EDINBURGH FESTIVAL / Doing the channel hop: This year the Television Festival will be dominated by the dreaded C-word: Carlton. Mark Lawson reports

Mark Lawson
Friday 26 August 1994 23:02

At this moment, as readers of this newspaper may have noticed, thousands of school-leavers are currently involved in Ucas: the central clearing system for available college places. Well, the Edinburgh International Television Festival is a kind of Ucas for the TV industry: an annual clearing house for ambitions, dreams, projects, and resentments. Future careers may depend - it is widely believed by those who work in television - on decisions and contacts made in these few days.

The lobby of Edinburgh's George Hotel, the conference's central venue, becomes a kind of upmarket Job Centre, fitted out with a champagne bar and hot roast beef sandwich stall, around which applications are made and interviews conducted. Although attendance comes expensive, the attraction of the EITF to younger industry types is access. For example, reliable sources indicate that Michael Jackson, the controller of BBC 2, does not have a lunch slot available in London until 14 March 1996. In Edinburgh, however, he can be approached in the George Hotel lobby, generally after a queue of no more than two hours.

But the Edinburgh International Television Festival is not just about career advancement and heavy drinking. It is a constant sadness to those who work in TV that, though the network schedules are full of earnest discussion programmes, almost none of them are about television, the subject being regarded as too incestuous for a general audience. The EITF, however, effectively consists of three days of 90-minute discussion programmes about the state of the medium.

Last year's Festival was, unlike most, genuinely dramatic, with two sessions that attracted interest in the outside world. The Festival's keynote speech, the MacTaggart Memorial Lecture, was delivered by Dennis Potter. Not yet aware of the cancer that would kill him before the next Festival, the playwright was a stinging detective, investigating the work and personalities of John Birt and Rupert Murdoch, whom he regarded as the twin devils of British television. Next day, Birt himself took questions on a public stage for the first time since his tax embarrassments earlier in the year.

With Potter dead and Birt having secured the renewal of the BBC Charter, the 1994 Festival should be a quiet one for the Corporation, and looks likely to be much more timid overall. The focus shifts to ITV. Greg Dyke, former chief of London Weekend Television, was Potter's successor as last night's MacTaggart Lecturer. Dyke, who left LWT following its hostile takeover by Granada, can be expected to be present in the Adam Room of the George Hotel at 4.30pm today, for a question and answer session with Charles Allen of Granada, his replacement at LWT.

Commercial television's dreaded C-word - Carlton - comes under scrutiny, in a session called: 'So What Was Wrong With Hollywood Women?' Carlton's factual series Hollywood Women was singled out by the regulatory body the ITC as symbolic of the new commercial barbarism of ITV documentary. This session, however, will apparently attempt to defend the series. In my view, defending O J Simpson would be easier, and so this may be the most perversely interesting session of the Festival.

Another session is called 'The Carlton Television Stand Up Comedy Hour.' Rumours that this consists of the Carlton bosses reading out their autumn schedules, to incredulous laughter from delegates, have been denied. The event apparently consists of young comedians in performance. Further rumours that the worst comedian of the night will be offered a series by Carlton have also been denied.

The most intriguing sessions are two in which the radio and television presenter David Mellor gets to pretend that he is still Heritage Secretary: the job from which he resigned amid scandal in 1992. On Sunday, Mellor will hear evidence from industry experts on what a revised Broadcasting Act might contain. Then, overnight, Mellor will actually draft such an Act, and unveil it at a further session on Monday. The sessions themselves may well be horribly dull, but Mellor's participation can be taken as a first public admission of how much, despite now being a highly paid and busy broadcaster, the politician misses the Cabinet.

As always, there are also a number of what might be called 'Dr Ruth sessions', in which different genres of television worry about whether they are getting enough, and how their techniques can be improved. In 'Arts - The Next Generation', the editors of the BBC 2 arts series Arena discuss how to keep a series inventive and mutually satisfying after a 15-year relationship. 'Whose News Is it Anyway?' asks whether BBC, ITN, and Sky all share the same news standards and agenda. Sadly, the panel lacks Kelvin MacKenzie, which would have been fun, but he is already the hot tip for next year's MacTaggart Lecture.

(Photograph omitted)

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