure medication during the op and the lingering cough was probably a continuing side effect.   I stayed awake through three changes of shift . By midnight I had shaken off most of my wooziness and was tuning into all the overnight gossip between the night nurses.  One was anxious about an exam she was taking the next day, another was wondering if the extra shifts she’d done over Christmas would be reflected in her January pay packet.  In the middle of the night, an immaculately tailored doctor, clad in a three piece suit with colourful waistcoat, appeared at my bedside and urged me to get some sleep.  I promised to try, but I was still awake when the morning shift took over.

A few hours later they wheeled me to a general ward and that felt like the first bit of progress. And each day thereafter they removed one of my tubes or drains and that, too, felt like I was getting somewhere. By the third day, a physiotherapist arrived and helped me out of bed and on to a chair. My knees protested but I ignored them. What do knees know?   I began to feel human again, despite the bandages on my arm and the swelling around my neck.  I was given a Zimmer frame and escorted around the ward.  It felt great to be up and about and even better when the physio decided I didn’t need the Zimmer.  A day or two later I was making my own way to the toilet, a day after that I was trusted to shower by myself. I even shaved. One week after my operation, I was free of all tubes and drains including the one I hated most; the nasal gastric tube which took 12 hours to deliver a half litre of nutritional gunk through my nose and into my stomach.

I began to make limited conversation with fellow patients. Until then I’d given them secret nick names.  Mr Freeze was a man from Arbroath who insisted on sleeping with the ward window open all night.  The bearded man in the bed opposite me bore a slight similarity to Jeremy Corbyn, so I thought of him as ‘Jeremy’ until I discovered his name was Douglas.  Larger than life characters were the two ward cleaners who would converse with each other at high volume as they wiped surfaces and mopped floors. They were oblivious to the patients around them and would discuss topics such as the corona virus and the value of funeral insurance plans. By Thursday I was moved to a bed nearest the door of the ward and this, I was told, was a sure sign that I would soon be heading home.  And on Friday morning I got my discharge papers, had some stitches removed from my neck, waited for my head to fall off (it didn’t)  and was given a free bottle of mouthwash and sent on my way back to Inverness.

And now?  I await pathology results to see if I need radiation treatment. I’m booked for four months of speech therapy to get my voice back to a rough approximation of how it used to be. I’ve been warned it will never be the same as it was, but hey, maybe it will be an improvement. I also need to learn how to swallow food more challenging than chicken noodle soup and soggy Weetabix.

But it‘s all good. I’m so thankful for the NHS and the teams at Ninewells who work like a well-oiled machine. There was expertise at every turn: radiographers, dieticians, pharmacists. I saw such compassion and professionalism from the nurses and surgeons and consultants right through to the girl who cheered everyone up each night as she wheeled her trolley full of tea, biscuits and a secret stash of drinking chocolate.

So yes, I woke up on my birthday a little scarred and a little scared,  but that was a lot better than the alternative I’d been fearing for the past month.

Not waking up at all.