Myths of Media Scotland, from Mentorn to Still Game
The very notion that shifting Channel 4’s HQ from London would make a Glasgow a rival to the City of London and the massive global corporations that control ‘our’ media is utterly farcical, argues Ewen McLachlan, with a recent history lesson as example.
Nearly 20 years ago, at the 1999 Celtic Film and TV Festival, held at the Aros centre, just outside of Portree on the Isle of Skye, the then Controller of BBC Scotland, John McCormick gave an impassioned speech proclaiming the advent of digital television and the possibilities of how life changing it would become for both viewers and Scottish film and television creators. His speech, to the assembled good and great from the world of Celtic broadcasting, took place at a time when broadcasting had been reserved to Westminster, with Donald Dewar, Scotland’s first minister leading the charge for London control, defending the decision from Messrs Blair and Birt, by giving it the subtle kick of death that has inspired embittered dependence supporters ever since, “I am not saying that devolving broadcasting would necessarily mean ‘kailyard programming.’”
On the Scottish Six, the Reverend Norman Drummond, national governor for the Broadcasting Council Scotland (BCS) was optimistic that the Scottish Six was merely a decision delayed, saying: ”My personal view is that it will one day happen.” BBC network, as a sop to the uppity Jocks and much to Jeremy Paxman’s eternal annoyance, granted BBC2 Scotland an ever time expanding 15-25 minutes opt out for Newsnight Scotland. This pathetic excuse of an intelligent analysis of the days news limped on for another 15 years before someone had the decency to unplug the life support. The SNP criticised Newsnicht as an alternative to the Scottish Six as ‘window dressing’. The Scottish Tory leader, David McLetchie saw the sense of having a dedicated Scottish Six. Polls at the time showed a clear majority in favour of real changes at BBC Scotland. McLetchie said: ”By failing to listen to those voices and those of its own staff, I fear they may be making a grave mistake as this could well lead to a rift between London and Scotland – a rift none of us sought and one which will only be welcomed by the separatists of the SNP.” The Scottish Lib Dems, back when they had some actual integrity, called it a ”classic London Establishment fix-up” and blamed a ”control freak tendency” at the BBC.
At the time, BBC Scotland was riding high on the critical success of such dramas as ‘Looking After Jo Jo’ and their own commissioned film about two old folk and their wild romps in the Highlands, the Oscar nominated ‘Mrs Brown’. McCormick spoke about the enduring idea of the Scottish Six and BBC Choice Scotland. ‘Choice’ was the newly fangled digital channel that was being watched by a live audience of maybe ten crew members in a Merchant City basement and a half dozen techs in a broadcasting suite somewhere in the bowels of TV centre London. I recall being interviewed on the Beat Room, with Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub, about the cultural impact of horror/musical/horror ‘The Wicker man’ (I think Norman’s newly born daughter was named Willow after one of the characters in the film) by a somewhat whimsical Duglas T Stewart. The Beat Room was a fantastic if rather erratic offering. The late Ian Smith, founder of cultural agitators ‘Mischief La Bas’ was perfecting his MC Max Miller routine. I’ll admit to nearly losing it when Ian pointed it out in an overly dramatic sotto voce, how similar poor Vic Goddard of Subway Sect looked in profile to Max Shreck’s ‘Nosferatu’.
Despite broadcasting being reserved there was a real energy in the Scottish film and TV industry at the time. The industry bible ‘Film Bang’ was chockfull of aspirant auteurs determined to become the next Michael Caton-Jones or Peter Mullan. Muriel Grey spoke at the Celtic festival about the need for younger and new writers, directors and producers to get out there and grasp the opportunities. She told the assembled wannabes not to become “old farts” like her. She was right, kit was cheaper and the possibility of multi-channel digital broadcasting channels was strooned across the horizon, the future looked exceedingly rosy. BBC Scotland had staved off a deal to move their Scottish HQ to Edinburgh and were soon to sign the deal that would see them shift from what is now Stefan King’s somewhat opulent west end pied-a-terre into a shiny new waterfront building at Pacific Quay, which some may recall was referred to as the ‘most technically advanced digital studio in Europe’. Stuart Cosgrove, then Channel 4’s head of programmes for Nations and Regions, had rented office space in Glasgow the year before and was looking to shift a certain percentage of productions outside of the M25. It’s fair to say that despite broadcasting being reserved to London, it looked to have an exciting and possibly bright future in Scotland. Fast forward to this morning and I as I feed my Twitter addiction, I see with some dismay, an article written by the Herald’s Chief reporter, the estimable David Leask, under the blatantly stupid headline, ‘Glasgow bids for new Channel 4 HQ as it aims to be Britain’s media capital’.
Where do you start with this breath-taking triumph of misdirected muddle headed stupefaction?
Glasgow will be one of fourteen cities bidding for this opportunity. Whilst I admire the cities new SNP civic leaders’ ambitions to build a media city, the very notion that a broadcasting corporation regulated exclusively by Westminster will up sticks to a shiny building on the Clyde is farcical, particularly when there is a plethora of shiny waterfront buildings in Bristol, Salford, Belfast, Cardiff and Birmingham all waiting to be filled. London as ever will remain in charge. The last big deregulation of broadcasting saw the rise of the Indy producers as the BBC opened itself up to outside forces, meaning that Indy production companies, usually owned up by recently pensioned off BBC senior employees, could bid for commissions from Auntie. The BBC further shed itself of programme making abilities by turning BBC Resources into a glorified kit hire company. The new metropolitan broadcasting Indy elites deigned to throw some bones furth of London yet still somehow managed to keep the reins tight and the vast majority of income flowed directly back into their coffers. In Scotland we had production companies that appeared overnight and were soon seen as ‘fronts’ for London media companies who pitched for programme commissions courtesy of a Glasgow postcode and an intern with a filofax. A handful of proper Independent Scottish production companies did exist. Gallus Besom begat Ideal World and soon a merger with Wark Clements created IWC Media. For a few short years it looked as if Scottish produced content had a chance. This entity lasted for a few years before the big boys in the shape of RDF media came a calling with a cheque allegedly bearing the number 12 followed by six zeros.
What was seen as the perfect aspirational model headed by two feisty Network friendly Scottish women and their hubbies soon became part of Big Media and the nail in the coffin of genuine Indy Scottish productions, well those with clout and influence was lost seemingly forever. RDF Media were eventually swallowed up by the French corporation Zodiak Media, who in turn merged with multinational conglomerate the Banijay Group, who revel in their reputation as ‘the world’s largest independent content creation Group for television and multimedia platforms’. If the name seems familiar, have a look at the end credits of Chewing the Cud/Still Game, produced by what is imaginatively named The Comedy Unit which grew out of BBC Scotland’s old err comedy unit. Hands up all those keenly anticipating Jonathon Watson’s Alex McLeish impersonation next Hogmanay… This eternal homage to the Glesga patter is also owned by the all-conquering global concern the Banijay group.
We’re forever told that the BBC produces so much content outside of London and that BBC Scotland is a great contributor to this, yet scrutiny of this claim is easily unfurled. Some readers may remember the stushie when ‘The Weakest Link’ was deemed to be a Scottish production, when the production team and presenter flew up from leafy Pinewood in Suffolk to Glasgow. Anne Robinson, the matriarchal S&M like presenter, was rumoured to have refused to stay in anything less than the 5star Blythswood Square Hotel at an eye watering £1500 per night. She soon tired of this and retired again and the show was quietly shelved. The BBC most revered politics programme, Question Time, the last bastion of fair and balanced coverage ever… is deemed, for accountability reasons, to be a Scottish production.
It does give David Dimblebot an opportunity to visit his daughter in Glasgow whenever he’s dragged up to Pacific Quay for production meetings. A close look at the end titles reveal that this BBC Scotland production is actually commissioned out to “Indy” producer Mentorn. Mentorn have their HQ in London. Alongside the iconic BBC Question Time, they also produce such prestigious programming as ‘Underage and Pregnant’, ‘My Big Fat Cycling Challenge’ and ‘Greggs: More than Meats the Pie’ among a plethora of other similarly classic British TV productions that genuinely bring a tear to the een. Intriguingly Mentorn are actually owned by Tinopolis, a Welsh production company that via a partnership with private equity company Vitruvian Partners managed to sook up just about every Welsh Indy producer going. Vitruvian Partners, if you’re interested, with only 34 employees and equity in the billion pound range normally invests in such life enhancing companies as OpenBet and Inspired Gaming, companies at the forefront of the online gambling sector that blights so many families throughout the UK. So get your lugs around this. The BBC’s most revered programme, charged with ensuring unbiased debate for the UK’s political classes, has been ultimately controlled by a private equity company, who only cashed in their stake in Tinopolis last Autumn…
The very notion that shifting Channel 4’s HQ from London would make a Glasgow a rival to the City of London and the massive global corporations that control ‘our’ media is utterly farcical, particularly as there’s a decent chance they would presumably want to relocate back to the rump UK if and when the Scottish electorate finally acquire the testicular fortitude to vote Yes in the next Independence referendum. The only way Scotland and Glasgow can boost our economy, cultural standing and find employment for the hundreds of young people our colleges and universities are churning out via media study courses, is the devolution of broadcasting. As the SNP used to say, “It’s Time.”