Pat Chalmers and the BBC

Pat Chalmers, controller of BBC Scotland between 1983 and 1991, has retired from the corporation after a two-year stint in Hong Kong, and this week friends and colleagues attended a dinner given for him in London.

Pat belonged to an era of broadcasting that seems now to be disappearing. Both in the Birtian BBC and in the commercial world increasingly ruled by market forces, it would now be difficult for an independent and rumbustious spirit like Pat to survive.

Once or twice Pat came close to losing his job. He was in extreme peril during the Zircon affair in 1986, when he resisted for a while the efforts of the Special Branch to remove from Queen Margaret Drive tapes of the banned film in Brian Barr’s series, the Secret Society.

He got the tip from a friend in London that his jacket was on a shoogly nail. He had been a protege of Alasdair Milne, director-general from 1982, but even that now seemed insufficient to save him. There was a great rumpus in Parliament. In Glasgow journalists marched in support of press freedom. Somehow it all blew over, and Pat survived. Milne resigned in 1987 and Barr sought pastures new.

Pat’s greatest achievement was that he did not kowtow to the network. He formed an alliance within the corporation with the other ”national regions” and was not afraid to assert the need for distinctive and original Scottish programmes of excellence. He and Jim Hunter, his head of television, were prepared to make programmes with a Scottish audience uppermost in mind or take on universal themes from a Scottish viewpoint.

He appointed Bill Bryden as his head of drama and let him get on with it. From the luncheon club in the Ubiquitous Chip came some startlingly original results, of which John Byrne’s Tutti Frutti was the best example. It was not a popular success but a distinct succes d’estime; it still lives in the mind and propelled Emma Thompson on a dazzling career.

Towards the end of the eighties the Conservatives in Scotland became rampantly paranoiac about the BBC. When Mrs Thatcher made Michael Forsyth party chairman in 1989, the heat grew intense. Pat was carpeted at least once by Mr Forsyth and Malcolm Rifkind.

One of their victims was the broadcaster and radio executive Jack Regan, who had the temerity to point out to Mr Forsyth that Scotland was different from England in that it had a four-party system. Jack was bruised by the experience and last year took advantage of the early retirement scheme. I believe that still extant at Queen Margaret Drive is the book in which they logged Mr Forsyth’s record of interference during his years of ministerial office in Scotland.

When the Birt era dawned, and with it the pseudo-market system of producer’s choice, Pat’s position at Queen Margaret Drive was always going to be uncomfortable, and he was, I think, very glad of the opportunity to go to Hong Kong and help establish the BBC’s world television service. But I do not imagine that he escaped from political pressure there, either, as the Chinese influence increasingly made itself felt.

Last year, when the proposal was published to merge the BBC Scottish Orchestra with that of Scottish Opera, The Herald phoned Hong Kong to ask Pat for his reaction. He was candid but restrained. Beneath the surface I sensed real fury. He loved that orchestra and fought to improve it. About the merger, Pat was in no doubt; he saw in it the death of his beloved band.

Its record of encouraging new work stands beside Bill Bryden’s contribution to drama as achievements of that era.

To these must be added a fine record in the field of comedy.In his previous manifestation as head of television, he had commissioned radio comedy. From this nursery of writers grew the television hits of later years.

John McCormick, Pat’s successor, finds himself in exceptionally difficult times. McCormick has lost control of his broadcasting resources to the London directorate. Despite a few token gestures of moving studios out of London, Birt may prove to be a ruthless centraliser.

The future of Queen Margaret Drive is now surrounded by uncertainty since the cost of programmes, as calculated by the Birtian system with its emphasis on unit costs, is unlikely to be competitive. It is feared, though not yet proved, that drama has been cut down to size; Bill Bryden is gone. BBC1 is under-performing in Scotland, and BBC Scotland envy STV’s ability to adopt an unequivocally Scottish personality.

In the old days Pat and I used to lunch together from time to time. He sometimes toyed with the idea of entering politics when his broadcasting career was over. Once he was a Tory but now he would probably take Liberal Democratic colours.

By coincidence yesterday morning, after the dinner, I met one of his old school chums, a contemporary at Fettes. He recalled the day the whole school had been given 100 lines with the stipulation that they be written on paper available only at the school shop. Pat nipped along, bought the entire stock, and sold sheets to his schoolmates at a mark-up of 100%. No wonder he survived in the Byzantine world of the BBC.

This week he discounted any idea of a political career and claimed to be looking forward to a pleasurable rustication in Aberdeenshire. Perhaps it would take a Scottish parliament to winkle him out.