(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WSN)
At the Edinburgh Fringe in August, there will be a play titled Making News about a newly-installed female Head of News at the BBC who has to handle a breaking story about the corporation itself, a TV reporter frustrated about a story she can no longer sit on and the fallout from the decisions taken that “threatens to bring down the BBC”.
For non-British readers of this blog:
In 2011, the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme Newsnight conducted an investigation into DJ Jimmy Savile, a former Top Of The Pops and Jim’ll Fix It presenter. The investigation was never screened by the BBC. When allegations of paedophilia were subsequently broadcast on ITV, the BBC was accused of a cover-up and another Newsnight report wrongly implicated Conservative politician Lord McAlpine in the widening child abuse scandal.
Making News has been written by Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky, who had a big success at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe with their political play Coalition about a fictional British coalition government. Britain currently has a coalition government.
Robert Khan studied law at university and is now a Labour councillor in Islington. Tom Salinsky studied mathematics and now runs training company The Spontaneity Shop. He also co-wrote The Improv Handbook with Deborah Frances-White.
I had a chat with Robert and Tom at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington last night.
“Mathematics… playwriting… improvisation?” I asked Tom. “They don’t go together.”
“I’ve always liked problem solving,” he replied, “and plotting a play involves quite a lot of problem solving.”
“You talk about careful plotting,” I said, “but you’ve written a book on improvisation and you run a training company called The Spontaneity Shop. So what’s an improvising-type person like you doing writing scripted plays?”
“Improvising,” explained Tom, “is like solving problems at 100mph. Improvisation’s really about making a series of choices and the delightful thing for the audience is they get to see the moment of inspiration – that moment of creativity – actually happen in front of them.
“The sometimes discouraging thing for the improviser is l’esprit de l’escalier – not thinking of the right thing to do until you’re on the bus on the way home. So, writing a scripted play, you don’t get the rush of instantaneous creativity, but you’re able to revise and improve.”
“Making News has a cracking cast of comedians including Phill Jupitus,” I said. “Do you let them improvise?”
“Aahhhhh…..” said Tom and Robert in unison.
“We discourage it,” said Tom. “In rehearsals, anything goes…”
“Yes,” said Robert.
“… but once it’s on stage, it’s discouraged,” continued Tom.
“Heavily discouraged,” agreed Robert.
“Are you frustrated actors yourselves?”
“No,” laughed Robert.
“I am,” said Tom. “Incredibly frustrated as a writer backstage unable to influence events onstage.”
“And you’re both heavily into politics?” I asked.
“I think I’m politically aware,” answered Tom, “whereas Robert is politically active.”
“So why write two plays about politics?” I asked.
“I think it’s interesting to begin with…” started Robert.
“The new play isn’t party political,” Tom corrected me. “It’s current affairs, but it isn’t party political, whereas Coalition was.”
“We were interested,” explained Robert, “in how a large institution that has to report the news impartially reports bad news about itself.”
“And the strange thing is the BBC does,” I said.
“Oh yes,” said Robert. “I imagine the debates internally are quite difficult.”
“There’s a sort of Catholic guilt about it,” suggested Tom, “that they have to be particularly fearless when they have to report bad news about themselves.”
“Have either of you worked for the Beeb?” I asked.
“No,” said Robert.
“I’ve not been a salaried employee,” said Tom, “but, in my capacity as corporate trainer I’ve worked for all sorts of bits of the BBC – picture research, BBC Worldwide, current affairs… They hired my company for training.”
“Picture research?” I asked, surprised.
“One of their big problems,” explained Tom, “was that the people making the programmes wouldn’t co-operate with them. The conversation would go:
- We want to take a picture of this big star
- He’s not available….
- Then we’ll have no pictures of him to give to the press…
- Well tough.
…so our job was to go in and help them build stronger relationships.”
“What was the logic,” I asked, “behind saying We’re not going to promote our own thing?”
“Well,” explained Tom, “and it’s something we explore in the play… the BBC don’t see themselves as part of one big Corporation. They see themselves as a bunch of loosely-associated but basically independent units all looking out for themselves.”
“It’s true of all large organisations,” said Robert. “You break down into smaller units. It’s the only way human beings can operate… and you then become competitors.”
“So what’s your insight into BBC News?” I asked.
“Well,” said Tom, “we’ve certainly spoken to a few people.”
“But we can’t talk about that,” Robert told me.
“Some fairly senior people within News,” Tom added.
“Have you talked to any of the people you’re parodying?” I asked.
There was a long pause.
“As with Coalition,” said Tom, “we’re not parodying any particular individual. We’re looking at the roles. The hero of Coalition wasn’t based on Nick Clegg. It was an answer to the question What pressures would somebody IN THAT POSITION feel? Likewise, in Making News, we have a Director General, a Head of News, but they aren’t specifically based on any present or past people.”
“And we stress that very heavily,” said Robert, carefully.
“We are looking,” said Tom, “at What does being in that position do to you? When you come under these pressures, how might you react?
“I don’t think we need to do a pastiche of real characters,” said Robert.
“We create our own characters to inhabit those roles,” agreed Tom.
“It could be a tragedy rather than a comedy,” I said.
“Well, the difference is very small,” said Tom. “There’s a quote in the play that Labour governments resent what they see as the BBC’s lofty patrician heritage and try to cut the Licence Fee and Conservative governments think the BBC is a seething bed of Leftie hotheads and try to cut the Licence Fee.”
“If you have a state broadcaster that’s independent,” said Robert, “it’s always going to sooner or later rub-up the elected government the wrong way. And long may that continue.”
“I felt sorry for the extraordinarily inept Director General George Entwhistle,” I said, “because he got crucified for saying I didn’t feel it was my position to ask any questions – but that’s the DG’s cleft stick at the BBC. If he interferes in producers’ independence, he’s wrong; if he doesn’t interfere in producers’ actions, he’s wrong.”
“It’s a very, very difficult job,” agreed Robert.
“When did you start writing Making News?” I asked.
“During the Edinburgh run of Coalition last August,” said Tom.
“So before George Entwhistle became DG?” I said.
“Yes,” said Robert. “Way before the Jimmy Savile scandal.”
“Operation Yewtree,” added Tom, “cast a slightly distasteful shadow over the idea. We don’t go near any of that sex stuff in Making News. It would have been difficult to make that funny and it wasn’t what we wanted to write about.”
“The stakes are very high for the BBC,” said Robert. “Three Director Generals in the last 20 years have had to resign – essentially been sacked – Alasdair Milne, Greg Dyke, George Entwhistle. That’s quite a dramatic organisation to work for.”
“For a long time,” said Tom, “we were going to cast the Director General as the central figure. By this time, Entwhistle was DG. We thought we’d do A Year in The Life of a DG, ending in ignominy… and then he resigns after 54 days… We’d been trumped by reality! We had to more-or-less start again from scratch at that point.”
“Do you envisage a TV version of Making News?” I asked.
“I don’t think it would be on the BBC!” laughed Robert.
“Why not?” I asked. “They’d be dramatising themselves honestly and fairly.”
“Self-flagellation can only go so far,” Robert said. “Scotland on Sunday asked them about our play and the BBC issued a statement saying: This is not something we would comment on.”
“In Edinburgh last year,” said Tom, “we had both The Culture Show and Late Review come to see Coalition… It will be interesting to see if they turn up for Making News. They may feel completely happy to review it impartially or they may get the hump.”
“In the end,” said Robert, “this is more affectionate than Coalition was. We do hold the BBC in huge respect and affection.”
And so do I.