Knives are out for the BBC bosses

Former director-general Alasdair Milne gives Raymond Snoddy his frank opinion of the men who have been running the corporation over the years
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The Independent Online

Alasdair Milne, the BBC director-general who was fired during the Thatcher era, has taken his revenge on his tormentors and given his assessment on the BBC bosses of the modern era.

Milne told a private gathering of veterans of the Royal Television Society that, among the director-generals, he admired Hugh Carleton Greene because he loved That Was the Week That Was and fought with the governors all the time. Charles Curran was merely a bureaucrat while Ian Trethowan was a skilled diplomat with close Conservative links. Michael Checkland was dismissed as "an accountant" but Milne was most voluble about Lord Birt, or Blue Skies Birt as he called him.

Milne recalled how years ago he had told Birt he thought his thesis calledBias Against Understanding was "balls actually". Apart from paying consultants McKinsey a lot of money to restructure the BBC, Birt did little good for the BBC, apart perhaps from the internet, is the Milne assessment.

When he attended the BBC's 75th anniversary celebrations, the then chairman Sir Christopher Bland had made a point of coming over and having a word.

"Birt was standing beside me and never spoke a word. He is the most graceless man I have ever known. Ghastly man," said Milne emphatically. Then Greg Dyke, who like Milne was forced to resign, arrived and was wonderful because he was cheerful and jolly and looked after staff.

As for the chairmen, Michael Swann, was a good committee man; George Howard was wonderful and "ponced around in a long kaftan" while Stuart Young was "a sad case " - a brilliant accountant who didn't know how to conduct business. As for Marmaduke Hussey, who fired him, Milne asked: "What can I say about Hussey? Not a lot."

What about the present BBC chairman Michael Grade?

"Chairman Grade I call him," said Milne who told how he "roughed him up" over lunch about the current state of BBC drama and comedy.

"He agreed with me on the whole. I reminded him that he was the man who killed off Doctor Who. I was furious at the time. He said in his own defence: 'But I also commissioned Alan Bleasdale and The Boys from the Black Stuff.'"

Apart from the Lords Birt and Hussey you only have to mention the word Shakespeare at the moment to Milne and he is instantly back to his combative best. In 1980 it was Milne who presided over the broadcast on BBC2 of the entire Shakespeare canon with the finest actors and actresses of the day. Nowadays it seems to be a case of Shakespeare Retold.

"I think it's preposterous and perverse and foolish to reject the greatest dramatist that has ever lived and have him rewritten," insists Milne, who ran BBC Television before becoming director-general in 1982. "Some clown was quoted as saying the other day he was making Shakespeare more accessible. He's been accessible, for Christ's sake, for 400 years and they don't need to do that," snorts Milne.

The two approaches to broadcasting Shakespeare sum up for Milne a profound change at the BBC and one he obviously believes is to its detriment.

At the age of 75 Alasdair Milne absolutely believes there was a golden age of BBC programming and that he was right in the middle of it.

"For about 25 years we did the best comedy, the best drama and the rest of it. I have been very critical of the recent dramatic output of BBC Television and comedy seems to be very thin. There are endless programmes about housing, gardens and cooking. Bleak House is a move forward, but on the whole the stuff has been pretty thin."

During his time there were controversial programme purchases such as The Thorn Birds, but there was also Play of the Week and great comedies such as Only Fools and Horses, Open All Hours and Porridge.

Rome, the co-production with HBO of the US, is another current series that attracts his ire. "I turned it off after 15 minutes because it's rubbish, historically inaccurate and done simply to titillate American taste," he says with passion.

The former director-general may qualify as a "grumpy old man" but he denies being a misogynist. He hit the headlines when he appeared to blame the BBC's female television executives for the "terrible" programmes now being broadcast.

"What I actually said was that the three people who had run the television service for the past four or five years had not, it seemed to me, done a marvellous job. I would have said the same if they had been mice or men. They happened to be women and then I was stitched up by The Times," claims Milne.

In his own career he was proudest of programmes such as Tonight, That Was the Week That Was and the historical series The Great War. Yet whatever Alasdair Milne achieved over a 34-year BBC career will always be overshadowed by his furious rows with Mrs Thatcher and his dramatic departure. As deputy director-general there was a fraught appearance before the Conservative backbench committee with George Howard when the two men were savaged for the BBC's Falklands war coverage. When the patrician Howard was called "a traitor" by one MP, the BBC chairman replied: "Stuff you."

After being appointed director-general Milne was told by Mrs Thatcher said that if the licence fee ever went above £100 it would be intolerable. Milne warned her that if Rupert Murdoch were ever to be licensed to run a satellite service aimed at the UK he would charge multiples of the BBC licence fee. "Nonsense" replied Mrs Thatcher.

There was another row, and libel action, over Panorama's Maggie's Militant Tendency which accused MPs Neil Hamilton and Gerald Howarth of extreme right-wing links. The case cost the BBC £50,000 in damages and £250,000 in costs after "the governors instructed me to pull out".

There was another spat over the Secret Society series, particular a programme about the Zircon spy satellite. But the bitterest row was over Real Lives, the documentary banned by the BBC governors while Milne was on holiday.

He had called his deputy Michael Checkland and told him: "Would you mind telling the governors in Reith's famous phrase that they are advisory not executive and get the meeting cancelled. He (Checkland) said I can't," Milne recalled.

When the reassembled governors refused to rescind the ban after minor modifications to the programme, Milne contemplated resignation but decided it was unfair to leave someone else with the mess. When it was eventually transmitted no one batted an eyelid.

He became the first director-general to be fired in modern times on 29 January 1987. There was no warning except that at the routine governors' meeting that morning Duke Hussey had been fiddling with his papers in a funny way. And when asked to go and see Hussey by the BBC secretary Patricia Hodgson, she had called him "Alasdair". She had never done that before.

"Hussey said this is going to be a very difficult interview. His lip was trembling and I thought, 'What are they talking about?' And he said, 'We want you to leave immediately,'" remembers Milne. Taken by surprise, rather than fight he signed the resignation letter and went home.

Milne believed it was a combination of Maggie's Militant Tendency andSecret Society that probably ended his BBC career. "But I don't think they trusted me any more. So I presume that's why I got the boot."

After his departure at the age of 56 Milne thought he would find something else to do but it never happened. "So I decided to go and spend the summer fishing and the winter shooting in beloved Scotland and wrap up that end of my life," he said.

A longer version of this article appears in Television, the journal of the Royal Television Society