SHORT, SHARP, SHOCKING
Hip on the surface, hard beneath, Charlie Parsons has a handle on the hearts and minds of Britain's youth. His brash, flash style of television is the wave of the future; and, worryingly, a magnet for aspirant TV tyros oStanley Kalms is a capitalist red in tooth and claw He's also got a conscience, agood deal of power, and some very old-fashioned notions about how to save the proper charlie parsons nose don't you know or elseSTUDIES IN POWER
Sunday 26 November 1995
Not only does he compliment his audience, but he also claims a sort of empathy with the disillusioned generation that has grown up since the Conservatives took office: The Big Breakfast, therefore, is not just a show, it's a mission, an innovation, an in-joke for jittery tele-literate juveniles who despair of traditional breakfast programming - the cheery good mornings, the artificial links, the casual wear of grown-ups like Nicholas Witchell, and, of course, anything that remotely smacks of information.
I understand the point of Parsons' schtick, but when all is said and done I cannot see much more than a couple of loud glove puppets and a presenter named Keith Chegwin, who has about him the podgy desperation of the failed children's entertainer. This is a man who will do anything for a laugh; though the laugh never comes, even when he dresses himself up as Darcy and calls himself Arsy, a pun of such lameness that you begin to feel sorry for the poor booby. It is all quite awful, although you cannot help but admire the spirit of these people, deployed so early in the morning and in such miserable circumstances to realise Parsons' dream of chaotically televised trivia - and low-budget too!
This, of course, is the elitist view, the old fart's worry about standards and quality that Charlie Parsons is far too fly to take any notice of. He sits in a very large office in the Planet Building in a bleak part of Docklands, not remotely troubled by the charges that he has initiated an irreversible decline in our culture: that, in the words of Michael Kustow, a former commissioning editor of Channel 4 (which broadcasts the show) "The Big Breakfast stands for television's current inability to see the difference between innovation and novelty"; unworried that his sort of television has become the magnet for the best and brightest young tyros in television; and quite unfazed by accusations that Planet 24's previous hit series for Channel 4, The Word, was exploitative of the very audience it claimed to represent.
To my surprise, what I found in Charlie Parsons was a friendly and likeable man. He is by nature very optimistic and I imagine pretty thick-skinned, but he is open and engaged and gives you his whole attention. He is more quick-minded than eloquent, but he makes his points well, as people do if they are used to running production meetings. He speaks with a lot of "you knows", "I means" and "basicallys", which I suppose must have been picked up somewhere between Pembroke College, Oxford and the Ealing Gazette, which is where he started as a trainee journalist some 16 years ago. But Parsons is very clear about what he wants, and the laziness of his speech merely serves to disguise it. In fact, he is a very good salesman and talks as if his life depended on it - which, in a way, it does, because the responsibility to devise these programmes, guide and sell them is entirely his. His partners - Waheed Alli and Bob Geldof - would agree with this.
Usually, outfits like this burn brightly with one or two network successes and then vanish. Planet 24 is different; in a little over four years, it has established itself as the leading independent production company in the country. It has a turnover of more than pounds 16m a year, contributes nearly a quarter of Channel 4's entire revenue and has a staff of 250, including graduate trainees. (This figure can swell to 400 when the company has a programme running on each of the four terrestrial channels, as it did last summer.) What accounts for this success is Parsons' ability to brand his programmes with a strong formula of gossip, celebrity humiliation, pop music and trivia, all of which is not so much broadcast as released in a rush of adrenalin. The programmes have a designed informality about them, and the presenters are encouraged in all their awkwardness and egotism; both Chris Evans, the frenetic saviour of Radio 1 and star of Don't Forget Your Toothbrush, and Paula Yates, who conducted her Big Breakfast interviews from bed, benefited from Parsons' patronage. Aside from The Big Breakfast and The Word, Planet 24 has also produced Gaytime, and Delicious, which, God help us, is described as a "mad-cap after-school show that's turning children's TV on its head". The company also makes radio programmes and has plans for two more big TV shows. All of these are aimed at the 15- 35 age range, the prized youth market that established TV companies find it so difficult to cater for. Parsons, however, seems to have no such problem; his style has had a wide influence, and when TV companies do not buy in a Planet 24 programme, they try to make their own, often snapping up people that Parsons has trained.
I asked him whether the success of Planet 24 would bleed out into the rest of television and shift values downmarket, in the same way that the Sun affected Fleet Street in the mid-Seven-ties. He held his head in his hand and looked frustrated. "Well, I don't quite know how to respond to that," he said, "because the reality is that I can see that we influence other people, but I don't think that we will ever influence all television. In fact, our programmes are carefully crafted and well made. The art of making them 'user friendly' is actually quite difficult." It does, he seems to be saying, take brains to put out this sort of stuff.
In fact, looking round the Planet 24 office, you do get the impression that everyone works extremely hard. It seems casual, but people appear a little overwrought, as well they might be, dreaming up the astonishing number of items that each show consumes. Parsons himself looks like any of his researchers, although rather more relaxed. He is trendy to a degree, although he makes the concession of a jacket and tie. He is fidgety, and clearly impatient to get on to the next thing, something that manifests itself in his conversation; he barely finishes a sentence and each time he changes direction, he absentmindedly fiddles with his hair.
Parsons takes the line of the populariser, believing that both newspapers and TV now speak to an audience which was previously ignored: "People who read those newspapers [the tabloids] are now reading about the world in the way that they understand. And as long as they maintain a questioning attitude to everything, that's probably a good thing. We have managed to establish an audience by talking to people in the same way, in the way that they understand, rather than talking down to them, which is what a lot of television did before."
To give him his due, this conviction did not conveniently emerge when Parsons spotted a vacant niche in television. He has always been fascinated by trivia, and ever since childhood he has been regarded by friends as a "snapper-up of unconsidered trifles". He was born in 1958 into a middle- class family in Kent, one of five brothers of whom Charlie was the fourth. He went away to boarding school at Tonbridge and spent his holidays mucking about with his brothers in the village of Ivy Hatch. They had a model railway, together with timetables, and he set up a little newspaper called The Recorder, in which he covered local events. He also watched a great deal of television, falling in love with Coronation Street and Dad's Army: "I can't remember how old I was when I watched The Forsyte Saga and War and Peace," he says, "but I definitely remember them. I actually love high-quality television."
He speaks of his childhood as being idyllic, and it seems that nothing in his schooling or university life affected his generally optimistic nature. At Oxford, where he read English, he set up the Happy Party, which campaigned against earnestness and all forms of student activism. "Although I was fairly cynical about school and say that if I ever had any children, I wouldn't send them to private boarding school, I actually had quite a good time. And I had a great time at university. I wasn't miserable or any of those things which people are supposed to be."
After Oxford, he tried publishing, but was unhappy. Then he moved into journalism, eventually landing up as a researcher on The Six O'Clock Show, which was hosted by Michael Aspel, Danny Baker and Janet Street-Porter. He floated round London Weekend TV for about six years, working on a multitude of different programmes, never staying long enough on any one programme to get promoted. Then Street-Porter asked him to work for a new programme, Network Seven. The programme was the precursor of everything Parsons has done since - fast, flashy, full of irrelevant factoids and restless camerawork; Parsons had come home. "I went over to her, and then I started to move very quickly and was a producer within three- and-a-half months. Janet left to go to the BBC and I took her job as the series editor."
Parsons was on his way. He moved to a series called Club X, the first programme of which was a famous catastrophe, still remembered for the failure of the transmitter and the hopeless attempts of the presenters to be heard over the noise of the party going on in the studio. He still regards it as the most miserable period of his career: "It was basically a commissioning editor job, but without the authority to do it. What I learnt then was basically the importance of being in charge and dealing with people who know what they are doing." He was offered a second series which developed into The Word. This time, though, he formed his own production company, 24 Hour Productions, with Waheed Alli, which eventually merged with Bob Geldof's Planet Pictures - hence Planet 24. And this is where he more or less finds himself now, except of course that he and his company are far richer than he ever imagined possible.
What is impressive about the operation is the air of permanence about the place. Waheed Alli has built a strong management structure which has very much got its eyes on the future. There is also a scheme for training graduates picked up at the universities in the traditional "Milk Round". It makes you pause when you hear that graduates come up to Parsons to say that they only want to work for his company - not Panorama or the BBC's drama department, but the frigging Big Breakfast and the projected Hotel Babylon (which, incidentally, promises much the same mix as The Word: fashion, celebrity interviews, rock bands and something called "Eurogossip"). This is where it's at for the next generation of TV people. They see the opportunities that this sort of disposable, utterly inconsequential TV provides. Depres-singly, they are probably right; the proliferation of channels and the vast capacity of cable networks have great implications for programme budgets and competition for audiences.
Parsons has met these demands slightly ahead of time - just at the moment, ironically, when we are all flattering ourselves that we live in The Information Age. It is clear to this new generation that The Information Age is not heralded by data and leaps of understanding, but by the moronic face of the early morning Keith "Cheggers" Chegwin who I caught interviewing a group of lavatory cleaners who happen to dance the rhumba: "Am I right you're a toilet cleaner in London?" asks "Cheggers". "And are the people in London ... errr... busy?" he goes on. Lavatory cleaner looks baffled, Keith turns to camera: "Well... ha ha... if you ... errrr... want to be flushed with success you must dance the rhumba."
Again to give Parsons his due - although I don't feel much like it after watching Chegwin - he is unabashed by criticism. When I suggested that it was extraordinary that a man with his educational background should produce this stuff, he said simply "Yes" and smiled.
I pressed him: "But don't you worry that it means absolutely nothing?"
"Well, actually, I think we reflect the spirit of the times as well as influencing people. It's a kind of world-wide thing, you know; it's been present in rock music since the Sixties. It is more cynical, more, for lack of a better word, 'post-modern'. But this doesn't stop us making moral judgements, and none of our programmes have violence unless there is a very valid reason for it. Sex, I think, is less of a problem, although we conform to the regulations."
Not always. Before its final dizzy exit from the schedules, The Word was heavily criticised by the Independent Television Commission, which singled out items involving a colostomy bag, a vomiting Santa Claus and a "Mr Power-tool", who dragged a girl on a chair across the studio floor by means of a rope attached to his penis. This last example must have been quite intriguing to watch, but once it's been done, what on earth else can you do to try and snap the audience at home out of its callow ennui?
Back to the "spirit of the times". I wondered if he had a handy definition. "No, I don't. But I think it's worth saying that there is an amazing generation gap that people are completely unaware of. People under 30, or maybe even 25, have a completely different attitude to every aspect of life. When the tabloids make a big hoohah about somebody's sex life, to people under 25 there's no kind of big deal about it. They don't care. They don't care about politicians either. The Labour Party has got a younger leader, but I don't think that means anything to people under 25. I'm just conscious of the fact that for the benefit of society we need to take into account the younger generation."
It's an attitude that reminds one of the rock promoters of an earlier age who claimed to represent a disillusioned generation while at the same time making a thumping great profit: hip on the surface, hard underneath - and Charlie Parsons is exactly that. For instance, I asked him about the contemporary showbiz controversy; just what had happened to prompt the departure of Paula Yates from The Big Breakfast. Had he sacked her, as she says, or had she decided to leave of her own volition?
He looked innocent and replied, "A little of both... er... we both agreed it was time to part."
Not so, according to the text of the moment, that is to say Paula Yates's autobiography: she writes that "He rang me one morning and said 'Don't come in again'. Naturally I asked 'Why'?, and he replied 'Because we're a family show and you'll never be clean again.' " What this refers to is Yates's much reported affair with the musician Michael Hutchence: this ended her marriage to Bob Geldof, who, of course, is Parsons' partner in Planet 24. Well, one would, naturally, expect some confusion in as emotive a scenario as this, but one nonetheless pauses at her account because, if it is true, it was exactly the sort of "hoohah" about which The Big Breakfast audience is said not to care. But sooner or later, Yates must surely have been bound to lose her job: The Big Breakfast, she writes, "set new lows in television standards since it first disgraced the airwaves".
WHATEVER the truth of the Yates affair, it is safe to assume that Parsons is not slow to fire people. "I always think that it's better for the people who aren't working out... Well, it's better that they are not here than they are here. I don't find it hard because television is such a freelance business. It is a business for people of a certain age and there is relatively little security or loyalty on either side. We try to keep people actually, but often we don't - which I suppose is a result of the evolution from a one-horse company to a huge company which has an international image." This is true; Planet 24's programmes sell well abroad, and an American version of The Big Breakfast has recently started up. It has, I understand, all the promise of the British version.
Parsons is by far the youngest of the people I have interviewed for this series. At 37, he is not yet married and devotes most of his time to building Planet 24. He rises at 6.30am to watch The Big Breakfast and then travels to the office where he stays until about 8.30pm. Much of the day is spent on the creative side of the business, although he finds that he interferes with programmes less and less, partly because he has an improved staff and partly because there is just too much going on. "I constantly amaze myself that I am actually more experienced than so many people now. If you produce two hours a day, five days a week, that mounts up to a lot of flying time. Sometimes a young researcher will come to me and say 'Everyone is wearing this', and I'll say, 'Show me the people who wear it', because I know they've just got it out of a press release. My role is a questioning role." This is a thought that turns Parsons reflective: "You know," he says, "when I was at school, the whole process was to teach you to question the things you were being taught. I am not sure that happens today, because people feel so lucky that they're actually having a history lesson that they don't question it."
This seems a bit rich, since his shows rely for their impact on bright, jarring velocity, and there is no attempt at questioning. Indeed, at another point he said that "I know we communicate with them through entertainment things, but frankly, it is by default rather than by anything else. It's one thing being interested in Sharon Stone and another being interested in Tony Blair."
The sizeable income that Planet 24 has brought him does not appear to be spent on much other than a country house where he shuts off from the media and does a little gardening. On holiday, he has tried his hand at watercolours. He is a keen reader of EF Benson's Mapp and Lucia books, also of non- fiction, which he buys by the half-dozen and reads all at the same time. In Parsons, then, you find an unexpectedly rounded man, someone who is still close to his family and enjoys his friends outside the media. The Planet Building, with its feverish appetite for nonsense, is a lot of his life, but not all; he daydreams of arranging things so that he will have more time to himself. In the wider world, he is a member of the Labour Party and a fairly enthusiastic supporter of Tony Blair's changes: "But I think that it is actually going to be very difficult establishing a priority for rebuilding Britain. The biggest hurdle will be to get this over to future voters and to neglected Britain."
As in each interview in this series, I asked him what was the most destructive force in our society: "I think it is the force for greed - personal greed and corporate greed. It may be a kind of Millennium thing, but everyone is kind of greedy (and I include myself), because they think that if they aren't greedy now, they will lose it tomorrow. One of the worst influences is America. We have been copying America in a wholly unpleasant way - the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. We are creating an underclass of people in the same way as we have created a disaffected youth."
But, of course, isn't he responsible for driving very hard deals and making as large a profit as he can at the end of the day?
"Yes, I accept that. But, actually, by making a profit, it puts you in a position of influence over things. There is a twin pressure, the pressure to compete with other corporations who want to get bigger and bigger, then the one inside oneself which dictates that you should be good to people. I regard myself as being as morally sound as I could be and I genuinely believe that I personally benefit from society being better."
Would he mind if he had to give up, say, pounds 100,000 of his income to pay higher taxes under a Labour government? "No, not at all, because I would benefit from that. There would be people currently on the street who would be housed. My mother wouldn't have to be on a waiting list for her eye operation. If you give up on the welfare state, you give up on everything."
I liked Parsons, but I don't like what he does. He has proved to the advertisers and established channels that he can deliver the youth audience they want - 4.6 million per day on The Big Breakfast alone - yet he does nothing to engage that audience with the issues that he himself shows such an interest in. Instead, he is content to be led by the audience's tastes and, in doing so, boasts that he is unique among television people in his lack of condescension. He must, of course, take taste into his calculations, but to ignore those things that make people better informed, better able to vote and perhaps less disaffected seems an exceptional form of contempt, and yes, a high order of condescension. So when he says his profits put him in a position of influence and that, with that influence, he would be "good to people" - well, I take it with a fairly large pinch of salt. !
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