How Noel saved the BBC (He resigned)

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The Independent Culture
For the first time in my life and his career, Noel Edmonds has managed to entertain me. His assertion that he's leaving the BBC because "he isn't happy about what is happening to the BBC, and very sad about the state of the corporation" is simply hilarious. His timing of the announcement to coincide with the loss of Des Lynam to ITV is surely testament to his desire to make the publicity around his departure as damaging to the beleaguered corporation as possible.

Surely no one is fooled, though, because shrewd Edmonds has always been good at getting off his bandwagons before they crash. That is why the words of one corporation executive, commenting anonymously on Edmonds's announcement, ring so true. "His ratings have been falling for some time and he wasn't the solid bet he once was. Noel has been clever and has struck first, knowing he was on his way out."

Contrary to Edmonds's own unshakeable belief that he would always be regarded as indispensable to the BBC, there are reports that the BBC had no plans to renew his contract after it expired next March. If true, this is a hopeful sign that the corporation may finally be on the route to recovery. Coming as it does just a short time after the network controller, Alan Yentob, revealed a pounds 320m summer schedule which was notable for its lack of game shows and docu-soaps - and which added heft to Yentob's promise that the BBC was finally returning to its "educate and inform" remit - the end of Edmonds suggests that BBC1 is finally about to do what Radio 1 has done already, and get rid of its Smashy-and-Nicey approach to popular entertainment.

Mega-multimillionaire Edmonds blames cost-cutting for the fact that the BBC has been rejecting his best ideas. But does this stand up? His most recent show, The Secret Life of Cameras, certainly wasn't a good idea but a warmed-over bunch of clips of the type which have provided broadcasters from Clive James to Jeremy Beadle with material over the years. The development of his new Saturday-evening programme also ran into trouble, simply because no one at the BBC liked it. Another example Edmonds gave of an "idea" that the Beeb wasn't interested in following up was his Children in Need Millennium Special. This, however, is not really an idea at all: it is merely a scheduling suggestion, and confirmation, if anyone needs it, that the Edmonds creativity cupboard is a little bare.

As for his whinges about cost-cutting, has the man got no shame? He has hawked himself for years as a broadcasting innovator. But he should think for a moment about how one of his milestones - the signing of a pounds 10m contract in 1993 to secure the future of Noel's House Party, which set a new benchmark in inflated fees for overpaid comperes - has resulted in a culture which spends its money unwisely on front-of-house "talent" instead of behind- the-scenes programme-making.

It's a wonder that Edmonds can't see that taking an enormous chunk out of the payroll (even though he's got enough money already to live comfortably until the fourth millennium) would have some effect on programme budgets.

He then had the cheek, when the programme began to slide down the ratings, to put together a vitriolic 49-page memo blaming everyone but himself for its failure. One BBC worker commented that this memo was met with derision by everyone who read it: "Most think it is incredibly egotistical."

Further, the sine qua non of the 1993 contract was a further deal which meant that his company, the Unique Group, owned the House Party format and the right to exploit all of the properties associated with it (though only 50 per cent of Mr Blobby spin-offs). His companies make a fortune from exploiting these properties. Other BBC programmes, if they generate merchandising products, make money for the BBC from doing so. But not Edmonds's programmes. Why is he now slagging off the Beeb for spending too little money on his shows, when he has pocketed such vast wealth from them for himself instead of allowing it to be ploughed back into the corporation to which he is supposed to have been so committed?

His hapless support staff weren't the only ones to have Noel's accusing finger pointed at them. The House Party ratings were low because Ronan Keating's Get Your Act Together, screened before House Party, was so awful, because the BBC couldn't compete with Who Wants to be a Millionaire's prize money, and because ITV's hoary old Blind Date was so unassailable. The one person Edmonds never blames is himself, a fact that was wickedly and wonderfully illustrated by Chris Morris in his sublime media spoof Brass Eye. In the programme which spoofed the media's reporting of drugs issues, Edmonds famously threatened to sue after the show made a prat of him and other celebrities who should have known better. Edmonds recorded a plea to the nation to warn of the dangers of "cake", a made-up drug from Prague. His speech was couched in the most ludicrous of terms, with Edmonds talking rot to the camera with an expression of aching, sickening fake sincerity pasted over his face.

Furious that he had been exposed as an idiot who was willing to lend his support to campaigns he'd never heard of - without making any independent checks on the factual accuracy of the homilies he was spouting - he did not consider for a minute that this was exactly the kind of "practical joke" on which he had built an entire career. Edmonds has made fools of many celebrities in his role as a media innovator, but clearly considers himself to be above ridicule all the same.

For Edmonds always has to be right, and Edmonds always has to be the best. While the nation agreed that Noel's House Party was long overdue for the chop a few months ago, Edmonds insisted that "history will prove that House Party was one of the most successful television shows of all time". He also insisted that "House Party is one of the most accurate mirrors for what's been happening at the BBC in recent years". While his first statement is ludicrous, his second is right, but not in the way that he thinks.

When Yentob first took over BBC1, Edmonds was negotiating his aforementioned ludicrous contract. Foolishly wishing to retain his services, Yentob declared that Noel's House Party was "the most important show on the BBC".

But the importance of House Party was simply as a shining example of how craven the BBC has been in competing with ITV at the lowest-common- denominator light-entertainment game, instead of offering an alternative to these loud, crass, simple-minded formats. That is what has been happening at the BBC in recent years, and House Party has certainly mirrored this ghastly spectacle.

In fact, the whole of Edmonds's career on television has reflected the demise of the BBC. Years ago, when the world was young, children used to spend their Saturday mornings by first trying to insinuate themselves into their parents' beds, then going off to the living room and fighting each other until their mum and dad had to get up and take one of them to the hospital.

Then came Edmonds, with the Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, and the days of the Test Card were numbered. While all-day, every-day television was bound to have come anyway, there can be little doubt that the BBC has suffered from stretching its budgets to provide so many more hours of telly. Maybe it should solve its financial problems by returning to quality, not quantity.

In the meantime, after almost 30 years on BBC television, Noel Edmonds has finally, for once in his career, actually done the public a service. He should always have been working for commercial television. Instead, he's imported the business style of US commercial television to the corporation. The Beeb shouldn't have agreed to the terms of his 1993 contract. At last, he's done them a favour by not giving them an option to sign again.