What's cookin'?

So Debbie Curry was helping `The Cook Report' investigate chart rigging all along. Good story, or just good television? John McCready reports

Normally content to simply get a microphone up White Van Man's angry nose, Central Television's Cook Report really is feeling like the cat that got the cream. Its investigation into chart-rigging in the pop industry sprawls over two half-hour programmes. After an elaborate and costly set-up, The Cook Report reveals its secretly filmed evidence. The industry's self-regulating watchdog, the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), claims to have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds trying to put a stop to such activities. The Cook Report, however, spends a few grand of its own and breaks new ground in capturing dubious transactions on film.

Reason enough, you'd think, for Cook himself to get to work, putting his famous foot in the door of a record shop near you with a whole list of red-faced accusations. The Cook Report, however, is making a real two- programme meal of things having created its own pop star. Enter Debbie Currie, daughter of former Tory MP Edwina.

Currie, working as a trainee journalist for Central Television who produce The Cook Report, was chosen as a musical stooge despite having no singing voice to speak of. "You Can Do Magic" is a tacky cover version of Limmie and the Family Cookin's Seventies hit. Whether The Cook Report's detailed poptastic set-up was absolutely necessary, or whether it has more to do with "good" television is a good question, when you consider the undisclosed cost of all this.

The record was produced by Mike Stock, formerly of the hit machine team Stock, Aitken and Waterman, who can't have come cheap. Stock, it should be noted, had one of his own records disqualified last year after it was believed to have been "bought" into the chart. The Cook Report financed a lavish promotional video, 30,000 CDs, were manufactured prior to a nine- week press campaign and considerable sums were paid to con men who helped hype the record to a hardly earth-shattering 86 position in the Top 100. "Yes, the costs were huge," says programme producer David Warren. "But you have to consider that not only were we launching a pop career, we were also making an investigative television programme."

The hoax undoubtedly makes some real points. But its success was ensured by a few advantages that even some of the richer independent labels may not have been able to afford.

The press campaign, which took place prior to the release of the record on 19 May, just happened to coincide with the general election. The fact that Edwina's daughter - a dead ringer who, incidentally, leaves you thinking somebody has stuck mother's head on one of the gladiators - had made a record was an almost unnecessary icing on the cake for most of the tabloids. They jumped at the chance of ready-made mother-and-daughter photo sets. During the campaign there were 47 press interviews, 62 night-club appearances, five outdoor festival appearances, 26 radio interviews, 15 TV appearances (step forward a well-fooled Richard and Judy on This Morning) and one walk-on PA at a football match. All this - an MPs daughter working with the full co-operation of her doomed and hence eminently newsworthy mother, and a crack team of experienced journalists effortlessly manipulating familiar ground - made it easy for The Cook Report to establish Debbie Currie as a legitimate pop performer, quickly convincing the necessary key players. "It's true that all this made things a good deal easier for us," says David Warren. "But as far as actually hyping the record is concerned the press campaign had little effect at all."

The programme does tackle some of the real problems. New releases go though distribution companies who demand and receive free records and very favourable deals. Some of the distributors who service the chart- return shops are reported to have demanded a 75 per cent discount (or 12,000 free records) to ensure the single made the shelves. Records were then bought back in bulk from some of those supposedly secret 300 stores by crooked sales teams who regularly take cash payments to hype a record. Eight hundred CDs were retrieved this way resulting in the chart-placing at number 86 . Some shop assistants may take payments to register false sales themselves, sometimes accepting deals where the retailer buys one record and gets up to three or four free.

The chart is compiled by the Chart Information Network (CIN). The programme suggests that, since the CIN is half owned by the BPI, controlled by the five major label groups - Sony, EMI, Polygram, Warner and BMG - these label groups have most to gain from an uncontrolled situation. The stakes are high. It's clear the only solution is a truly independent chart. As things are, once a pop act is broken by such methods they can quickly make millions through spin-off tours, album sales, international licensing and merchandising deals.

"You Can Do Magic", which really sold around 400 copies, is still available from all good record shops, along with a few bad ones. The BPI told The Cook Report that no discrepancies had been discovered during the first few days of its release, despite the fact that David Warren informed me his hype-troopers had bought 15 copies of the record in one shop in "the space of an hour or so". What happens next is anyone's guess as Debbie Currie takes her legitimate chances on the pop charts with only two prime- time half-hour documentaries and more than a few articles like this to help hern

The first part of `The Cook Report' investigation into record hyping is shown on ITV, tomorrow night, 8.30pm. The second part follows on 10 June.

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