27 October 2009

Claptrap 9: Broadcasters' bile and SDP sulks

This is the ninth in a series of posts marking the 25th anniversary of the publication of Our Masters' Voicesand the televising of Claptrap by Granada Television.

An earlier posting of an excerpt from Ann Brennan’s speech (HERE) prompted the following comment from Chris Rodgers, a former member of the SDP:

‘I was a member of the audience that day in the autumn of 1984, in Buxton's Pavilion Gardens, as the SDP debated a typically learned (but dry) paper on equality.

‘Then Ann Brennan rose to speak. I can confirm that her well crafted and superbly delivered speech was a breath of fresh air. It was accompanied throughout by applause, cheering and the stamping of feet. When Shirley Williams tried to 'call time', at the end of the allotted four minutes, she was shouted down by party members. Ann Brennan left to a deserved standing ovation.’

BBC approves and disapproves
As the standing ovation got under way, Sir Robin Day, the commentator on BBC Television’s live coverage of the conference, described it as ‘the most refreshing speech we’ve heard all week and the audience would have liked her to go on ...’

Meanwhile, his colleague Peter Snow, who had wanted me to appear on Newsnight after the Chesterfield by-election a few months earlier (see Claptrap 6), had seen us being filmed by the Granada crew as we left the hall - and lost no time in telling Robin Day what was going on.

A few minutes later, Day was almost spluttering with rage as he interrupted a later speech to tell viewers:

"An extraordinary story is beginning to emerge.. it seems that Ann Brennan who's just got a standing ovation was coached by a Dr Max Atkinson, an Oxford don who's an expert in - er - an expert - er -in how people wave their hands about when making speeches - for a television programme being made by Granada Television - and there'll be a tremendous row between the SDP and Granada for interfering with the proceedings of their conference.."

Meanwhile, Peter Snow was hot on the trail outside the hall and had rounded up three delegates to interview live on air.

When he tried to get them to denounce us for what we'd done, the first two seemed quite relaxed about it, saying that they were applauding the sentiment of what Ann Brennan had been saying.

The third interviewee, to Snow's obvious disappointment, rounded off his comment by saying: "In any case, if you can be coached to get a standing ovation, I'd like to have a course of their coaching."

(I hope to post clips of these gems - if and when I ever discover how to transfer video from an ancient Betamax machine to a computer).

Broadcasters' bile
Until then, it had never really occurred to me just how fierce the competition between the BBC and commercial broadcasters was - a fact that was amplified further by an invitation to Ann Brennan and me to appear on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour - that was withdrawn as soon as they realised that Granada would be broadcasting a documentary on it about ten days later.

SDP sulks
After posting Claptrap 1, an exchange between David Cox and me discussed the way the SDP had reacted at the time:

Cox: I think the SDP used the speech on their party political broadcast. I think I'm right in saying more people joined the SDP after her speech as well.

Atkinson: As far as I remember, the SDP never used anything from Ann's speech for a PPB. They did however use Rosie Barnes (in one of the worst PPB's I've ever seen) and a lot of people used to confuse the two of them.

It wouldn't surprise me if new members came in after the speech. What did surprise me was that the SDP leadership, Owen included, were fuming about it. They thought it a disgraceful 'stunt', and I remember trying to convince them that it was excellent PR for them that they should make the most of. If nothing else, it meant that the 1984 conference got far more media coverage than it otherwise would have done.

Cox: ‘Disgraceful stunt' ! What is false or distasteful about giving somebody the skills to communicate and articulate their ideas; after all, Ann was given the training, but the message was Ann’s, and it was Ann who delivered it.


Chris Rodgers said...

Hi Max,

It's disappointing to hear that there was a negative reaction to Ann Brennan's speech from the SDP's hierarchy.

I can confirm that the fundamental reason that she received a standing ovation, and that there was a clamour for her to continue speaking, was that the things she said resonated strongly with the audience. As the film shows, she was very clear from the outset about what it was she wanted to say.

For me, the fact that this high level of connection was enabled by your 'claptrap' insights, Joe Haines's wordsmithing and some help on how best to use her voice, adds to, rather than detracts from, the power of the experience. "Graceful" would be a much more apposite description than "disgraceful"!

As a one-time 'Owenite', I can only speculate that the antipathy you report was perhaps due to the generally less-than-generous press and tv coverage that the Party used to receive at the time.

On the broader point, I think that any objections to the use of the skills that were showcased so well by Ann Brennan, are as misguided as those that are made, for example, against the use of memory-improvement techniques or de Bono's lateral thinking methods.

Cheers, Chris.

PS I, too, thought that extracts from Ann Brennan's speech had been used in one or more of the Party's PPBs. Rosie Barnes didn't appear in a PPB until the 1987 General Election, four months or so after her by-election victory at Greenwich.

David Cox said...

I think Chris is right, Shirley Williams introduced the clip.

I think Robin Day’s comments were rather hypocritical for a former president of the Oxford Union, not to mention a barrister. The Oxford Union is after all a training of sorts in public speaking! Augustine of Hippo was trained in rhetoric, perhaps Sir Robin would have had his sainthood revoked.

‘Claptrap’ had quite a profound effect on me, I’d assumed that active politics was not for the likes of me. ‘Claptrap’ showed me that ‘ordinary people’ could do politics and articulate ideas as effectively as those born with the skill. The next year I was elected as the (then) youngest councillor in the country at a by election.