The Times, 27 October 2007


Six months ago, I wrote a chapter for a book about an American sci-fi show. Yeah, well, boys love me, so you can shut up. It was commissioned by an American publisher, who would like to put me on their payroll, so that I can accrue literally tens of dollars in royalties. Only they can’t, because I don’t have an American tax number, by virtue of the fact that I’m not American, don’t live there, and was just saying dollars to sound cool. But I can acquire an IRS number, if I bung my passport in the post to maybe Philadelphia, whereupon I can’t leave the country for two months till it comes back. Did I mention that they can’t send it registered post, so I have a fighting chance of never seeing it again, having my identity stolen, and coming home one day to find a man called Pedro has moved into my flat and is wearing one of my jumpers? Yet all this could be avoided, because the IRS will accept a copy of my passport, certified by the issuing agency. So I rang the Identity and Passport Service in London, who turn out to give less that a fragment of a toss about Pedro stretching my jumpers out of shape, because they ‘don’t do copies’. Not ‘can’t’, not ‘won’t’, just ‘don’t,’ like it’s a religious imperative. So, no dollars for me. Just the happy knowledge that people who can’t use a photocopier are going to be in charge of ID cards.

This is the problem with big organisations – they employ some of the most brilliant minds of their generation (well, probably not at the Identity and Passport Agency. I imagine they mainly employ people who wish they’d worked a bit harder at school), but they’re collectively as smart as the stupidest person there. Nowhere is this truer than the BBC. Pretty much everyone who works for the BBC is clever, nice, and working for peanuts. Some of them are allergic to peanuts, and they still work for them – that’s how nice they are. Yet the behaviour of the BBC as a whole would make a sane person weep.

This week, it became clear that hit shows like Spooks and Dr Who will appear less frequently, as part of the BBC cutbacks. Try as I might, I can’t make sense of this. JK Rowling is the world’s richest author not because of her admittedly formidable book sales, but because every time someone buys a Harry Potter notebook, or a box of chocolate frogs, she gets a tiny percentage. You can’t go into a supermarket without seeing Dr Who merchandising – from key-rings to pyjamas – so how is it not a profit-making show that the BBC should be falling over itself to produce?

Similarly, a third of jobs are to be cut at the Natural History Unit in Bristol. They make programmes like Planet Earth. I know shows like this are expensive but there are houses in Bhutan which contain a full set of David Attenborough DVDs. If you are a dad, and don’t have at least one of his box sets on a shelf, you can have your children taken away by social services. David Attenborough rivals Morgan Freeman to be the official voice of God on earth, so surely the NHU must be a huge money-spinner. And if not, is there someone in contracts who has just bought themselves a really nice new car? And a mansion? And a desert island, to keep them both on?

Not that the alternatives are preferable: whenever anyone moans about how unfair it is that they have to pay a licence fee, I want to sit them down in say, Idaho, and if they can tell me accurately what’s happened at the end of an episode of Prison Break, when it’s been interrupted every seven minutes for an hour, I’ll give them a pound. Television with adverts is made completely differently from television without them – try watching a DVD of Poirot, made for ITV, and you’ll see that there is a completely superfluous denouement inserted three times per episode, to lure you back after the biscuit run. It’s the televisual equivalent of the writing of Dan Brown, which is (lest you be unsure) annoying.

But everything that makes the BBC worth having is being cut. You can see the consequences already: this week, the BBC’s national lunchtime bulletin featured the story of a young boy whose head had become trapped, briefly, in a traffic cone, which he had mistaken for a rigid, orange wizard’s hat. That isn’t news. Not even with a picture. But since the foreign correspondents will soon be arriving everywhere a week after the story broke, having paddled there by dinghy to save money on air fares, it’s probably the best we’re going to get.