Firework dismay

Television - Andrew Billen on a millennium fiasco

Like second marriages, fireworks are triumphs of hope over experience. Millennial fireworks - given their necessary rarity - are triumphs of hope over inexperience. Hence the Thames firework organisers' insistence that there had been a river of fire, just not the river of fire people pre-supposed it to be. I don't suppose 2000 Today, as BBC1's New Year extravaganza was called, was quite how its executive editor, Avril MacRory, pre-supposed it to be either. Unless, that is, cheerful chaos was her plan all along.

As a taster of the technical incompetence to come, early on Friday morning a croak-voiced Peter Snow, lit amateurishly by a follow-spot, seized up completely - or, rather, his teleprompter did, forcing the great man to reach within his jacket for a script that vouchsafed him the single line: "The origins of the bug go back to the 1960s." At 11.01am the linkman Michael Parkinson, already tired and cross, was promising us Tonga and delivering Scotland. A drum-roll at 2.03pm announced Peter Sissons and the news, a bulletin that began (and ended) with the words: "Are you sure it's me?" Gaby Roslin, Parky's perky co-host, promised they would "sort themselves out". Parkinson retired to his dressing-room, shaking his grey locks.

It was thus left to Roslin to hold things together with the facile enthusiasm employed by family peace-keepers the world over at Christmas, even dashing over an artificial pond to offer Snow a cough sweet. But there was no getting away from the fact that the BBC's family of stars is an ever dimming unit. Parkinson remains the best interviewer on television but his metier is not as an anchor: it is hard to believe that even at 2am Des Lynam would have ever asked aloud for John Kettley's mike to be ripped off him because it was chattering into his earpiece.

The BBC's human chemistry worked no better than its technology. Dragooned into the echoey millennium studio, the big-name newsreaders, Sissons and Buerk, had difficulty disguising their resentment at playing second fiddle to a pair of game-show hosts. Sky News's praiseworthy coverage, presented from the patio of a virtually real dome, had the distinct advantage of knowing it was there to provide news coverage of a celebration rather than a celebration itself. On BBC1, however, Michael Buerk was reduced to interviewing Rolf Harris as he sploshed up an Australian sunrise. At the end of this encounter, Roslin praised Buerk for having looked up "all the facts and figures" about Australia. "I'm a reporter," Buerk snapped.

How good a reporter became the issue. Mulling over Jean-Michel Jarre's Pyramids concert, he explained they were "trying to meld all the Egyptian stuff with all that technological stuff". On ITV at 6pm, John Suchet complacently answered his own question about what the river of fire would look like: "No one knows." High marks go to the perennially sceptical David Dimbleby for admitting in his midnight commentary that it was a "bit difficult to distinguish" the river of fire from the other fireworks. Over on ITV, Sir Trevor McDonald was too busy "welcoming" us to the new millennium to notice such trifles - but then he has difficulty noticing anything that hasn't been written for him. Having shown us the Queen's muffed attempt to link arms with Tony Blair during "Auld Lang Syne", McDonald unerringly imitated the cross-arm posture she failed to achieve.

Under Simon Bucks, ITN's coverage was as well thought out as it should have been, since it consisted of distinct bulletins rather than rolling news. But it failed to provide enough captions to explain what we were looking at and where. (It also failed to keep up with the ending of the Indian plane-jack.) Between 11pm and 1am on all channels, the montage of visuals was so confused, so awe-uninspiring, that it would have made sense to make a Eurovision of the whole thing and bring in Terry Wogan. Where was Terry, anyhow?

At least that question has now been answered about Michael Gambon. After too long an absence from TV, he compounded his touching Squire Hamley on Wives and Daughters (BBC1) with a fine performance as the naive, disgruntled clockmaker John Harrison in Charles Sturridge's two-part adaptation of Dava Sobel's best-seller, Longitude (Channel 4). The programme's real stars, however, were the timepieces themselves, much as the model of DNA was in William Nicholson's Life Story years ago for the BBC.

Harrison's clocks needed constant fine tuning to attain perfection. Sadly, Sturridge's film would have needed its back taken off and half its mechanism removed. Harrison's epic fight with the astronomers who thought they alone could read longitude was interrupted far too often by the dull tale of a highly strung naval officer named Rupert Gould who restored the clocks 200 years later. As so often, the writer's way in to his story was his audience's way out. The tales failed to chime because there was no useful parallel between the genius inventor and the depressive restorer who repaired clocks as therapy. Edit out the Gould storyline and C4 could yet manufacture a two-hour classic out of Sturridge's film. Mind you, a documentary maker might extract a decent 50 minutes out of 2000 Today.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.