BBC may axe Vanessa after hoax

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The Independent Online
THE BBC launched an investigation yesterday into claims that its most high-profile daytime show used an actress and two strippagram girls to act out roles in studio discussions. So concerned is the corporation that sources say the programme may be scrapped.

It was reported that The Vanessa Show, hosted by Vannessa Feltz, which cost the BBC pounds 2m and started only last month, paid a show business agency pounds 100 per guest to recruit strippagrams Amanda Cairney and Jill Holt to play the part of two feuding sisters on the show. The Mirror said the pair had never previously met. Actress Angelina Candler, who is single, was hired to play the part of an abused wife, the newspaper said.

Both programmes were aired last week.

The corporation began an investigation yesterday. The focus will be on a Vanessa researcher, Debbie Price, who was recorded by The Mirror talking to a showbusiness agent about keeping secret the fact that the three women were actresses.

Two producers and a researcher on the show were sent home from work yesterday and the BBC confirmed that two showbusiness agencies have been used to book guests for the programme.

The BBC hopes to limit damage and maintains its investigation will not cover similar shows - despite claims that hoax guests are endemic in the so-called "victim TV" genre. The results will be sent directly to the director-general, Sir John Birt.

The BBC has already begun a review of its rules governing the way its researchers work.

Vanessa Feltz began her programme yesterday with a denial that she knew of the hoax. She told viewers: "I have to tell you that we are absolutely horrified by these allegations and we take the matter extremely seriously. We have already begun a full investigation and you can rest assured that we will take any appropriate action."

The BBC's investigation will be led by Anne Morrison, the corporation's head of features. She said yesterday: "We are talking to every individual member of the [Vanessa Show] team in some detail as part of our investigation into this and it is something we will conduct speedily. If disciplinary action needs to be taken, if people need to be sacked, then we will certainly do that."

The key question will be to find out how much the rest of the programme's makers knew about their guests and why it was employing Tony Papotto, a showbusiness agent who deals in exotic dancers, and strippagram girls. Mr Papotto, 36, uses the name Michael Phillips and runs an agency called Absolute Entertainers.

Ms Candler claimed yesterday that she found herself on The Vanessa Show after answering Mr Papotto's advert in The Stage newspaper.

Last year the Independent Television Commission warned that the Vanessa programme, then on ITV, was in danger of exploiting its guests. The ITC, which regulates ITV shows, said yesterday it plans to take another look at such shows.

An insider at the BBC yesterday admitted that the revelations had been expected: "The programmes need a huge volume of guests, some are getting through 50 or 60 guests a week. It was inevitable that someone would try to cut some corners. "There is no proof that it is a widespread practice, but there have been suspicions."