John Barlow

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Mr John Barlow

I was born in 1947. I began working at the BBC in 1970, my final year at the BBC was 1999.


Raines Foundation Grammar School London University

Previous Jobs

Finance Officer NHS

How I joined the BBC

I responded to an advert in (probably) The Guardian for the post of Trainee Assistant Television Cameraman. At the end of my interview I explained that if offered a position I would have to decline as the advertised salary was less than I was then currently earning.

Six months later, out of the blue, came an offer matching my NHS salary!

My first impressions of the BBC

A large paternalistic organisation with a rigid career structure.

Broad BBC career

Television Cameraman Head of TV Cameras Head of Film Resources at Television Film services

My training at the BBC

My first 13 weeks were spent at the Engineering Training Department (Evesham) on a Tech Ops cours where I had to learn numerous skills that would have no relevance to my future work. Only practical training sessions in the Studio were of later use.

Periods at the BBC

1990 -

I was a Head of Film Production Resources.

We were based at Ealing Studios in the Television Film Services department.

Main memories of the period

At the risk of summoning the wrath of other BBCPA contributors to the memory bank, and my old colleague Roger Bunce in particular, I thought I might balance the debate with a slightly different perspective: If nothing else it may generate debate.

Sadly I did not keep a diary so the dates and sequences may be as I recollect them, rather than as they happened. Others will, no doubt, have sharper memories than I do.

First of all, I am not an apologist for John Birt. However, as Deputy Director General and then DG, he had a job to do and part of this was to ensure the survival of the BBC through the then (as now) turbulent political years. This article is an attempt to look behind some of the consequences of the Producer Choice policy to see how it changed Television Film Services at Ealing. The historical context of any analysis of the “Producer Choice” years must be seen against the previous Thatcher years and their aftermath.

Margaret Thatcher suffered a political assassination in September 1990. Her premiership (too long to present here) was that of a leader of a right-wing government that firmly believed in the Privatisation of public bodies. There was no such thing as Society. From her point of view the BBC was no different to Water, Gas, Electricity, Rail etc. etc., just another commodity that might be traded, and during her years and after the “family jewels” were sold off, this was done often below their market value. In the early nineties, the climate at the BBC was that it could well be the next “public body” to be sold off.

As the new Head of Film Operations in 1988 I recall an enquiry from John Birt’s office: It appeared that one of our Ealing Film Crews had attended 10 Downing Street for a Thatcher interview and were asked by her why so many staff were required (Cameraman and Assistant, Recordist and Assistant, Grip, Gaffer and Sparks) when for similar assignments Sky TV sent a two-man crew. Clearly if the BBC were part of the Private Sector such “overmanning” would cease.

An investigation into restrictive practices was launched and the BBC appeared to be profligate in its use of resources due to its history of agreements with the various Trades Unions and, let’s face it, poor management. Truth to tell change was needed and within Film Department we began to make changes.

In May 1991 the referral by the Trade and Industry Secretary, Peter Lilley, of the BBC to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission was announced. This centered on the BBC’s so called “advertising” the Radio Times and other magazines on its own channels. This in fact was a bit rich as the Government had demanded that the BBC be more commercial and generate £72M from assets such as the magazine division. However, the BBC was still seen by the Government as an anachronism. Private Good, Public Bad.

Discussions commenced between the Government and the BBC which focused on commercializing the BBC. Through John Birt the BBC was “saved” albeit that he relinquished the Transmitter network to the private sector, in my view, as a way saving the Government’s face. However, the BBC would have to demonstrate that it could behave as if it were in the private sector and to this end an experiment would be started to change the BBC culture so as to “be more commercial”. Later similar plans were introduced into the NHS.

Experiments do not always succeed and therefore the BBC had to be careful that if it initially mishandled the way it opened itself to market forces then the poytential fallout should be minimized. The basic unit at Ealing was the Film Crew; other production resource units considered were OB Units and Studios. Looking at the capital investment for each unit and the human investment in training and experience associated with each unit then clearly the BBC’s initial foray into the market should be at Television Film Studios, Ealing. If it all went wrong the financial consequences would be minimized. Human consequences were a different matter. In any case there already existed a thriving freelance market in all the skills required to service film productions. Many freelancers were, of course, BBC trained as, apart from a few notable film schools, the BBC was the only trainer of any repute.

“Producer Choice”, in essence, meant that BBC programme makers were free to use freelance film crews rather than in house BBC crews for whatever reason they chose. Such choices were based on whatever criteria the Producer decided – price, personality, skills, availability, family member or highly skilled personnel. The rationale was why use an expensive highly skilled Ealing crew for an unlit Talking Head in Oxford Street when a Media Studies student, or another member of the production team could point and focus a hired camera? The savings to the budget were obvious and the BBC would be seen to be commercial. The result might even be acceptable.

The task fell to me to explain to Ealing staff the “new rules”. We were now in open competition with Freelancers and, in effect, anybody else with a camera. The playing field was not just uneven, it was stacked against us. A quick look at the costs might help.

Ealing crews were highly trained experts in all aspects of filming with skills honed over many years. Their expertise was world renown, their craft skills unsurpassable and their experience covered every possible assignment. However, as members of staff, they were entitled to Annual Leave, Sick Pay, Pensions etc., just like the rest of us. All very costly. Freelancers had no such entitlements and were thus cheaper. Ealing crews were supported by first class in house technicians and programme makers need only contact “their” Ealing PSM (Programme Service Manager) to have any and every logistical issue resolved for them. These too were salaried BBC staff with all the benefits included above, as were local management etc. The price of the crew had to include the cost of all that support and the buildings which housed us, The Director General’s costs and all other “central functions” such as (say) the BBC legal department, as one tiny example, of services unconnected directly with programme making were all overheads and Ealing was, like other departments, charged for these overheads with no option of shaping the overhead so as to lessen the burden.

The Freelance opposition had none of these hidden costs.

Producer Choice, when introduced, was one sided. Film crews could not be offered into the market. Advertising Agencies, Wardour Street, Independent film companies etc. were denied the choice of using BBC crews. Either Film Department could balance its accounts by selling in the Internal Market or, as in the “real” world, it would close.

Costs had to be reduced and since 80% of costs were staff costs then staff were going to be hit the hardest. Ealing generated an income of £16M by selling film crews and services into the BBC but incurred costs of more than £18M. Staffing levels and working practices were on the agenda for discussion at All Staff meetings and redundancies were inevitable. In this commercial environment, the traditional Last in First out selection method did not suit the new business model. Hard hearted as it was, an analysis of “staff profitability” was undertaken so that selection for redundancy would be based on leaving “the business” with the best financial future possible.

Staff and Unions, naturally, preferred redundancies to be on a voluntary basis. Management believed that those whose services were much in demand, the “profitable” ones, would thrive in the freelance marketplace as they set themselves up as competitors to Ealing and that large redundancy payments would fund their start-up costs. Indeed, popular staff would inevitably take their clientele with them! Bluntly staff who were unenthusiastic and not “in demand” by production teams, with their new ability to shop anywhere, would want to remain as BBC staff with the (diminishing) security that came with BBC employment and conditions of service.

Unsurprisingly relations between staff and managers became difficult. Apart from reducing staff numbers it was necessary to reduce staff earnings. Film crews were required to work whatever hours the programme schedule demanded. However, our crews were defined as “day workers” – like admin staff their basic hours were 42 hours per week, “9-5”. Any hours worked outside these basic hours were automatically paid as overtime regardless of the actual number of hours worked in the week. Filming activity rarely follows “office hours” and too often staff worked less than 42 hours in a week but received considerable overtime payments.

Given that crews had worked on this basis for many years individual circumstances reflected the earnings possible and any attempt to reduce earnings was an attack on living standards. Who would readily agree to forgo their earnings to protect the department when they saw uncontrollable costs elsewhere in the Corporation which they had to support with no control over such overheads? Crew moral reached an all-time low and staff reacted against all measures designed to reduce costs.

Production departments easily picked up that crews were unhappy and this became another factor in using freelance crews as enthusiastic and cheaper alternatives. A downward spiral was set in motion. The Management team had little options: Increase sales and decrease costs. The weekly management meeting with the Controller at TVC was never a happy event with Ealing failing to break even and financial projections worsening. More and more pressure, as the Managing Director of Television said to “Make it Work”.

Of course, economies were made everywhere. The management team was slimmed down, Fleet cars replaced with “white vans”, staff moved to Irregular Hour Working. Ealing Studios were sold off to BBRK Ltd. With all admin functions retrenching to a core of the site. Supply companies were pressured to reduce their prices. In my view, every possible option to ensure financial success was tried but to no avail. Producer Choice was slowly being introduced across Production Departments too and closure of a high profile, but failing Resource, would underline the message to all.

It was, of course, a critical message to Politicians. The BBC was behaving as a commercial organization – just look at the flagship Film Department. Clearly the BBC Board of Management were making the BBC behave like a commercial organization?

I make no attempt to hide the fact that I attempted to produce a resource unit which provided services of quality, produced efficiently and which were sensitive to producer need – but also to put behind forever the image of the BBC (not always fair) as a wasteful and bureaucratic institution. If we were to become “more commercial” we should have realised that this did not just mean sales and costs. My belief is that, at the time, the BBC just did not have Senior Managers capable of delivering a commercial BBC. However I was personally supported by John Birt and supported him too. He did save the BBC.