Almost a National Joke, He Has an unBritish Bent for Solving Puzzles Methodically, Yet Also Has Fierce Flashes of Creative Insight. (Profile: Lord Birt)

By Cox, David | New Statesman (1996), May 20, 2002 | Go to article overview

Almost a National Joke, He Has an unBritish Bent for Solving Puzzles Methodically, Yet Also Has Fierce Flashes of Creative Insight. (Profile: Lord Birt)


Cox, David, New Statesman (1996)


As director general of the BBC, John Birt became the most detested public figure of his generation. Relaunched as Baron Birt of Liverpool, he must have hoped that in semi-retirement things might start to look up. Instead, he finds himself something of a national laughing-stock. Turned into a personal oracle by a Prime Minister still uncertain of direction after five years in power, his owlish lordship has metamorphosed into a Gilbert-and-Sullivanesque Lord High Answer-to-Everything, tiptoeing into Downing Street unpaid to impart secret solutions to the problems of the age.

Birt has already, to catcalls and jeers, provided a cure for crime. Any day now, he will be putting Blair right on transport. His absence of experience in this field has already provoked much merriment. Thereafter will come the great man's memoirs. Expect a feast of derision, with reviewers seizing delightedly on choice examples of "Birtspeak". And yet, such are the workings of Blairocratic government that Birt's policy prescriptions are likely to have more impact on our lives than the efforts of most cabinet ministers. Cultivated opinion vastly prefers Greg Dyke as DG of the BBC; yet, though Dyke joins in the mockery of his predecessor, it is Birt's grand design that he is choosing to follow. Something here is not quite right. If his lordship is worthy only of loathing or ridicule, how come he is afforded so much sway?

Part of the answer to this puzzle lies in the uniqueness of the Birt phenomenon. We reward with our affection those participants in the national soap opera who conform to a familiar stereotype. They can be wicked or witless, but we demand that they provoke a thrill of recognition. Unfortunately for him, Birt is no diamond geezer like Dyke, or upper-class buffer or jovial rogue-on-the-make. Even after a long acquaintance (too long for many), we still cannot quite place him. The late Dennis Potter's cruel characterisation of him as a "croak-voiced Dalek" was not altogether mistaken. On Planet Britain, Birt is an alien - if not the monster of popular fancy, still an extraordinary one-off, shaped by an unusual conjunction of factors.

John Birt was born in 1944 into a working-class Catholic family in Liverpool's docklands. His father became a salesman and managed to move the family to the relatively polite suburb of Formby, from where John made it, via grammar-school, to Oxford. So far, so straight-forward. But whereas other upwardly mobile undergrads chose to read humanities as a means of soaking up establishment manners, Birt opted for engineering. He later explained that he delighted in solving puzzles methodically. We British associate an analytical bent with nerdish crossword addicts. Yet in Birt, a passion for deductive reasoning was accompanied by burning ambition and the capacity for fierce flashes of creative insight.

Taking these qualities into television, he discovered they could produce unexpected results. After joining Granada as a graduate trainee in 1966, he found himself co-editor of ITV's then top current affairs programme, World in Action, at the age of 23. Poached by Granada's ITV rival, London Weekend Television, he was given the chance to set up a show of his own. For him, Weekend World became an opportunity to deconstruct the whole current affairs genre. From a vehicle for easy sensationalism, he fashioned a tool of civic exposition that lives on in programmes like Channel 4 News and Newsnight.

The incisive oddball powered his way up the LWT ladder. As director of programmes in the 1980s, Birt turned the business of building audiences from a seat-of-the-pants affair into the science based on demographics and number-crunching that it is today. Yet he also made inspired creative judgements, spotting that a retired Sixties songbird (in the shape of Cilla Black) could become the nation's matchmaker, or that a speech-impaired maverick MP (Brian Walden) could become its top political interviewer.

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Almost a National Joke, He Has an unBritish Bent for Solving Puzzles Methodically, Yet Also Has Fierce Flashes of Creative Insight. (Profile: Lord Birt)
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