by Andrew Davidson.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Under the Hammer

Heinemann; 318pp; £16.99.

Review by Peter Fiddick The problems about writing books about television are numerous, not the least being the speed at which the medium moves on. Set against the pace at which the book industry usually works, this makes it very hard to produce something that seems relevant to the contemporary situation. One season, let alone a year or two, can be a very long time in telly.

So it says a lot for Andrew Davidson's publishers that his book on the ITV franchise round of 1991 was actually in the shops before the new companies were on the air.

And it says a lot for Andrew Davidson that his account of it is a compelling read. He has carefully limited his canvas to the contests for a small group of larger contract areas, which makes the book some way short of an 'official history'. But Davidson justifies this by the detail and narrative clarity which he is then able to give his material - largely based on good access to a high proportion of the main players.

If the style sometimes borders on a self-parody of the Sunday Times Insight team in full flood (we start with Michael Green of Carlton opening his front door in early morning dishabille and spotting a lurking photographer), the main thrust of the book derives from 86e Davidson's own experience on that newspaper's business section, covering the developing story.

But quite apart from publishing acumen and authorial skills, the book has one other great advantage. It is concerned with a set of events that can already be seen to occupy a landmark position in the history of British broadcasting. More than a year on, the trauma is no less strong for many of the participants, which gives an account of the events a special bite for people who were in any way involved, even as observers. It is equally true that the perspective we are now getting makes the whole battle over the Thatcher Government's formation of broadcasting policy seem not less important but, if anything, more so.

Davidson believes that the story begins back in those years. We are given a vivid reminder of such events as Mrs Thatcher's notorious Downing Street seminar when efforts at rational argument from the ITV side were apparently defeated in advance, including the points made by participants who were not liable, whether from nerves or lack of perception, to make matters worse.

There is, too, a glimpse of a curious breakfast meeting at which summoned media leaders first encountered the market economists who were preparing to drive forward the notion of auctioning the airwaves. It was, we are told, Rupert Murdoch (no less) who most audibly ridiculed the plan. Even that did not deter the ideologues.

Another aspect that Davidson's restricted and personalised approach makes clear is the importance of the backstairs element in the tale: the lobbying and the trade-offs. The reader is given the most detailed account yet of the process by which two programme makers, Simon Albury and Stuart Prebble, got the Campaign for Quality Television to a position whereby they were able to flatter the arts minister - by then David Mellor - with pleas from stars (Rowan Atkinson, a glittering carrot), thus ensuring that their key points were high on his agenda.

By this time, of course, events were moving elsewhere in the political firmament. The long-drawn out process began with the Peacock Committee - whose roots went all the way back to the winter of 1984-85 - passed through the broadcasting White Paper on quality, competition and choice, and went on to the Bill.

The same period saw Margaret Thatcher reach the zenith of her reformist phase on several fronts, then descend into an unpopularity that shook her own parliamentary supporters. It may well have been these internal tensions which not only brought Mellor back to the Home Office but gave him a sense that there was political mileage in moderating the more brutal elements of the Broadcasting Bill.

But U-turn there was not. The system now edging into action - with its piebald mix of broadcaster-publishers and producer-broadcasters, with its already strained divide between high bidders and low, with its potential for disruption by takeover bids, with its continuing toll of unemployment in the name of efficiency and profit - is still, in most principles, that which prime minister Thatcher and her marketeer loyalists put in place. She, as she later confessed to Bruce Gyngell of the outbid TV-am, did not think that it would work out like this.

Peter Fiddick is a media critic.

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