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Sunday, July 5, 2009

Lord Bullough of Long Ashton? I think not.

And so it was that I entered into the hallowed halls of the palace of Westminster to appear before the House of Lords Communication Committee to give evidence on the subject of children’s TV, the state of the UK animation industry and anything else that occurred to their Lordships to ask me about.

A marvellously, expectation-confounding day which is, after all, what this blog is supposed to be about.

I have been to Westminster twice in the last year or so – once on a South West Screen junket to promote the SW Creative Industries to a cross party group of MP’s and then last week to give evidence to the Communications Committee. My boss, who they really wanted, was on holiday if you are wondering, ‘why him?’

On both occasions I was unexpectedly and temporarily overwhelmed by the scale and history of the Palace of Westminster. The Great Hall, which you go through to get just about everywhere, is an awe-inspiring space. It’s where the Queen Mum and many before her laid in state and the sense of history is extraordinary – you can feel the ghosts of royalty and parliamentarians past stalking the halls.

I would describe myself as being softly anti-establishment – I dislike any assumption of authority by an undeserving elite but the Houses of Parliament temporarily and embarrassingly make you feel intensely patriotic and momentarily humbled by the privilege of having been born and brought up under the protective shadow of an ancient constitutional monarchy. I love buildings that have that power – Gothic cathedrals do the same for me too despite my slightly less soft atheism.

However, I arrived early to give myself time to stop sweating before being called at 11.30 am. It was one of those freakishly hot London days and shirts were sticking to torso’s all over town. All the waiting witnesses agreed that it felt like waiting outside the headmasters study for a telling off – such is the intimidating effect of oak panelled walls.

We were soon ushered into the committee room to sit at the back and watch Tim Bevan and others give evidence about the film business. This was relaxing and re-assuring for reasons that will become clear. The only fly in the ointment was that I spotted a pile of papers with the Aardman letterhead sitting near the door. When I looked, it was the written evidence that Aardman had submitted to the committee.

TAKE NOTE: If ever your boss drops you an email asking for answers to questions that ‘some committee or other’ is asking make sure you PAY ATTENTION.

If the committee is a Commons or Lords committee then the evidence you give will be circulated to the committee and posted on the parliament website. The fact that you knocked off some quick and ill-thought-out answers at 7.00pm one evening because you were late getting home for your turn babysitting WILL COUNT FOR NOTHING 3 months later when you are sitting in front of their Lordships who are relying on your evidence for their briefing and questions.

Our evidence was bad, and although it was signed by my boss I know it was my fault that it was bad.

Soon it was our turn to be grilled and fortunately my co-witness turned out to be a well-informed and articulate man who made us both look good. It was an interesting hour. The Lords themselves, far from being the old-codgers-without-a-clue that one’s preconceptions might have suggested were, of course, genial, elder states-people who had achieved things in their careers.

They had the relaxed air of people who didn’t really have to prove anything to anyone. They were polite, they mostly looked healthy and slightly tanned (i.e. wealthy) and there was a warmth and friendliness about them which put you at your ease. They asked interesting questions, they soon got to the heart of the issues and only now and again let their own particular axes grind against the flow of the conversation.

By far the most bizarre experience for me was being interrogated by the Bishop of Manchester about our business. There are 26 Bishops in the house of Lords; here’s the blurb on how that works

Of course I knew that Bishops sat in the Lords but this was different – here was one picking my brain. If I am softly anti-establishment I am slightly less softly atheist and ‘clergy-allergic’ (see above comments about assumed authority etc).

The Manc Bish was great. He was well briefed, interesting and interested though I can’t remember for the life of me what we actually talked about (although that goes for most of the hour). I’ll have to wait for the transcript to be published online.

At the end of the session the Lord Chairman (Norman Fowler to you and me) thanked me for coming and I had a lovely chat with two of their Lordships in the corridor. Lord Maxton is a bit of a techie, ‘If the Lord’s is the kingdom of the technically blind then I am the one-eyed king’ he chuckled. As I had sat down at the start of the session I realised that one of the other Lords was the uncle of my best friend from school so after another half an hour of chatting I was starting to feel quite ennobled by proxy.

It’s all worn off now – back to plotting the downfall of the establishment through the subversive messaging of errm, animated family entertainment. You won’t catch me accepting a peerage and not only because I’ll never be offered one. No, because I would take such pleasure in tossing it back in ‘their’ faces if I was. No, really, I would ... promise.

PS, if you are really interested in what I and everyone else actually said at the committee it will, at some point, be posted online in all its incoherent glory here