Magazine article The Spectator

The Idiot Box: TV's Brain Drain

Magazine article The Spectator

The Idiot Box: TV's Brain Drain

Article excerpt

So many bright minds are wasted in the vacuous world of TV

How to sum up David Frost? The lazy writer's friend, aka Wikipedia, calls him 'an English journalist, comedian, writer, media personality and television host'. To which I would add only: 'Britain's first TV superstar.' (To some he was also 'The Bubonic Plagiarist', but we won't dwell on that.)

That Was The Week That Was, The Frost Report and The Nixon Interviews made him a key cultural figure of the 1960s and 1970s. But his true significance struck me only recently. He may have damaged Britain, unintentionally, as much as anyone in living memory.

Frost, in my view, was a Pied Piper who helped to lure a generation of the brightest and best away from meaningful careers and into the often vacuous, inconsequential world of television. He was exciting -- that interview confronting the insurance swindler Emil Savundra, for example -- glamorous and funny. Thousands of Bright Young Things watched him and thought: 'Yesss! That's what I want to do.' After three decades in TV, I've lost count of those who were inspired by visions of Frost.

Arguably, these BYTs wasted their talent. Wasted, that is, if you think running an influential think tank or government department or attaining an office of state is preferable to making instantly obsolescent visual wallpaper. Not all TV programmes are crap, obviously. But what's more valuable: trying to get people to change channels or trying to change the world?

Take Mark Damazer, a former editor of BBC's Newsnight and The Nine O'Clock News, whose baldness was, wags said, caused by the heat emanating from his brain -- much like the chrome-domed Tory thinker David 'Two Brains' Willetts. Mark got a double starred first in history from Cambridge and was briefly my boss in the 1990s. I still recall him skilfully dissecting an instantly forgettable 120-second report I'd done on chewing gum (environmental menace thereof) or similar. Bit of a waste? Sure, Mark became an excellent and transformative controller of Radio 4 -- but if he and all the others like him had gone to Westminster instead the road to Brexit would surely be less rocky.

Take Mark Thompson (first, Oxford), the former BBC director-general, who managed to pass on the unexploded bomb of the Jimmy Savile scandal and avoid most of the subsequent collateral damage. With political skills like that, he could have been PM. Then there's Tim Gardam (double first, Cambridge), the abrasive Newsnight boss who might have been home secretary in another life. And a former ITV boss of mine, now retired, whose father was an MP, but whose own greatest achievement was helping to invent a celeb-based reality show. If Alan Turing -- the Bletchley Park genius who helped to save the world -- were alive today, he'd probably be producing Countdown.

Some of the above might deny they were directly inspired by Frost, but that's irrelevant really. Because what they can't dispute is that they went into TV. And that it was Frost more than anyone who made TV what it was. So if that's not influential, I don't know what is.

Not every BYT got trapped in the magic rectangle. Some used it as a stepping stone, like my fleeting colleague on the Today programme in the 1990s, Michael Gove. Looking back, I can see he knew exactly what he was doing and where he was going. …

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