Books: The Revolt of the Pendulum — A Microphone for the Audience |
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A Microphone for the Audience

In the broadcast media, technical considerations can often shape events, and sometimes create them. To illustrate this awkward truth, let me begin with a quotation.

‘It was said that I was facing political oblivion, my career in tatters, apparently never to be part of political life again. Well, they underestimated Hartlepool and they underestimated me, because I am a fighter and not a quitter.’

When Peter Mandelson made this brief, improvised and personally damaging speech at the count in Hartlepool in 2001, all those watching him on television, including the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, thought that it must mean the end of Mandelson’s career. Mandelson sounded shrill and petulant. When he saw himself on screen later, he would have agreed that his performance was of an unsettling stridency. I myself, after a working lifetime in television, didn’t guess immediately what had really damaged him.

It was the sound balance. The audience at the announcement had been very noisy. Mandelson had been shouting against the noise. The microphones on the podium were all pointed his way, so they had left the audience out. The next night, after seeing the moment replayed a few times, I belatedly figured out what had happened, and sympathised with the victim. It had happened hundreds of times to me, with a cumulatively disheartening effect which finally got to the point where I trusted studio production no longer. For years I had been knocking myself out in studios with an invited audience, only to view the show and hear no convincing evidence that the audience had been present. On the night, their reaction had been a tide of friendly enthusiasm that I had to raise my voice against if I was to keep the momentum. In the transmission, I was just a man unnecessarily raising his voice. On countless occasions I protested to my own producers. All repeated the sound engineer’s opinion that the audience’s reaction had been faithfully captured, and that the optimum balance between performer and audience had been attained. In other words, accept the professional opinion of the technicians, or else get out of the studio altogether.

Eventually I chose the second course, and one of the reasons — there were several, but this was the one that had been nagging longest — was that the problem of performing on two levels had proved insuperable. To entertain the audience in the studio, the performer must project, as on a stage. To entertain the audience at home, projecting is the very last thing a television performer should do. All the evidence of my time in British television studios suggested that there was no remedy. The evidence presented by American television we had better leave aside. American talk shows are rowdy, scruffy events, but one thing you can never complain of is any sense of the performer slaving away on his own. The audience is at least as generously amplified as he is. Also there are always plenty of cutaway shots of the audience to prove that there are real people sitting there.

I could rarely persuade the directors on my shows to include shots of the audience, perhaps because the directors didn’t much care for the adverse sartorial effect that might be created by old ladies wearing knitted hats who had been brought in by bus. British television directors all want to be film directors one day, and they care about the look of the thing. As a result of this misplaced visual fastidiousness, I regularly had to read newspaper reviews in which it was stated that I had been mugging away to an empty studio. This opinion was usually given by some young wit who would have been able to swear in a libel court that the evidence of his eyes and ears led him to no other conclusion. After a few decades of that, I had plenty of experience behind me in order to assess how Peter Mandelson must have felt when he saw himself on screen and realised that he had caught himself out. But I still didn’t spot it while it was happening. That’s how tricky a game television can be. Unless you can lay down conditions in which you can be both performing and watching yourself perform, you will eventually be caught looking like a dunce, and usually at the moment when it matters most.

(Previously unpublished)


Each of the above two pieces was on my desk for years, always demanding to be tinkered with. It sometimes happens like that, especially when the subject is someone’s personality, more than his work. You can judge work, but a soul is a lot harder to pin down. Tommy Cooper was an incredible hulk with an even more incredible spirit inside him, like some angelic child pleading for release from a rubber clown costume. He had made me laugh as hard as I ever laughed in my life, and I felt I owed him. Debt can be paralysing. I also felt indebted to Peter Mandelson, who gave me an interview, when I was on assignment for the Independent, that could have been a lot more difficult. The future Lord Mandelson’s taste for the high life would probably have ensured his eventual emergence as the media’s ideal political villain even if he had not compounded his faults with personal charm, a quality which always sets journalists looking for the hidden story. Since there was plenty of hidden story to uncover — a sense of entitlement that outsoars one’s income is bound to cause trouble — he soon found himself with no competition for the role of Dracula. But the mistake that could never be recovered wasn’t his. At the Hartlepool count, in the moment of victory, the faulty sound balance made him sound petulant. A politician can survive being savaged in Alastair Campbell’s diary, but the wrong few minutes on screen can rarely be expunged. There could be no clearer instance of how television, at least in Britain, has become a city of nets. In America the politicians are better protected, by a team of people with no other task except to ward off danger from technical errors. Sarah Palin was caught out on air, but at least the fault was all hers.