Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Word: it was twenty years ago ... more or less ... this week

Back home after the party to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the first series of The Word  on Channel 4 and I have to reflect (without any particular originality) on what a landmark show that was both in TV terms but also in personal terms - everyone remembers it and it was the show that threw every production challenge at me that you care to name and dared me to ‘overcome’.

Watching clips on the party screens of the music, the grotesque stunts, the shameless exploitation of punters wanting their 5 minutes of fame (I’ll do anything to get onto TV’) it reminded me how prescient Charlie Parsons (Editor-In-Chief) was and how that show set the tone for the kind of celebrity-schlock tabloid titillation culture of which we still don’t seem to be tiring.

I worked on Series 1 which was tame compared to what came afterwards but it still introduced to TV the concept of the pointless celebrity (Amanda de Cadanet) and the idea that it was cool to be thick (Terry Christian put on the thick act well) but the music was live, the guests were often dangerous and the look on the Channel 4 lawyers faces as libel after obscenity flowed from the screen was a joy to behold. This sort of groveling apology made the whole thing worthwhile.

You couldn’t make that show now on Terrestrial TV. Charlie said that he saw more health and Safety people at the studio when he was arranging the party than he saw during the production of all 5 series of the show. And the decency balance has temporarily (I hope) tipped in favour of the Daily Mail - it used to be our ambition to outrage them - it was an easy way of getting press. Then the gnomes of Westminster and the TV management  droids started to think that what the Daily Mail printed actually mattered. Fear now stalks the corridors of TV Land.

Like many people on the team I was made to work unreasonably hard for that show but it was worth it. It’s my Vietnam - when people stumble weeping into my office with the production equivalent of a stubbed toe I smile knowingly; until you’ve been face down in the Charlie Parsons production mud dodging legal and financial cluster bombs with your buddies wandering around looking for their dismembered limbs then please - shut the fuck up about your stupid toe.

Everyone should have a job like that on their CV - one where you take yourself to the edge, working under incredible pressure for excessive hours and little financial reward. The trick is not to get stuck there but to take what you need and move on. You have to do it in your 20’s when you have the energy and before things like work-life balance start to become an issue and you have to make sure that you are working for a bona fide genius so that you learn from the best.

Charlie Parsons (editor-in-chief of The Word) is just such a genius. He has an incredible instinct for what makes talked-about TV, from ‘The Word’ to ‘The Big Breakfast’ to ‘Survivor’ he has been a much copied, genuine innovator. I actually can’t watch that type of TV myself - not because its beneath me but because I find it too embarrassing and uncomfortable to be enjoyable. But I admire the best of the producers of populist TV and am aware that millions lap it up and that it has kept tabloid journalism alive a well for the past couple of decades.

Charlie is a true child of modern TV - when I worked on the Word I soon realised that I could never be him - I had never watched an episode of a soap all the way through in my life (and still haven’t) - he watched Corrie religiously, he was in touch and in love with popular TV - you can’t fake that level of enthusiasm for the cause.

My favourite take-away form the party; Waheed Alli’s answer to the yearbook question ‘What did you do after The Word?” His answer “Made millions and became a Lord’. Brilliant.