The first 21 years by Richard Last, BPG Chairman 1984-85,
2014 updates by Torin Douglas, BPG Chairman 1996-98
The Broadcasting Press Guild had its origins in the early 1970s when Sean Day-Lewis, broadcasting correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, and Martin Jackson, TV and radio correspondent of the Daily Express, decided to activate the moribund Television Section of the Critics’ Circle.
Their initiative, reviving a short-lived TV critics’ group led by Marsland Gander and Clifford Davis in the 1950s, enjoyed the backing of the BBC chairman Lord Hill, whose political instincts favoured a TV journalists’ lobby. It received enthusiastic support and a series of successful lunches was held at the Cafe Royal. Early guests included Lord Hill, Lord Aylestone, chairman of the ITA, and Paul Fox, Controller BBC1. David Attenborough, at that time BBC Television’s Director of Programmes, also accepted an invitation to attend and was lightly grilled – to no effect – about the entrenched refusal of his Light Entertainment department to allow previews.
After this promising start, disillusionment set in because of the restrictions the parent Circle tried to impose on our activities. They did not like membership being extended from reviewers to correspondents, and they set their face firmly against the idea of Awards, something the fledgling TV Section was very keen to institute.
The birth of the Guild
By the end of 1973, the urge towards some form of UDI was too strong to be denied. The Guild was effectively born at a special lunch held in the cellars of the Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street, attended by existing Circle members and others actively interested in forming a new body. The Guild’s constitution, and its name, were hammered out over a few pints in the upper room of the Punch Tavern by a provisional committee consisting of Sean Day-Lewis, Martin Jackson, Peter Fiddick, Richard Last, Stewart Lane and the late Jimmy Thomas.
Peter Fiddick became first Guild chairman and Richard Last, as secretary, drafted the rules and proposed a formula (still largely unchanged) for deciding the Awards, but was thwarted over the matter of the Guild’s name, which was decided while he was downstairs getting in a round.
From the outset, it was agreed that the Guild lunches should not be subjected – as Circle events had been – to a ‘non-attributable’ restriction. It was felt that this would be resented by the wider membership now eligible (anyone whose major activity was writing about TV and radio, in whatever capacity). Experience had also shown that at least one member per lunch would break the embargo.
The initial membership of the Guild in 1974 was 27 (today’s roll is 83, though we have been up in the 90s). It grew most rapidly during the secretaryship of Stewart Lane, who took over a crisis in 1977 and stayed for three and a half years, subsequently becoming Awards Organiser and Chairman. One of Stewart’s earliest coups was to arrange a lunch with the then Conservative Home Secretary, Willie (later Lord) Whitelaw, who proved amazingly candid, especially in the bar before lunch. Stewart was at the time a paid-up member of the Communist Party.
The BPG Awards and Lunches
Another Guild stalwart was the late Harvey Lee, who like Stewart held all of the Guild offices except Treasurer. He was particularly active in cementing the Guild’s long-running relationship with BBC Pebble Mill, initiated by our first female chair, now the Guild’s energetic Lunch Secretary, Rosalie Horner. Rosalie appeared solo in our first 20-minute Awards “special” from the Mill; over the next 13 years many Guild members participated in the annual 50-minute programme.
Harvey also took the Awards lunch to the Royal Opera House and found sponsors for our most prestigious annual event. He died at the tragically early age of 41 in 1991, and the Guild instituted a special Award for outstanding contribution to broadcasting in his memory.
Over the years, the Guild has entertained almost every senior figure in the industry, from successive Chairmen and Directors-General of the BBC and IBA onwards. A number of guests – especially those who have changed channels – have addressed us several times. The record (four lunches) is held by Sir Michael Checkland, former DG of the BBC, who first talked to a small but impressed gathering in his days as Director of Resources.
Generally speaking, despite Lord Hill’s notion of a “lobby”, the BPG has not regarded itself as a pressure group. Our main purpose has been to further contacts between journalists and broadcasters, professionally and socially. From time to time we intervened in disputes between members and broadcasting organisations, usually in matters relating to viewing facilities. We abstained from submitting any recommendations to the Annan Committee (partly because it would have been near-impossible to arrive at a consensus view). We did however campaign long and earnestly to persuade the BBC’s Light Entertainment department to join the rest of the television fraternity in allowing previews. It took all of ten years but we got there in the end.
A Short History of BPG Venues
Over its 21 years, the Guild has not experienced too much difficulty in attracting high-profile guests with something interesting to say. More challenging has been the constant search for suitable venues in which to entertain them, at prices members (or their editors) could afford.
We began at Kettners in Soho, once a favoured haunt of the Edwardian upper crusts dining away from their wives. It changed hands and is now an upmarket pizzeria. We went upmarket to the former Curzon Street Club, an exclusive gaming joint which served gourmet meals at unbelievably low prices. One of our guests there was (Lord) Merlyn Rees, then Labour’s Home Secretary. He arrived with an entourage of three and evidently enjoyed himself. Within weeks the Curzon and several sister gambling clubs had been closed down, by order of the Home Office!
Our next moves were to the Ivy, then owned by (Lord) Lew Grade in his wife’s name, and the urbane Savile Club in Mayfair, where Douglas Hurd’s revelations about the future of broadcasting were punctuated by the distant clamour of members queuing for coffee. Service at both venues seemed to decline as their prices rose.
Some of our other excursions survived only a single visit, like the one we made to a Soho restaurant which had neglected to inform us that visitors in an adjoining private room would have to flow through ours. Our guest, Alasdair Milne, then the BBC’s MD Television, remained remarkably unruffled, but the officers decided not to risk it again.
For the time being, we have come to rest only a few yards from this disaster, as the elegant Soho Soho. But we’re always on the lookout for genuinely practical suggestions…
Update 2014: We moved to One Lombard Street for a while, a former bank next to Bank station in the City, and later returned to the Soho Soho premises, supporting it through several name changes – Bertorelli Soho, Frankie’s Pop-Up and Giraffe Cafe and Bar. When it finally closed its doors we moved down Frith Street to Little Italy, after a few excursions to the Groucho Club. A full list of our lunch guests since 2001 is Here:
Our Awards venues have ranged even more widely, from the homely Cheshire Cheese to the ornate Glaziers’ Hall overlooking the Thames at London Bridge. But our two longest runs have been at Shakespeare’s Tavern, a cheap ‘n’ cheerful series of caverns underneath the arches at Blackfriars (now demolished), and for the past seven years the Crush Bar of the Royal Opera House.
Update 2014: We remained at the Crush Bar for three more years until it was closed in 1998 for the redevelopment of the Opera House, when we moved round the corner to the bar of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, known as the Grand Saloon. We have been comfortably ensconced there ever since, with the exception of the 2013 Awards, when the theatre was closed for refurbishment, and we moved to the Gladstone Library at One Whitehall Place. For more information about the Awards, including annual lists of the winners, see Here:
One of our most memorable Awards lunches was held at Shakespeare’s Tavern in 1979, when the Award for Best Drama Series went, predictably, to Dennis Potter’s inspired Pennies from Heaven. Potter’s producer Ken Trodd had bet Dennis that the series, however well received, would never rate an award. Trodd paid up as he and Potter came through the doorway – in pennies. It made a marvellous photo opportunity.
Lighter Moments with our Lunch Guests
As Controller BBC1, Bill Cotton came to Kettners to tell us of his programme plans. He denied that BBC Television was importing “too much foreign rubbish”. There was, he implied, plenty of the home-grown variety available.
Paul Fox, a staunch objector to the independent constitution of Channel 4 (like other ITV chiefs, he wanted Four to be effectively an ITV2), declared that his company, Yorkshire, would have no truck with the new channel and would not make programmes for it. Paul soon became a C4 champion and a member of its board.
Peter Jay attended a lunch as head of TV-am. He apologised for having to leave by 2pm (normally the time when speakers get started) because he had tickets for Wimbledon. However he managed to talk and answer questions, more or less non-stop, while ploughing through the Ivy’s best).
Update 2014: Speaking while eating became the standard practice as journalists’ lives became less leisurely in the digital age. We allow the speaker to eat their first course in peace before addressing the members between courses and then taking questions throughout the main course and coffee. Some have coped as well as Peter Jay, others have given up the struggle and just talked.
Aubrey Singer, arch-enthusiast, used his visit as managing director, BBC Radio, to tell us about his new networking plans. Like other lunch guests, he had been asked to limit his opening remarks to 10-15 minutes. After he’d been going for almost 50, chairman Richard Last finally plucked up courage to point out that unless he wound up, there would be no time for questions.
For embarrassment while in the BPG chair, it would be hard to top the experience of Martin Jackson. Presiding over a lunch for John Freeman, then chairman of LWT, he fell asleep. Not during Freeman’s remarks, but his own. He passed out while proposing a vote of thanks and was awoken by his own snores. “Well” he points out “it had been a long lunch and it was a very hot day.”
David (now Sir David) Attenborough, attending an Awards lunch to pick up his gong for Life on Earth, apologised for having to make an early departure. He was, he explained to Peter Fiddick, flying to Glasgow in connection with the publication of the millionth copy of the book. “Of course,” he added modestly, “that’s only the English language version.”
Our transfer to the Royal Opera House in 1988 was also the year when we voted Jeremy Isaacs (by an overwhelming majority) as having made an outstanding contribution to broadcasting. By an even happier coincidence, he has just become General Director of the ROH. Alas, he was unable to attend our first lunch on his own premises, though for a very good reason. He was on his honeymoon.
Andy Allan, our last lunch guest of 1994, accepted an invitation to talk about the present state of ITV. He devoted his entire address to rubbishing daytime television, including the contributions of his own companies, Carlton and Central. Our members were enthralled; some of Andy’s fellow executives may have been less impressed.
Among many illustrious guests who have received awards in the unlikely setting of Shakespeare’s Tavern were Sir Alec Guinness, for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and the late Dame Peggy Ashcroft. Sir Alec illustrated the mechanics of appearing on TV by pretending to poke his head through an empty picture frame. It was remarkable effective. Dame Peggy came to receive an award for her part in Stephen Poliakoff’s Caught on a Train. As she stepped up to the rostrum, one of the Holborn expresses rumbled overhead, providing chairman Rosalie Horner with a perfect cue line.
Possible the saddest of many acceptance speeches came in 1983 from John Walters for Radio 1’s Walters’ Weekly. He told us he was particularly delighted by our accolade, as the BBC had just decided to take the programme off.
Cheekiest acceptance, remembered by most present-day members, came from Andrew Davies (Writer’s Award) in the form of a comprehensive onslaught against John Birt and the BBC.
Update 2014: He went on to write a dozen BPG award-winning dramas, most of them for the BBC, and is this year’s recipient of the Harvey Lee Award for an outstanding contribution to broadcasting.
The most self-denigrating speech came from David Hatch, whose reply to the bestowal of the Harvey Lee Award consisted of a catalogue of all the mistakes he had made in his 30 years at the BBC.
Update 2014: Since its inception in 1992, Harvey Lee Award winners have included Sir John Tusa, Charles Wheeler, Sir Denis Forman, Sir Terry Wogan, Sir David Frost, Cilla Black, Greg Dyke, Michael (Lord) Grade, Anne Wood, Melvyn (Lord) Bragg, Beryl Vertue and John Humphrys. A list of all the Harvey Lee Award winners, from 1992 to 2013, is Here:
The BPG’s Best Actress winners during the Guild’s 40 years include Dame Diana Rigg, Dame Eileen Atkins, Dame Helen Mirren, Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Gillian Anderson, Vanessa Redgrave, Maxine Peake, Anne-Marie Duff, Zoe Wanamaker, Gina McKee, Julie Walters, Olivia Colman and Juliet Stevenson. The BPG Best Actor award has gone to Sir Alec Guinness, Albert Finney, Kenneth Branagh, Colin Firth, Charles Dance, Robert Hardy, Jim Broadbent, Christopher Ecclestone, Benedict Cumberbatch and Dominic West among others. A list of all the BPG Awards winners, year-by-year with some gaps, is Here:
A list of the BPG’s chairs throughout its 40-year history is Here:
They are bookended by Guardian journalists. Peter Fiddick, the paper’s first media editor, was the Guild’s first chairman. John Plunkett is the current BPG chairman.