Richard Madeley

The BBC has an aura of entitlement


Richard Madeley has narrated this article for you to listen to.

To W12 to be in W1A. The spoof TV series on internal BBC politics (one of that vanishingly rare UK television species – a comedy that’s actually funny) filmed a special episode for Red Nose Day. It poked fun at Lenny Henry’s final appearance as Comic Relief host after nearly 40 years at the helm. I featured as myself, cockily pitching for his job in front of an increasingly outraged Lenny. Richard Curtis’s script was hilarious, but filming was a surreal experience. Not because I was in the same room as the W1A cast, all in character as appalling BBC apparatchiks, but because we really were in the equivalent of W1A: the BBC’s offices in Wood Lane, Shepherd’s Bush. Art imitating life imitating art.

I guess it felt weird because as anyone who’s been there will tell you, there really is a ‘BBC’ atmosphere about the place. You feel it, almost smell it, the moment you walk through the door. The ambience is utterly different to the other half of Television Centre, now occupied by ITV and shows such as Good Morning Britain and This Morning. There it’s all hustle, bustle and a sort of commercial flashiness. But inside the BBC tent there’s a kind of haughty torpor; a steady-state aura of entitlement. You can’t mistake it. All of which lent itself perfectly to our sketch. As Hugh Bonneville’s smugly self-satisfied executive puts it whenever corporate catastrophe has just played out under his watch: ‘So – that’s all good, then.’

Last September a bout of Covid contracted in France left me deaf in one ear. After I was no longer infectious, I took the short-haul flight home. Big mistake. A build-up of fluid behind my right eardrum burst it as the cabin air pressure fluctuated. Perforated eardrums, my hearing consultant reassured me, almost always repair themselves. I just had to be patient. But it turned out it was everyone else who had to be patient. Conversations were now peppered with: ‘Pardon?’ ‘What?’ ‘Say again.’ ‘Speak up!’ It drove my wife mad. And the sensation of deafness on only one side meant my world seemed permanently off-kilter. Try walking around with a finger stuck in one ear and you’ll see what I mean. Meanwhile, conducting interviews during my stints co-hosting Good Morning Britain became secret exercises in lip-reading. Likewise conversations in crowded restaurants and pubs. I became skilled at pretending I’d heard what people had said; laughing at jokes with inaudible punchlines; agreeing with waiters to try the special of the day when I had no idea if it was fish or fowl. Five months into my muted new world and there was zero improvement. And then, literally overnight, my hearing returned. Went to bed deaf, woke up to hear the birds singing outside. Perforation miraculously healed. So if it happens to you, hang on in there. Nil desperandum.

Earl Spencer would probably have got on with my dad. They had something significant in common. Both went to crummy boarding schools where they endured experiences that would sear their lives for ever. In his memoir A Very Private School,Princess Diana’s younger brother has written about the abuse he suffered at Maidwell Hall prep, where he was sexually assaulted by staff, bullied, isolated and desperately lonely. The book is a cri de coeur and should give anyone considering sending their child away to be educated pause for thought. Dad’s little corner of hell was a then run-down school called Denstone in Staffordshire. A country boy, he was despatched there aged 15 in the middle of the second world war. Why? Because his local vicar had seen him kissing a girl in the churchyard and recommended ‘a dose of stiff discipline’ to stop this slide into debauchery. My father was never as explicit about the abuse he suffered as Charles Spencer has courageously been, but reading between the lines it undoubtedly involved sexual assault and sadistic canings. Whatever he went through, he would regularly wake screaming at night for the rest of his life. ‘Denstone dreams,’ my mother called them. Spencer has called for a national debate into the ethics of sending children to boarding school. Some families have already had it.

I’m back on Good Morning Britain presenting duties on Monday. As you may know, it’s become a two-weeks-on-two-weeks-off gig shared with Ed Balls; we take turns mostly partnering Susanna Reid. Sometimes Rob Rinder or Adil Ray sits beside her. Susanna has the perfect answer to anyone asking if she has a preference in co-hosts. Channelling her inner Bruce Forsyth, she smiles sweetly and replies: ‘They’re all my favourites.’