Donald MacLean's Blog 13
with the greatest pleasure that my colleagues and I convey to you ......"
This is a letter of congratulation from an old
Knight of the British Empire to (as he believed) a new one - delivered to me
on January 1st several decades ago by a courier hurriedly-summoned by the
legal practice which had provided a first home for an
organisation of which I was founder/chairman.
The writer is a senior civil-servant with
whom I had worked during the long and difficult process of updating the UK's Copyright Laws.
Wow. "Sir Donald". Sounds
I scurried to my newspaper to read the "Honours
List" which is published every New Year's Day. Never many "K"s.
There they are. One of them is a man that I know (must write him) ...
("It is with the greatest pleasure .... "?)
But there is no "Maclean, Donald H., for services to
the information industries".
Nope. Plain Mr MacLean remains unable
to respond to snooty mâitre-d's with a quiet "Actually it's Sir Donald".
What on earth had prompted this letter from a
'usually well-informed source'? Poor man ... how embarrassed he must
A hasty note: "Dear Sir John, Do not be concerned ... I have put
your letter into our new shredder ... please think no more of it
... am most grateful for your kind words ..."
I didn't say I'd shred his envelope:
(I've just disinterred it from the depths of my
'archive' drawer to show you. If you recognise the handwriting please be
so kind as to keep his secret!)
It was good that my shy wife was not burdened
with this during her last, ill, days. She would have been pleased for me
but would have been uncomfortable to be Lady Margaret.
So why the letter? In the arcane world of
honours you must display blushing surprise and delight when you receive one ...
and asking "Why didn't I get one?" is well beyond the pale!
I did try the phrase "Why might a senior
civil-servant think I'd been honoured?" and got a
convoluted answer about a sponsoring M.P. who had secured the Prime Minister's
written approval but who had, at the very last minute,
failed to vote on something in the manner required by his party and
had been excommunicated. (Or whatever it is that happens to Members who
express inconvenient opinions of their own.)
Reviewing my first year's blogs I wonder if I have focused on
successes and neglected the near-misses and downright failures which I also
achieved! So - as I'm now much too old to be burnishing my CV - I thought
you might find interesting a few of my "almosts". Including a rather spectacular non-achievement with which I
ended my 29 years at the BBC!
Now that the negatives are popping back into my mind, I should
report a particular 'almost' that would have trumped even a knighthood:
I received a missive on this impressive
letterhead. It announced that I had been nominated for one of the new
non-party-political peerages ("Peoples' Peerages") and required me to
furnish references and a list of my 'achievements'. Its tone was
unequivocal - an 'HR' department addressing a job-applicant.
I had several friends in the upper house and was
aware that they (well, most of them) did treat it as a job, a purposeful
holding the Executive to account and providing some counter-balance to the
political parties in matters of which they had experience.
But ... Well ...
"Dear Sirs, Yes, I'd like to be a Baron,
please. I launched Shirley Abicair and Russ Conway and Matt Monro on
their stellar TV careers ." Mmmm ... their lordships may never
have heard of them.
"I harried the House of Commons and the
Civil Service until they included Video in the Copyright Act, and again, for
two years while we adjusted the law to include computer software." Maybe ...
if translated into Whitehall-speak?
"I chaired the Cabinet Office's most
difficult forum and, once it was well-established, persuaded my boss, the
retiring Chairman of ThornEMI plc to take my place for several productive
years". That's more like it.
The administration of that top-level forum was
carried-out by a very well-connected Barrister with long experience of
politics as well as broadcasting and journalism. He kindly agreed to
manage this job-application for me.
From his hand my 'achievements' certainly impressed
me! An ennobled ex-Cabinet Minister and the Governor General of
New Zealand, for example, were among many who asserted
that I'd be most effective in the job.
You may remember the outcome - a group of
exceptional men and women were appointed - precisely those who would have been chosen under the traditional system.
The Commission was
disbanded. The "Peoples' Peerages" idea was allowed to wither and die.
Honours are too valuable a tool - for all politicians - to fall into the hands
of 'the People'.
(My friend the nice Barrister was awarded
a well-merited CBE - the honour next to a Knighthood. So I was able to
write another letter starting "It is with the greatest pleasure ... ".)
Hertfordshire is a large county near London. During many
of the events covered in my first year of blogs I lived in a market-town at
the Eastern end of the county. After Margaret died I moved to the
Western end - where Ann and I live now. In fact the Western extremity of
our village was in the next county - Buckinghamshire.
Several services seemed to be better in Bucks than in Herts
(the local hospital was newer, local taxes were lower). So when we bought a home here we moved into the Bucks sector. After several
decades in Herts I'll admit I also got an emotional buzz from being in new
As a retiree I suppose I was uneasy about being entirely
unemployed and so I joined the teams of some local charities. And
resisted my usual inclination to reorganise them! Except ... when Bucks County asked me to chair their Voluntary
Services Committee, which had become dysfunctional, it was a familiar kind of challenge
and I agreed.
While we were settling into our new home a busy
administrator tired of having to check whether every local matter was
in his part of the community or not - he proposed that the boundary be moved -
just a little Westward - so that the whole village was in Herts.
Naturally his opposite number in the other county supported the idea and, in accordance
with some directive, a Public Enquiry was initiated to discover the views of
The Boundaries Commission organised several
local meetings chaired by their Inspector. They were very
well-attended - no apathy in this, the UK's most-loved domicile.
And public opinion was clear-cut - everyone in Herts voted for the status quo
- as did those of us in Bucks. For once the democratic process produced
a clear-cut result. No change. Thank goodness!
Meanwhile the Voluntary Services Committee met and I was
introduced. It was responsible for
coordinating 28 different public services provided by volunteers - and the
Committee comprised the leader of each one. 28 Chairmen!
Or rather Chairpersons - nine of them were men, 19 were women. (The
sort of formidable rural ladies who get things done.) The whole
Committee met monthly
and all its members had equal
voting rights, of course. No wonder they were finding decision-making a
I proposed that they elect a 7-person Executive from among
their number ... and that they re-constitute themselves into a
top-level policy forum which would meet only twice a year ... to discuss
strategy ... with the Executive responsible for implementing them.
The 7 volunteers rather quickly emerged, as did a very capable
Leader who was elected by a majority. We set the date of the
first bi-annual policy forum - then spent the rest of the meeting listing
I went to their first 'forum' - and was quickly able to sit at the
back while the Executive Chairlady managed, very competently, an energetic
Many months later it struck me that we'd heard nothing from the
Boundaries Commission so I phoned them. A clerk called me back. The
Inspector's report had been brief -
the extensive consultations had revealed a wish to maintain the
status quo that was unanimous ... nevertheless the boundary was to be moved "for administrative
Regulations had required them to conduct the
consultations ... but, apparently, did not require them to pay the slightest attention to what they
The convenience of the administrators was more
important than the unanimous wishes of those who paid their salaries.
Few of us complained. Breath-taking
arrogance strikes us dumb.
(With events like that, and the Iraq war, it's hard not to
feel some anxiety for the health of democracy in Britain.)
So, after a brief spell in the county I'd
chosen, I write to you now from my umpteenth decade as a resident of
Twice a day we go through a gate at the end of
our garden and walk the dog in the 56 acres of communal woodlands.
Which are entirely in Buckinghamshire.
I always felt that my popular-music domain was a 'below-stairs'
part of the BBC - in the servants' quarters of a class-conscious corporation.
We weren't even a 'department' but a junior section of Variety Department
(where the great comedy series were produced). So that, in the sixties,
when the pirate radio ships (with no 'needle-time' constraints) were
closed-down, I was optimistic that my BBC parish, as their replacement, might at last achieve the
status it deserved.
The signs were good - I was invited (as were others) to suggest
how the 'Home' and 'Light' networks might be reshaped - a challenge I
The BBC had a long-established mantra that a
tax-funded broadcasting monopoly was justified "because the radio
spectrum is a scarce resource". I repeatedly tried and failed to persuade my
bosses that this would become untenable - because ever-higher frequencies
would become usable (they have) and new technologies would
permit very much more intensive use of the existing spectrum (they have).
I submitted detailed proposals to replace Light Programme with
2 networks covering the
gamut of popular music and labelled them "1" and "2" (emphasising that they
should be given properly descriptive names) and described in detail a
'minimum-talk/easy-listening' Nr 2 as the centrepiece.
At one meeting I was quizzed '... hypothetically, old chap
about who should help me run the new system. I included
my friend Robin Scott who had been a fellow producer of "Come Dancing" and was
now on attachment to a European TV Service - not
because he'd written a hit record ("Softly Softly" by Ruby Murray) but because he understood the
audiences for various kinds of music and, of course, some of the practicalities of
catering for them.
My ideas seemed to be approved and when I suggested
that I go to the U.S. for 10 days to discover how the new 'automated' music
stations worked that was immediately agreed.
In America the new technology fascinated me as an engineer but
had limited relevance to any potential network-controller with
very restricted use of records.
It happened that my mother was in Florida with a cousin whom
she frequently visited and we agreed to rendezvous in New York on our way
The head of the BBC's New York office was another longtime
friend (his son later created the delightful Wallace & Gromit characters) and I was
happy when he said "promise me you'll pop in on your way home - we're
having a small celebration'.
At the premises in the
Rockefeller Center there were two surprises - in Peter's office sat my smiling
mother, whom I'd expected to meet the following day ... and the party was a
celebration of the imminent announcement of the new network controller in
London - me! Peter had no evidence that I'd been appointed but
considered it fait-accompli ... he had invited some of my New York friends to the party.
A very happy evening ended with dinner upstairs on the 65th floor - the
famous 'Rainbow Room' - at a table which gradually expanded as more of my
friends from the world of broadcasting joined us. On the bandstand was a
group led by legendary trumpeter Jimmy McPartland,
founder of the Chicago style of jazz. (Jimmy's English wife Marian, the
wonderful jazz pianist long resident at New York's 'Hickory House' nightclub, had
twice appeared on my 'Jazz Club' broadcasts while
visiting her mother in Hampshire.) At the band's break Jimmy and I were
introduced by Alastair Cooke - who, to the delight of my mother, devoted the
evening to flirting outrageously with her.
Radio 1's first D-J's
(I'm sad to hear -
in Dec 09 - that the Rainbow Room is no longer economic and may close.)
On the flight to London I warned my mother that kind Peter had
jumped the gun - I was not counting any chickens.
Which was as well. The BBC launched three networks with the (non-descriptive) names Radios 1,2 and 3.
And announced the new Controller - Robin Scott.
One of the nicest results of these blogs, for
is restoring contact with friends with whom I'd lost touch. Like
Peter G. He was my legal adviser at EMI and subsequently moved to America. I
happy to have an email saying he is enjoying my reminiscing. Peter recalls
an office junior called Simon Cowell in one of the EMI music companies - whose name is currently in
all the newspapers (even my sober Financial Times) reporting the millions a
month he is earning, on both sides of the Atlantic, from the several TV series
in which he appears and which are created by his production company Syco.
This reminds me of a forecast I made in the
eighties - that one day it would become technically possible for viewers (ie
the whole population) to watch a programme about a politically hot topic and,
at the end of it, to register instantly their vote - a process which would be
popular - and which would rapidly start to feel like part of the democratic
process ... with potentially serious tension with parliament! That
technology is now in action with "Strictly Come Dancing" and "X
[I had concluded this blog with what I hoped
would seem a dramatic forecast that Simon Cowell could be the person who would one day launch this
sort of public-relations missile. When I mentioned this during my family's
after-Christmas-lunch debate I was told by several round the table that he has
just announced precisely that!]
Which leads conveniently to the events
concerning Audience Measurement which I promised to report to you in an
earlier blog. This was my final tilt at the sturdy
windmill of British Broadcasting:
Founding the BBC John Reith gave it the purpose "To Inform,
Educate and Entertain." In my day that was the order of priority -
and I regularly suggested that it was wrong.
Entertainment, I suggested, must come first ... fail to entertain your
you neither inform nor educate them. (My old eyes and ears tell me
that my successors must have been more persuasive - they often overshoot
that target now!)
The BBC's excellent Audience Research
department had been developing since 1936 under Robert Silvey. In
addition to audience size it also told us producers the audience's reaction to
our efforts. Quality as well as quantity was measured - a unique service in the world
of communication and one that I wanted to exploit.
It seems to me obvious that audience statistics should be
one of the foundation-stones of a department with "Popular" as its name. Therefore it irked me that
we, who created every week many times the output of the entire record
business, were using as a
criterion of success the weekly sale of records - the Hit Parade.
It was appropriate for programmes serving those who value
'newness' - but misleading for the broad 'middle-of-the-road' audience, many
of whom depended for their music on their radio not their record-player.
The more popular a record the more quickly it sells. The
more quickly it sells the sooner the market is satisfied and its position in
the sales charts declines. It may be the most popular piece of music in
the land but in the record industry the marketing emphasis has rightly moved
on. If a would-be "popular" broadcaster also moves on he is serving the
record industry but short-changing his audience - his programme is not as
popular as it should be. The needs of record producers and radio
producers are not identical.
It's not just a phase-difference. The Hit Parade tells
the broadcaster nothing about the 'life' of different popular pieces. It
serves the record industry well - and the 'popular-music' broadcaster and his
It seemed to me that Mr Silvey's operation held the answer.
Not only could they tell us what listeners want to hear this week - much more
relevant than what they bought last week - but it would swing the spotlight
round to where the creative focus actually was. The BBC would be where the public
turned to discover what
was popular. The new networks I yearned to design would then be seen
to be the creators of pop-music stardom, and would thus serve the
licence-payer better. A genuinely-'popular' music service.
Only in the UK - in the BBC (with Robert Silvey & co) - would
this be practicable. And with my friend Brian Epstein making Britain the
centre of the pop universe, at least for a while, there would never be a
better time to achieve this.
I tried everything I knew to persuade the BBC hierarchy.
For some of them an increase in the importance of pop music was
simply undesirable - informing and educating were what mattered.
The others understood that the BBC must replace the Pop Pirates
... and everyone told them that Pop = Hit Parade.
Everyone but me ... a lone voice predicting that we would
inevitably lack 'pirate-credibility' - Auntie with an eye-patch ... unless we
mobilised the transforming power of Mr Silvey ... with the potential for a
seismic shift - favourable to us and our listeners - in the nature of
They were short-sighted but I don't blame them for this. Nor
Controller appointment. Because of my job I had (studiously) published
no songs, and Robin was an intelligent, charming man who'd had a record in the
Hit Parade ... and who had no strange bees in his bonnet about upstaging the record
But I find it difficult to describe to you the
enormity of their misjudgement about the Hit Parade. Had they been just
a little better-informed, understood just a little more of the 'mechanics' of
popularity, how different the world of mass entertainment might now be.
I did my damnedest. It wasn't enough.
I registered as a mature student in Business School and
returned a phone call from the founder of a major talent agency who had
retired and was now acting as personal agent for some senior managers in the
Had these last 'almosts' come about I'd
probably have missed the quite different challenges and rewards of my second
career - in business.
don't do regret. But occasionally it's fun to recall a few things
that just, almost, might have been?
Especially on January 1st.
"Success is the ability to go from one failure
to another with no loss of enthusiasm"
Sir Winston Churchill
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