Media: New Deal's cool by me

Simon Watson had a bright idea for rock TV. Now he's a shining example of New Labour's back-to-work ethic, writes Paul McCann
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The Independent Online
It is a tale to warm the cockles of a New Labour heart. It has everything: the Cool Britannia totems of rock bands and television; young unemployed folk managing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps; and, most important of all, a New Deal success story.

Simon Watson is a 23-year-old from Rotherham who had a very good idea for a television programme. But, unlike everyone else who has a good idea for a television programme, he actually did something about it.

His idea was to have a TV music show that would travel across Britain looking at the music scene in each city. As well as retrospectives, clips and interviews about all the big bands that came from each week's host city, there would also be live music by the current up-and-coming outfits, even those without record contracts.

As a physics graduate whose experience of television amounted to doing volunteer work for film students - largely making sandwiches - initial efforts to get the project off the ground were predictably shaky.

Sheffield Council has been trying to encourage the creative industries to set up in town and to that end created a media village and administrative centre to help people like Simon out. At first funding bodies and advisers in the city pretty much laughed him out of their offices.

To add insult to injury, his job centre would not countenance giving him benefits if he was working to set himself up in business rather than out looking for work each day. "Instead they told me to take a job collecting glasses in a nightclub."

Then things changed. He got a partner with film industry experience and, instead of talking to Yorkshire's various film and television quangos, talked directly to record companies.

This was another very good idea. "We are always screaming out for exposure for new acts," says David Wibley, head of A&R at Richard Branson's new record label V2. "At the same time there are plenty of parts of the country that, even with the best will in the world, you just don't get to, so the record industry will just eat this programme up."

As well as record industry encouragement, Simon's relentless search for funding, advice and support garnered him some friends. Ian Anderson, the designer of album covers for Pulp, Supergrass and the Shamen, agreed to design the programme's look for free. Film students from the Northern Media School - where Simon made those sandwiches - helped with the making of the pilot. Workstation, part of the Sheffield media village, gave him office space, and The Leadmill, Sheffield's long-established nightclub, let him film a pilot in the club for nothing.

"I think people just liked the idea of the programme." says Simon. "Why else would they rally round for total unknowns?"

Steadily, a pilot budgeted at pounds 70,000 - "I think the most I'd ever had to my name at that point was pounds 100," says Simon - was being made for pounds 5,000.

But real help came in the form of Daryl Deaton his so-called New Deal Adviser. Under the Gateway part of the Welfare to Work legislation introduced by the Labour government, it was not only possible for Simon to receive benefits while trying to get his programme made, but he was also put on business courses and given advice to set himself up as a limited company.

Never one to miss a trick in pursuit of publicity and friends, Simon then used his New Deal experience to write to Education and Training Secretary David Blunkett, singing the praises of the scheme. Blunkett passed his letter to Andrew Smith, Minister for Employment, who called to wish him luck with a screening of his pilot and promised to keep an interest in the project.

Simon is genuine in his praise of the New Deal, but his story still sounds like it was written by Alastair Campbell, the PM's top spin doctor. So it shouldn't be too surprising if Simon and his programme end up in a promotional video or election broadcast. Simon, you suspect, would lap up the publicity.

Last week he gave the first screening of his pilot to the record industry and independent producers in Sheffield. "I was worried that it might be embarrassingly amateur," says V2's David Wibley, "but it could easily have been broadcast. It has some flaws and could do with more history and less of the new bands. Bizarrely its history of the Sheffield music scene didn't mention Def Leppard."

But Wibley is convinced that the show is much better than most music formats currently on television, and he thinks Simon has what it takes to get it made. "He is infinitely polite, yet also incredibly pushy. He has an iron fist in an incredibly velvet glove." Something else that ought to endear him to New Labour.