Wednesday 22 March 1995
What's up with Michael Heseltine? I sped off to a Royal Television Society do on Monday night, where he was the after-dinner speaker, expecting some useful insights into the business of broadcasting. Only to endure a half-hour of boring, embarrassing nothingness. The President of the Board of Trade, who is (was?) a man capable of rousing Tory party conferences to ecstasy, seemed a changed creature. Just 18 months ago - blithely ignoring the fact that broadcasting falls under the National Heritage Department - he was calling conferences of broadcasting's top executives, Michael Grade, John Birt and Michael Green, urging them to think media, think globally. On Monday night, by contrast, he sounded desperate to avoid stepping on the toes of Stephen Dorrell, National Heritage Secretary. I found that my hosts, who had assembled the UK's TV establishment in the Royal Lancaster Hotel, were equally bemused. No, that is too polite: they were livid. And I discovered that someone who should have been at the dinner backed out because they had endured a dire Heseltine speech to the Royal College of Art last week, which resulted in senior guests jeering. My theory about the poor showing at the RTS is that since Heseltine and Dorrell are both beleaguered pro-European wets, the President of the Board of Trade doesn't want to pick a quarrel. But two bad performances in a row suggests he at least needs a new speech writer.
I called in on friends at noon on Saturday, to find them eating lunch. The husband was off to Twickenham for the Five Nations Cup rugby championship. It was the first I'd realised that the event was taking place (Cheltenham and Crufts are more my kind of thing). By Monday morning British Telecom was screening a television commercial showing the rugby highlights, with the slogan "the historic match: its 1 to remember". BT's ad agency, Abbott Mead Vickers, boasted that the match "joined other momentous events like England winning the World Cup, man's first moon landing and Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s saying there would not be a woman prime minister in her lifetime". I'm amazed. They live in at least as blinkered a world as I do. And is British Telecom really English Telecom?
For the past two weekends I've had a sad collapse in my social life. I went to a Scottish dance night a year ago, and enjoyed it so much that when the parent-teacher association wanted volunteers to help to run a family barn dance, I instantly put up my hand. I even thought I could be promoting a new trend - soon everybody would be doing it, I believed confidently. I set to work planning the supplies of baked potatoes and fillings, how to decorate a hall with bales of hay, and booking the £300 band. It was all going wonderfully.
Except that no one bought any tickets for my event. We had to call the whole thing off.
And the subsequent Saturday? The barn dance at my second daughter's school was also cancelled, also from lack of interest. My jaundiced theory is that over-stressed, overweight men don't want to be winkled out on a Saturday night to jog about.
Casting around for something else to do with the children, we reluctantly gave in to their demands and made two visits to fairgrounds - a recipe for terminal depression. Wading around in ankle-deep mud as avaricious stallholders fleece you is hell on wheels, though the children of course adore every last sticky bit of pink candyfloss. And since one of them won a cuddly toy lion for an outlay of 20p, they are clamouring to know when they can go again. When you are old enough to go on your own, I reply.
To a classic Italian restaurant, Bertorelli's in Covent Garden, for the tastiest lunch I've had for ages. My host, Michele Romaine, 37, is the first woman to be appointed by the BBC to the tough middle-management job of head of centre (she runs regional TV and radio in London and the South-east). Put two working mothers together and we instantly switch into bores-of-the-week mode, obsessively debating about never having time for ourselves. But her real problem is that her husband, a naval officer, is away at sea, leaving her in sole charge of her small daughter at their distant home in Wiltshire. Her solution is to draft in her mother during the week. Behind some successful career women, it seems, there are self-sacrificing grandmothers, holding the hearth together.
Having mastered that challenge, Ms Romaine now has to work out how to meet 8 per cent budget cuts in BBC local radio by merging Radio Oxford and Radio Berkshire into a new station called Radio Thames Valley (in reality Radio M40 Commuter Corridor). This merger is clearly daft, and has already provoked attacks from Douglas Hurd, the Bishop of Oxford and the heads of Oxford colleges. I don't see the point of the BBC doing local radio unless the stations are anchored in real places. If it can't afford all of them, then it should shut down the newcomer Radio Berkshire, or hand over the frequency to a commercial operator who can use it better.
Last week I wrote about how Bristol's venerable zoo faces a challenge from a new electronic zoo. My reminiscence about the shock of a parrot grabbing my finger prompted Independent reader Roy Gibbs to write and tell me how the zoo plays a significant part in Peter Nichols' play Born in the Gardens. The play, with undertones of adultery, bisexuality, troilism, incest and child abuse, is set in Bristol and concerns a dotty mum, Maud, her stay-at-home son Mo, and his twin sister Queenie. At Dad's funeral they recall a visit to Bristol zoo and its star attraction, the great ape.
Maud: "You remember Alfred the gorilla?"
Mo: "Very clearly indeed. He hit me with a turd once. A vile-tempered beast I thought. I was very relieved when they stuffed him and put him in the city museum."
Queenie: "Your temper wouldn't be so good if you'd been given life imprisonment for nothing."
It makes me feel grateful that I escaped with just a pecked finger.
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