The great survivor

The Fun Factory: a life in the BBC

Will Wyatt <em>Aurum Press, 372pp, £20</em>

ISBN 1854109154

During the 1940s, the 1950s and the 1960s there was one constant political presence within the Kremlin. Presidents, prime ministers, even first secretaries might come and go, but this man seemed to go on for ever. His name was Anastas Mikoyan, he was an Armenian and he served a long succession of communist potentates much as a court chamberlain might have done in the days of the tsars.

Will Wyatt was the Anastas Mikoyan of the BBC. Through 35 years, starting at a lowly level, he was the great survivor among the corporation's servants. What used to be known as the board of management might regularly be purged, a managing director (whether of radio or television) led out to be shot, even a director-general and his official family massacred - but somehow, as the smoke and the dust cleared, there was the familiar figure of Wyatt blinking out on the world through his steel-rimmed spectacles.

Few individuals can thus have been better placed to give an account of the various crises and upheavals in the BBC's recent history. And Wyatt starts out by telling his story extraordinarily well. He has a vivid first chapter describing the putsch - inspired and organised by the BBC's former chairman, Sir Christopher Bland - that brought the incongruous figure of Greg Dyke into the job of director-general (a post once occupied by the likes of Sir John Reith and Sir William Haley). He carries the same spirit of mischiev- ous irreverence forward to his genuinely entertaining tale of his early, struggling years in the corporation's service.

After a bleak initiation as a sub-editor in the newsroom of Broadcasting House, he was lucky enough to gain a TV apprenticeship - in a strange outfit known as the BBC Presentation Department. Basically its task, as its title suggests, was to bring TV programmes to the screen - a process that involved arranging "trails", continuity announcements, all that sort of thing. But by the time Wyatt arrived in 1968, the department had already broken free of its former constraints. It had begun to make and put out programmes of its own, of which the correspondence column of the air, Points of View, was the first. Even that hardy perennial, however, was soon overshadowed by the department's greatest success, the near-midnight arts review programme, Late Night Line-Up, which ran for some seven years between the late 1960s and the mid-1970s.

Although primarily remembered for launching the career of Joan Bakewell, Late Night Line-Up also firmly set the young Wyatt's feet on the executive ladder. By the time I first met him in 1978, he was assistant head of the department and quite grand enough (thanks to the patronage of his friend, the then controller of BBC2, Brian Wenham) to commission full-length documentaries on political figures. He then went on to be in charge of all the BBC's documentary output.

Alas, it is at about this point in his narrative that the rot sets in. The higher our hero clambers up the greasy pole - and he ended up under John Birt as chief executive of the BBC's Broadcast division - the more turgid his writing becomes. By the end, all we are getting is virtually a company report - compliments to colleagues, a recital of the BBC's greater programme successes, to say nothing of some of the most gruesome corporate photos I have ever seen in any book.

Sometimes one is tempted to wonder whether the author was not so preoccupied with the television production line that he failed to notice what was going on elsewhere. There is not a word, for instance, about the ritual murder of the Listener in 1991. Nor are we offered the slightest discussion of the earlier proposal to turn the Langham Hotel in Portland Place into a modern radio centre (a scheme that, if it had gone ahead, would presumably have prevented the absurdity of the whole bi-media experiment). Even the sight of blood on the carpet does not seem to do much to excite the interest of this dedicated Stakhanovite in the "fun factory". The dramatic departure of Richard Francis, the managing director of BBC Radio, in 1986 - after the father-and-mother of a row with Alasdair Milne, the director-general (who himself was to be brutally ousted a year later) - is passed over here as though it had never happened.

What, though, most readers will want to know is where Wyatt stood in the long years of the Birt Terror. Here again, though this time there are plenty of words, there is scant illumination. Admittedly, the author is at pains to declare that he backed most of Birt's "reforms"; but there seems to have been singularly little warmth or even much rapport between the pair. Probably the truth was that Wyatt's eyes all along were fixed not on the D-G, but rather upon that curious historical figure, the Abbe Sieyes. When asked what he had done during the French revolution, the Abbe famously replied: "I survived." Wyatt, who has always been essentially a genial cove, can at least claim to have done the same.

Anthony Howard is a former editor of the NS