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Big Georges Guide To Commercial Success: BBC Television Centre

Feature | Tips & Tricks By Big George
Published July 2000

Big George recruits some fresh talent (including sons Harry and Twig) to take on digital TV's BBC Choice.Big George recruits some fresh talent (including sons Harry and Twig) to take on digital TV's BBC Choice.

Big George tells a cautionary tale about a not‑so‑typical day at the office...

Let's have a rest from my usual theories and rants this month, while I tell you about an afternoon I spent recently at BBC Television Centre, the hub of the world's greatest broadcast institution. I'd been called in by top Light Entertainment producer Neil Mossey, to be part of a programme pitch. Usually a pitch is made to the commissioning editor by the producer and maybe the star of the show, in an office, with a detailed written synopsis of the idea. What Neil had inmind was actually taking the programme to the commissioning editor, in this case the head honcho of digital TV's BBC Choice — and the youngest boss of a television channel in world history — Stuart Murphy (28).

The initial discussions I had, a couple of weeks prior to the pitch, with Neil and the star of the show (whom I'll call Captain Concept) centred around me supplying a house band for a five‑night‑a‑week, off‑the‑wall chat show. The job of my dreams. A decade ago I was the Musical Director for a total of 400 hours on a Sky TV chat show. Back then I used the best session players in the country. This time, to keep the cost down and to raise the contemporary flavour of the sound, it would be Big George and Sons. That's Harry the turntablist (19), Twig (18) on guitar, their best mate Ben (20) on the drums, and me (old) playing bass. This wouldn't be the first time they'd worked directly for me — in recent years they've done Jo Brand's Channel 4 series Like It Or Lump It and Paul Merton's BBC 2 series Room 101, to mention just two.

Making Plans

I spent a lot of time rehearsing in studio conditions, knocking the lads into tip‑top shape, both as a house band and, more importantly, to show off at the pitch. We routined stabs, stings, walk‑ons and comic vignettes — not just playing them note‑perfect, but working on executing slick starts and stops, with a minimum of count‑ins and fuss.

A week before the pitch, Neil and the Captain came to one of our rehearsals. We were booked in from 7.30 to 10.30pm. They arrived at 10.15. Captain Concept had had a few thoughts on the way up — like not wanting a traditional house band. Instead, he was after a more avant garde approach. Now if there's one thing any musical outfit can provide, it's avant garde tosh. So we basically jammed for a bit, which he thought more cutting‑edge than some of our colourful renditions of BBC classic themes. Fair enough, it's his show.

Then he asked if we could get weirder. Of course we could; for a job on TV we'd all blow kazoos out of our bums through a wah‑wah pedal. What we did instead was let Harry loose with his sampler and effects to create sounds from the moon. Surprisingly, this was a concept too far! So, without an accurate brief, we all left at around midnight, to meet up again on a Friday morning early in February 2000 at BBC TV Centre.

Pitching A Winner?

The plan was for me and the boys to set up our gear, plus a modest but costly PA system, in a corner of the main open‑plan BBC Comedy office, while the interview between Stuart Murphy and Neil was going on in a curtained‑off side office. On a cue (from Shane, the prospective floor manager) we kicked into a segue of colourful BBC themes (and a couple of ITV ones, for humorous effect) at full tilt. It drew quite a crowd from the surrounding offices, as well as a couple of complaints from the News and Current Affairs floor below, I'm proud to say. But, more importantly, Stuart Murphy seemed toe‑tappingly delighted by our racket.

The rest of the pitch went brilliantly too. Young Stuart was gobsmacked by a short spoof video made by Paul Jackson, the BBC's head of Entertainment, and newsreader Philip Hayton even put in an appearance to support the idea of the show. The pitch was planned to last for an hour, but it went on for over two, after which we all retired to the bar to congratulate ourselves. The man from Choice, he say YES!

Trouble is, what was due to be a five‑day‑a‑week chat show starting at the beginning of April this year has changed into... well, you tell me. Schedules need planning, programme ideas get lost in the works, our Captain is still looking into ways of breaking every rule in TV, and I'm hundreds of pounds out of pocket, with three lads chewing off my ear about what's happening, and when.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is this: even when you think everything's going to plan, completely sorted, and nothing can go wrong, it can! Don't just take my word for it. Read the following letter, which I was sent recently. The name was supplied but I'm not printing it, as the person has had enough aggro.

There's Many A SLIP...

"Dear George: I loved your cynical feature in the May issue so much that I had to tell you about my experiences. In the early '90s I had four chart hits, achieving a highest position of number 12. I went on TOTP and travelled to Japan and the USA doing personal appearances in nightclubs.

"I was 21 when all this happened. I had met a bloke who owned a record shop that was starting a label and I became his first signing. He got me a £100k advance for my publishing, on the strength of three tunes! Needless to say, I went a bit mental. I didn't have a manager, and though my parents tried to guide me, I thought I knew best. I spent £40k on studio gear and rented a four‑bedroom house to put it all in. Then I had to do an album, when all I had done before was write a couple of dance tunes. So the record company teamed me up with a songwriter whose background was MOR rock and we recorded an album's‑worth of material in a swanky London studio. The engineer at the studio helped me develop a taste for cocaine. We used to send motorcycle couriers to dealers' houses with empty 2‑inch tape boxes for the coke to be stashed in.

"All the tracks sounded like Bon Jovi on E. There were no potential singles, the whole thing had cost well over £100k, and I had spent a fortune larging it in swinging London. The album was never released and I can safely say it was crap. The club PAs started drying up, and after about three years they died out altogether. I had no income and was just living off what was left. And guess what? I hadn't been putting anything away for the taxman or VAT. I was declared bankrupt in July '97 by HM Customs and Excise. By this point I had sold most of my equipment to pay my debts. I still had a few bits left — enough to keep writing with — but I was smoking far too much skunk to get myself together.

"The last thing I wanted was to have to come back down into the real world, but I had to get a job. I spent a year or so temping for a measly £150 per week. I couldn't get anything decent because all I had done was a bit of design work and, of course, music. The days were so boring and I just couldn't cope with that office bullshit. I desperately wanted to get back into the music biz. Fortunately things aren't that bad now. The label that I was signed to have set up three small studios and one of them is mine, where I'm writing and remixing for them.

"I'm still skint, but at least I'm doing what I love. The bankruptcy will be over this summer and I turned 31 at the end of May, so there's still time yet. In a way I'm glad I experienced the classic rock 'n' roll highs and lows. I just wish I'd bought a house when I was able to!"

Choice Words

Q. What's the use of getting a job on a TV channel that no‑one watches? (You just wait. This time next year BBC Choice will be the next Channel 4.)

A. Apart from fairly decent dosh, you get to pick and choose bits of video from the programme to cobble together for a showreel afterwards. Plus you're not under the tabloid spotlight (yet), while you're getting razor‑sharp. And there's no substitute for on‑the‑job training. (Not for an old git like me — I was thinking of my boys.)