It has long been the received wisdom that the present Government has no sense of history. “Think of all that Cool Britannia nonsense,” sneer the critics. “And what about that ghastly Conran furniture? Quite unsuitable for State occasions.”
Well, the critics have got it wrong. Can you imagine any other government in history going to the trouble and expense of conducting an immensely complex Jurassic Park experiment and, against all the odds, triumphantly pulling it off? Heaven knows how they did it. Somehow, they must have got hold of the DNA of the late Ted Hill, the fat man who led the Boilermakers Union in days of yore and was memorably said to have the smallest brain-to-weight ratio since the death of the last icthyosaurus. Put the sample in a test tube, pour on some stuff, shake well and bingo! Out comes the leader of the Tube drivers, a miraculously fully formed throwback to prehistory.
If you can do it once you can do it twice. Which explains the leader of the Fire Brigades Union. This second genetically engineered dinosaur is better yet. It even speaks a language the world thought it had lost. “Insulting,” it said when offered an 11 per cent pay rise. Give it time and it will roar “derisory”. It may even speak of “the aspirations of my members”.
All in all, last week was a good one for fossils. When, with a flourish, (Channel) Five tore the veil from its new news team, a few mothballs hit the ground. Lined up for the photocall, one behind the other, eyes right, cuffs shot, they looked as if they had been plucked from a march-past of the old contemptibles. Goodness me! Isn’t that Angela Rippon? She did a high kick on the Morecambe and Wise Show years ago. Behind her stands Martin Bell, the sleaze-busting man in white. Next is Sandy Gall, veteran of many a skirmish on the North-west Frontier. And who’s that, looking solemn? Why, it’s Michael Brunson, late of ITN, whose political scoops included John Major’s description of the dissidents in his party as “bastards”. Bringing up the rear is Carol Barnes, whose reading of the News at Ten never failed to grip, mainly because it was delivered in a basso profundo voice, which one doesn’t expect from a blonde.
Their combined age is 315. The years have tugged at their flesh and whitened their hair, but what of it? As Chris Shaw, Five’s head of news, says: “These people don’t rely on gimmicks. They are just very good at telling it how they see it.”
When it comes to gimmicks, Shaw knows whereof he speaks. He it was who persuaded Kirsty Young, then a sprightly 29, to perch on a desk to read the news. It was, he says, a reaction against the conservative nature of British television news. Recalling those mould-breaking years he says, “We even brought a pig into the studio to illustrate sunburn risks. It all seemed revolutionary.” I’ll say it was. Until then, pigs had been used solely to illustrate the risks of obesity.
Shaw is a man who is determined to be different, to buck the trend. Which explains why, when persons of a mature age were reading the news, he wanted fresh young faces; and why, now that every face in TV news is young and fresh, he wants a slightly foxed look.
Not that Shaw admits to being different purely for the sake of it. Hiring the Frazzled Five, he says “has nothing to do with a desire to import credibility and gravitas into the youthful Channel Five news teams. It has everything to do with proven character and journalistic excellence.”
With the rise of producer power, he adds, reporting has become more synthetic and processed. “Less daring, more Dairylea.”
The answer, as far as he is concerned, is less totty, more tofu.
Mind you, as he admits, veterans can be hard work: “Of course, hiring old hands has its problems. After 20 years on the road, reporters can become difficult to manage. Once, during the Gulf War I asked Sandy Gall to present an update. ‘Sorry old boy, don’t do updates,’ came the reply.”
If Shaw’s experiment catches on, the problems can only get worse. When you get to a certain age, it’s not so easy to perch on the edge of a desk. And that’s only half of it. If perching’s difficult, getting down again can be next to impossible. The insurance alone could be ruinous. Double hernias don’t come cheap.
Despatching veterans on overseas assignments can bring problems, too. Baggage for a start. The best reporters travel light. Toothbrush, comb, pencil, notebook, mobile phone, change of socks, and that’s about it. But when you’re stricken in years you need additional items – Phyllosan, bifocals, denture fixative, truss and so on. And it’s not easy to find a hovel in the Hindu Kush equipped with a Stannah stairlift, let alone one of those baths you can open up at the side and walk into.
When you’re older, being shot at carries hazards besides the obvious. Ducking down disturbs the wig – you try doing a piece to camera with your fringe between your teeth. It isn’t easy.
One good thing, however: the old pros won’t be waving their arms about in the modern fashion. Not with arthritis and a frozen shoulder, they won’t.