Wednesday, 4 May 2011
Westward, TSW and the Cadbury ghost
[Archaeology: Westward/TSW complex, Derry’s Cross, Plymouth, 2011. Rubble covers the old studio and transmission areas; I used to work in an office by the four windows at the back; the canteen and bar ended where two vehicles are parked; new executives arrived triumphant and departed bruised just beyond the upturned tray, old drink can and squashed plastic bottle]
It annoys me that I never met Peter Cadbury. I arrived at Westward TV shortly after his final defenestration, which was rather like going on an exchange to a foreign family who’d just concluded a vicious divorce.
On one side were the remaining and new management: the parent left in possession of the home. On the other, the staff: his orphaned children.
Enmities. Flashes of inexplicable anger. Sarcasm. False smiles and denial.
I’d never before experienced anything like this (nor have I since). What was it about?
“There is, I suppose,” I’d said to Ronnie Perry, the MD, at my interview, “no chance that you’re going to lose this franchise?”
“Absolutely none,” he said, glancing away from me. Somehow, neither of us observed the large and scarlet writing on the wall.
The ghost of Peter Cadbury stalked the building. Test pilot, business buccaneer, street fighter and chocolatier manqué, he’d founded Westward, and it was his empire.
I had no idea exactly what he’d done wrong. As far as I could work out, it involved a flock of geese, an aeroplane, possibly a blonde, and rude letters written on company notepaper.
We had a wonderful time this weekend in Plymouth at the last Westward/TSW reunion, thirty years after Westward surrendered the franchise to TSW and twenty years after TSW, in its turn, was disenfranchised.
But to my surprise the Cadbury ghost was still around, more than a generation later, in the ballroom of the Duke of Cornwall Hotel. Westward was celebrated in speeches, TSW forgotten.
The Westward veterans never really forgave TSW, even though TSW was, in essence, Westward revived, reinvented and re-imagined: same studios, substantially the same staff, same philosophy – hell, they even kept Ken MacLeod, the rabbit and Clive Gunnell, even if the last of these mascots was consigned to an off-screen role.
Was there a myth that if Cadbury had kept the throne, TSW wouldn’t have succeeded in 1981, the ’91 outcome could have been different, and Westward might still be in Derry’s Cross?
Baudelaire wrote in his Journal: “God is the sole being who has no need to exist in order to reign.”
Down here on the planet, one occasionally comes across potent individuals who need to reign in order to exist.
I think Peter Cadbury was one of these. According to his Guardian obituary, after he was deposed from Westward “he remained bitter about his departure and had little success with other business ventures,” trying and failing to take charge first of MG Cars and then the Playboy Club.
While he wears his crown, this type of character has the gift of inspiring his followers to believe that their own existences – the very health of their commonwealth – depends upon the survival of the ruler and the continuation of his reign.
This is beyond rational explanation. We saw something of its magic at work a few days ago in the popular ecstasy elicited by the spectacle of a royal wedding.
After Cadbury’s first expulsion by his fellow directors, he fought back and was reinstated. After his second, the staff petitioned for a second restoration, which didn’t happen. A fatalistic mood descended. In the months after I arrived this mutated into a kind of gallows humour.
In a curious series of aftershocks – perhaps poetic (perhaps nemesis?) – the top corridor of TSW was hardly ever stable nor quiet, but almost continuously echoed with the stab and squelch of executives knifing each other in the back. By and large the rule was that, compared to his or her bright-faced successor, the senior officer assassinated was a superior intellect but an inferior politician.
But I don’t ascribe TSW’s defeat to this progressive deterioration of the collective IQ of the executive board, nor to the ghost of Cadbury finding its quietus at last.
In the retrospect of twenty years one can see that the whole franchise process was...
Absurd: big companies with muscle could bribe and bully rivals out of the arena and win back their franchises for relatively tiny sums. Little companies were forced to make extravagant bids they could scarcely sustain.
Deceitful: far from protecting the unique ITV brand – a federation of regional companies – it was unarguable from the start that the consequence would be the destruction of the federation and its replacement by a struggling monolith of depressed quality.
Corrupt: you might think the demise of Thames TV had nothing to do with Death on the Rock – I couldn’t possibly comment. And before the cap had even been unscrewed from the inkbottle, and a pen dipped in the ink to begin writing TSW’s franchise application, one of the top men on one of the top quality national newspapers said to me: “I know which companies are going to lose their franchises, and TSW is one of them.”