Keeping Score

Alistair McGown on the impetus behind the BFI Television Handbook 2005

First published December 2004

What a TV year it’s been: when it comes to looking at the period covering September 2003 to August 2004, you realise that when it began Granada and Carlton were still vying for ownership of ITV, Greg Dyke was BBC DG and Big Brother had just completed a dull and difficult fourth season.

But was anyone keeping score? Tumultuous recent events of all kinds have a habit of nonetheless becoming tomorrow’s chip-wrappings and in later years they’ll be subject to hazy memories, nostalgia and post-rationalisation. In TV Land, publications like The Guardian, Broadcast and Televisual all ably chart the latest news on a daily, weekly and monthly basis respectively, creating a permanent record of the media landscape.

If you’ve ever tried to research any aspect of even TV’s recent past however you’ll be faced with a trawl through the back copies of those periodicals, a wade through stacks of Radio Times or, if it’s really important, numerous enquiries aimed at the overworked Information Officers at the BFI in Stephen Street. Your research can become a slog that owes as much to good fortune as hard graft – a bit of a nightmare all told.

When I began mapping out the very, very long shortlist of what was to be included in The Hill and Beyond: Children’s Television Drama – an Encyclopedia (published 2003 by the BFI) among the earliest research sources I consulted in Glasgow’s Mitchell Library were the annual yearbooks published for the BBC and ITV throughout the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. The ITV/IBA books in particular weren’t just beautifully illustrated nostalgia pieces but in the intervening years since their publication had matured with age to become genuinely important books of record that mapped out the programme highlights, changing policies and advancing technologies of each respective year from 1963 to 1988. As far as children’s programmes went, there in black and white on a page or so of the ’60s and ’70s volumes was a list of all the shows made by the ITV companies in the previous 12 months, complete with rough transmission details. In just a few easily accessible books could be found a roadmap of the previous 25 years of children’s TV, made from a contemporary viewpoint. And, if I wanted it, every other genre of programming.

The 1990s by comparison, despite supposedly being in the recent memory, were a tricky proposition. With the yearbooks of both ITV and the BBC having been discontinued in the previous decade the ’90s proved to be a hard slog; the “roadmap” lost, research owed much to personal recollection and video collections. Radio Times, a multi channel listings magazine from March 1991, was finding it difficult to strike a balance between channel coverage and programme detail in that decade – now we came across ITV series made by unknown franchises and indies, created by uncredited writers and directors.

In the darkest hours of The Hill and Beyond’s creation, I grew to curse the death of the yearbook.

And it was that thought which flashed through my mind when the BFI’s then Head of Publishing, Andrew Lockett, took me to lunch while up on a visit to Glasgow University in the Summer of 2003, and asked if I would be interested in editing and designing a TV yearbook for them. Andrew thought that such a wide industry as UK television was shortchanged by the current format of the BFI Film & TV Handbook. Edited by Eddie Dyja for the previous few years, these annuals had become an industry standard. Largely constructed as directories of contact information for industry and academia, Eddie’s frontispiece overviews were models of economy, but could only go into so much detail within the few pages available to TV. Andrew had been investigating the possibility of a book that could look at TV in depth, providing commentary and context as well as useful reference data. Informally sounding out BFI colleagues over a two-year period, the idea took shape in Andrew’s mind. It was apparently the completion of The Hill and Beyond, which I had not only written (assisted by Mark Docherty) but also designed and laid out, that convinced him he had found his TV Handbook Editor. How could I refuse?

I reckoned the challenge that faced us was to almost counter the speed of the web age – these days we seem to be surrounded by more information than ever before, with newsbites delivered at ever increasing speed, with veracity sometimes coming a poor second. I mean this very day – 29 November for the record – as I write, everyone’s claiming Top of the Pops has been axed – sorry, the full story is far more complex than that but factoids win out. It seems as if there are fewer “time-outs” for meaningful discussion, for providing commentary to make sense of all this information and set it in a useful context.

The site you are reading now, OTT, is itself a reaction to the soundbite and info dump mentality that the speed and accessibility of the web seems to promote.

Obviously, we would need to go some way beyond a well-meaning tribute to Eric Croston (Editor of the ITV yearbooks from 1963 to 1985) – his publications were an idealised report on ITV’s performance; far more meaningful than a puff piece but certainly overwhelmingly positive in its reporting. What we wanted was independent critique and review alongside factual lists of data, not only recording programmes, policies and personalities but attempting to interpret and assess them. At our first lunch meeting I suggested Andrew look up Dick Fiddy’s 1985 The Television Yearbook in the BFI library – this was a one-off experiment from Virgin books that sadly never begat a regular annual. I’d long had a copy on my reference shelves and reckoned this would provide an excellent template moving forward. And so it proved.

So what happened in 1984? Thanks to Dick’s book we can look back and see that his team of writers were excited about Cheers, The Detective, Edward Lear – On the Edge of the Sand and Max Headroom but turned off by Dempsey & Makepeace and Surprise, Surprise! What a valuable snapshot of the time. That’s what I wanted us to provide and hopefully we’ve done so. It’s tricky to provide a balance between an objective record of what was around and some subjective comment on whether it was any good – although referencing the wider reaction of viewers and the critics can be useful – but hopefully we’ve made a good stab at it for a first go without the need to come across like those rather arch and sneery newspaper reviewers. I chose to rein in the comments of our comedy correspondent Phil Wickham, who (understandably) went to town on BBC1 sitcom Mad About Alice. I think that in the end result Phil still gets his point across fairly. And, let’s be honest, he did have a point – since our publication it’s been announced that the series has not been recommissioned and even its star Amanda Holden has publicly rubbished it.

The handbook, then, is a mix of programme reviews, programme data, statistical information, industry overviews and lookup directory – I’m sure reader reaction will tell us whether the balance of these items is the one which industry practitioners, academics and interested public are after. Maybe we’ll get a chance next year to refine the model in line with their feedback.

At the end of a year or so of huge challenges and hard slog for all concerned I’m pleased with the end result, even if the process itself probably needs streamlining but we’ll put that down to experience! Hopefully the trials and tribulations that the editorial team and I went through will be worth it – for me I felt chained to the TV, staying up ’til all hours to catch BBC3 documentaries about young women making watersports videos, watching more daytime reality-auction-property-makeover TV than is healthy for any sentient soul and being poised on permanent tape standby, should a BBC DG happen to resign at any moment.

Our combined efforts will hopefully mean that next time you’re stumped on the subject of telly 2003 – 04 you won’t have to do much more than pick our book off the shelf to find the answer you need.