How Mrs Bloggs heard the good news

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MARTYN LEWIS is a touch late. It must be some 30 years ago that Godfrey Winn - an ornament in the world of columnists - wrote to the BBC to say that the public was fed up with bad news. He suggested a new programme filled with all the good news that journalists normally discarded. At the time, the BBC was itself searching for a programme that would hold the interest of Eamonn Andrews, who was being wooed by ITV. It felt this idea might fill the bill and a pilot programme was planned.

A key matter was to find someone to run the programme who was untainted by the journalist's habitual search for the dark side of life. Who better than the oddly named Light Entertainment group, with its perennially bright outlook on life?

To find the news itself, it was decided to go to BBC News, then at Alexandra Palace, and co-opt a journalist who could be well controlled by a group of light entertainment optimists. The spinning bone came to rest pointing at me. For a number of days I telephoned all the sources of news and individual journalists I knew, telling them of my pioneer search for good news. The Central Office of Information, I recall, did its best, but most other conversations drew blanks or advice about lying down with aspirins.

I offered what I could to my new masters, but they found my suggestions not exciting enough, not sexy enough, not unusual enough. I returned to my old masters to ask to be relieved of the burden of the work. All sides had gone through the routine arguments of the tediousness of aircraft not crashing, houses not burning, revolutions not happening. All really good news was covered by the media already, I snivelled. I was sent back to try harder.

The optimists were very difficult to please. The only stories that seemed to meet their criteria were medical miracles: blind people recovering their sight or the lame once more being able to walk. Very good news, of course, but it proved always to have been featured long since in the normal bad-news media.

Godfrey Winn had claimed that his postbag alone produced hundreds of good news stories, so I suggested we should take a peek inside it. I was told he was to have his own slot on the programme, interviewing one special recipient of good news; this would be recorded and fed live into the pilot to surprise us all. It turned out to be with a woman suddenly cured of a sad complaint . . . who had spent her suffering years employed by the BBC. This and all the other miracle cures gave the pilot a New Testament feel.

One cheerful contrast I came up with was a group of rather tough-looking motor cyclists with hearts of gold who delivered medicines to old folk in Bath. They did not go down well, however, as they did not look like Good Samaritans and contrasted badly with the common image of residents of Bath.

But I go too fast with my tale. We were not yet at the pilot stage and despondency was spreading among my optimist colleagues. Clearly they felt I had failed them and, floundering in their disdain, I clutched at a passing straw. 'Why don't we make good news happen in front of the audience?' I said, in a moment of unusual quiet in the production office. This caused a sensation. At last, they seemed to be implying during their enthusiastic responses, we are getting to the root of the journalist's craft. This man, for so long scandalously inventing bad news (as they had often suspected) was changing his ways and would now invent some good news.

I continued. 'Let us find some woman struggling against adversity to bring up her family decently in overcrowded and insanitary accommodation, who just happens to be approaching the top of the council house waiting list. Let us bring her to the theatre to hear her good fortune for the first time in front of our cameras and to receive the key to her new house.' The idea was hailed with such enthusiasm that in no time at all several other people claimed to have thought of it.

The job of getting a local authority to let us look for such a worthy woman at the top of its housing list was given to a research assistant who was on a daily contract. In due course a woman was found and fed some story about being picked out at random to attend a pilot show. She was found a baby-sitter and a car to carry her to the BBC Television Theatre. She was guided to the front row, where she sat, grim-faced, clutching a formidable handbag.

Just before the pilot was to start, Eamonn asked: 'Where is the council-house key?' Hastily, I passed the question through the chain of command, ending up with the researcher on the daily contract. The dreadful answer came: he had forgotten to obtain a key. Eamonn, however, was equal to the crisis. He snatched his oversized dressing-room key and cried: 'This will do.' Then he strode on to the stage to launch Good News - the inspiring title for the programme.

The home-made good news was kept to be the grand climax. 'You've been watching good news happening to others,' announced an excited Eamonn, 'but someone here tonight will have good news happen to them.'

He approached the woman with the handbag. 'You, Mrs Bloggs, have long suffered from appalling conditions in your home, but on Monday you will move into a four-bedroom council house. And here is its key]'

As the camera filled the screen with the good lady's expressionless face, she took the immense key, popped it into her handbag and sat absolutely silent until the hesitant curtain fell. It seemed a suitable response to the first and last programme in the Good News series. I feel it would be an intrusion into private grief to dwell on the more unrestrained comments of my news colleagues.

Oh, yes, soon afterwards Eamonn Andrews transferred to ITV. As I was by then back in BBC News at Alexandra Palace, with its tradition of impartiality, I was not free to say whether this was good news or bad.

(Photograph omitted)

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