The Last Mountain: the story of Tom Ballard and Alison Hargreaves

Tom Ballard – screenshot from The Last Mountain, BBC

It was hard to hold back the tears. Back in 1995, Alison Hargreaves, a mother of two young children, was killed on the descent from K2. Almost 25 years later, her widow took a call from their daughter breaking the dreadful news that son Tom had been killed climbing another mountain not far from K2. It was as if tragedy had become an inheritance.

My emotional moment came as I watched The Last Mountain, a brilliant documentary telling the remarkable story of Alison Hargreaves and her family. The focus is on the lost Alison and Tom. We see them preparing for their expeditions that end in disaster. Tom especially is portrayed as a special talent, a young man who inherited his mother’s love of the world’s high places. We see his dedication, and feel the bitter irony of seeing his ultra-fit frame, knowing that this was the body that succumbed to the brutal elements on Nanga Parbat, Pakistan, in 2019.

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ITV’s Good Morning Britain features my reunion with Dad

None of us will ever forget living through the coronavirus pandemic. But for me the sweetest memory will be visiting my 93 year old father, Bob Skinner, in his care home, Sunrise of Cardiff, on Saturday. This was our first meeting since February – I was due to visit on 20 March, but Sunrise closed to visitors the day before. (Dad and I had already agreed a visit was not wise given the fast escalating COVID-19 crisis.)

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We meet again!

Mine was one of countless family reunions happening around the country as lockdown restrictions eased. But, unusually, ours was featured on television. After Bob so eloquently praised care home workers on ITV’s Good Morning Britain in April, the programme asked to film him meeting his first visitors since March. Virgil from the Sunrise team in Cardiff filmed my visit for ITV. Then Bob’s granddaughter Ria visited live on Monday’s show. You can see it here.

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Dad and I reunited – as seen on TV!

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All smiles: Bob meets Ria

Ria and I both loved the experience of seeing Bob face to face (two metres apart) after months of Zoom calls, phone chats and emails. I noticed how well he looked – the Sunrise care has done him a power of good! Viewers to the show will have been struck by his energy, enthusiasm and eloquence. (Kate Garraway referred to how positive Dad had been throughout.) He started a blog – Bob the Blogger– about his coronavirus experience back in March, and blogs almost every day. You can read his post about his latest TV appearance here.

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I couldn’t give Bob a hug – that was tough, but I gave myself a gentle hug as Dad came towards me as a symbol of affection. Good Morning Britain presenters Ben Shephard and Kate Garraway spotted that and commented that we can’t give the hugs we want to. Dad said how much better it was to see family face to face. It is the start of better times.

Kate recalled Dad comparing the coronavirus crisis with the Second World War during his earlier GMB interview. Bob explained the key difference today is we are fighting a totally unknown, deadly enemy, and don’t know how to deal with it. He discussed this contrast in more detail in a blog post yesterday.

Dad talked about how happy he has been at Sunrise. It was a blessing that he moved from his home in Penarth six months before the COVID-19 lockdown began. It would have been a huge worry had he still been living alone, although his former neighbours in Penarth such as Therese and Brian would have been wonderfully supportive. As Dad said, he has had no worries and has been happy from the moment he moved in.

Later in the interview, Ria stepped onto the ‘stage’ to say good morning to Bob and to the presenters. It was a wonderful moment, live on national TV. As Ria said, it was rather overwhelming seeing Bob for the first time for many months. “It’s marvellous to see you!” Bob exclaimed with a broad smile to Ria.

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You can watch the Good Morning Britain segment with Dad, Ria and me here:

Monday’s edition of Good Morning Britain was an emotional one for other reasons. Writer Michael Rosen spoke with huge affection about the care he received as he recovered from an almost fatal encounter with COVID-19. Talking about the NHS staff who saved his life, he explained: “Just massive and incredible, they saved my life several times.”

Screenshot 2020-07-15 at 10.05.01Interviewing Michael was an emotional experience for presenter Kate Garraway. This was her first day back after a four month break while husband Derek Draper was in intensive care and came close to death from COVID-19. Movingly, Michael said he hoped his experience gave Kate hope. Welcome back, Kate, and heartfelt best wishes to Derek and Michael.

Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket

Screenshot 2020-07-03 at 15.28.51Growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s, the BBC’s Test Match Special was my summer soundtrack. I loved the ritual of turning on the radio just before 11am in time for the start of play in a test match. It was a treat to hear the rich Hampshire accent of commentator John Arlott, the voice of cricket. Arlott also wrote for The Guardian, taking on the mantle of the legendary Neville Cardus.

The other great name in cricket journalism during the mid 20th century was EW (Jim) Swanton. The two men were chalk and cheese yet Stephen Fay and David Kynaston’s wonderful book Arlott and Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket shows unexpected similarities. Most notably, both men hated racism and were appalled by South Africa’s racist apartheid laws, which segregated races and treated non-whites as second or third class citizens. As pressure grew to cancel South Africa’s 1970 tour of England, Arlott said he would not broadcast tests if the tour went ahead. And Swanton argued strongly that South Africa should field multi-racial teams. That didn’t happen until the 1990s, after the end of apartheid. More on that later.

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Coronavirus: my 93 year old father praises care workers on UK national TV

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I was a very proud son today. My 93 year old father Bob Skinner appeared on prime time national TV to praise the care home staff who are making his life comfortable and happy despite being ‘locked down’ for a couple of weeks as the country struggles to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

Dad was interviewed live on ITV’s Good Morning Britain breakfast show. He explained how the carers at Sunrise of Cardiff have provided exceptional care, despite the challenges they themselves have faced during the pandemic. Bob described how he couldn’t have been luckier to be at his Sunrise home, thanks to the exceptional care from staff who, he said, have become friends. “I couldn’t praise them high enough,” he said. “I’ve even learned to play bingo!”

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On the move: how Bob Hoskins helped adults to learn to read

The sad news that Bob Hoskins had died prompted many memories of his part in great films like Who framed Roger Rabbit and Mona Lisa. But my mind went back to 1975, when he starred in a British TV series called On the Move, which helped adults learn to read.

Bob Hoskins On the Move BBC 1976

Bob Hoskins as Alf Hunt in BBC’s On the Move. Photo: BBC website

It was an unlikely Sunday evening BBC TV hit. Hoskins played a removal man called Alf Hunt, sympathetically portraying Alf’s frustration and embarrassment about how his reading and writing difficulties affected his everyday life. The series attracted 17 million viewers as Alf’s made progress after getting help to improve his literacy skills.

We watched it every week, from the catchy opening titles featuring the Dooleys’ hit, to the very end. At the age of 12 in 1975, I was lucky to have strong reading and writing skills, but knowing friends who struggled helped me identify with Alf. The hit also showed the power of television in an age when we had just three television channels: BBC One, BBC Two and ITV.

Who would have thought such a worthy role could have launched a Hollywood career?


BBC’s George Entwistle: £450,00 reward for failure

“Thanks for resigning, George. Will £450,00 be enough?” Photo: BBC

On Saturday, George Entwistle’s resignation as the BBC’s director-general looked like the act of a decent and principled man. It doesn’t look such a principled act now we know that Entwistle will be paid £450,000 for resigning. (A year’s salary.) A classic case of being rewarded for failure.

True, it’s a lot more modest than Rebekah Brooks’ £7m payoff from News International after the phone hacking scandal. But the licence fee payers are paying for it. It’s more than he was entitled to (six months.) And it’s another gift for the BBC’s enemies at News International and the Daily Mail, who will use it as ammunition in their campaign against the compulsory BBC licence fee.

Millions of licence fee payers face tough times. They will be outraged at the way they’re being punished for George Entwistle’s incompetence. Mr Decent has turned into Mr Shameless.

It suggests that Chris Patten and George Entwistle either didn’t consider how bad this would look, or didn’t care.

Will the BBC survive Newsnight and Savile?

Endgame: John Humphrys ends his editor-in-chief’s career

Last night, the BBC’s director general George Entwistle resigned after just 55 days in the job after horribly mishandling Newsnight’s disastrous false allegation of child abuse against Lord McAlpine. As I predicted on Ertblog yesterday, Entwistle’s encounter with John Humphrys on Today represented his exit interview.

The BBC is now in an even greater crisis than at the height of the storm over Newsnight’s scrapped exposé of Jimmy Savile. That was an error of omission. By contrast, the McAlpine libel was a grievous error of commission. That failure seems inexplicable coming straight after the Savile scandal, which would have prompted any half competent leader to insistent on the utmost vigilance in vetting future Newsnight reporting.

So is the BBC’s future in doubt? No – provided the new director general gets a grip on the corporation’s bloated and ineffectual management. (You couldn’t call them leaders.) What were they all doing? Why didn’t the PR team alert him to the tweet and Guardian story about Newsnight? Why did the lawyers approve the report libelling Lord McAlpine? It’s hard to imagine John Birt’s BBC scoring such an own goal. As the former Panorama reporter John Ware comments in The Observer, John Birt reinforced the Reithian values of rigour, fairness and accuracy during his time as director general – qualities disastrously absent during the latest Newsnight own goal.

And it is surely time to end the fiction that one person can be both the BBC’s chief executive and its editor-in-chief. As the FT’s John Gapper says, that ‘puts immense – perhaps unmanageable – weight on a single individual’.The BBC produced over 400,000 hours of TV and radio programming last year, plus a huge amount of online content. While no one person can personally review all that material, it makes much more sense for the director of news to be the editor-in-chief than the DG, who is in effect the BBC’s chief executive. (The Guardian’s Dan Sabbagh disagrees.)

Finally, the BBC Trust remains as ineffectual as the BBC governors they replaced. The Trust does a poor job both as the corporation’s governing body and as the BBC’s cheerleader and defender. Chris Patten’s uncertain performance as the Trust’s chairman during the Savile crisis reflects this ambiguity. Maybe it is time to accept that Ofcom would do a better job as a true regulator.

Why Britain needs the BBC

In this moment of crisis, we must hold the BBC to higher standards while treasuring the corporation as one of Britain’s greatest creations. Witnessing John Humphrys interrogating George Entwistle was to experience the eternal glory of the BBC. As John Ware says in The Observer,’on any objective view, the BBC is overwhelmingly a force for good and understanding’. It’s hard to imagine the Sunday Times humiliating Rupert Murdoch over phone hacking. (The Times and Sunday Times were very quiet about that scandal until late in the day.) Panorama’s report on the BBC, Newsnight and Jimmy Savile similarly reflected very well on the BBC’s culture and philosophy.

Unsurprisingly, the BBC’s commercial and political enemies have relished the corporation’s current crisis. Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mail have long wanted to emasculate the Beeb. They must be resisted. Today’s Sun on Sunday headline about Entwistle’s resignation (‘Bye bye Chump’) was a useful reminder of the crassness of the Murdoch press. Britain is a better place for the closure of the News of the World. By contrast, the loss of the BBC would be a tragedy. It must not happen.

Don’t Panic! Remembering Clive Dunn

‘Don’t Panic!’ cried Lance Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army. It summed up one of the greatest characters in post war British comedy, played by Clive Dunn, who has died at 92.

The joke, of course, was that Jones was the first to panic in the face of danger – real or imagined. He personified a generation who served in the last days of Victoria’s imperial army, survived the Great War trenches and ended their military days as a desperate last line of defence in 1940 as the Home Guard.

It came as a shock as a fan of Dad’s Army in the early 1970s to find out that Clive Dunn wasn’t an elderly man but a 50 something actor not much older than my father. (He played on the elderly image in the unlikely 1971 hit Grandad.) He outlived almost all the other Dad’s Army actors.

I remember going to London in 1975 to see Dad’s Army on stage at the Shaftesbury Theatre. We stayed in a basic hotel near Mount Pleasant Royal Mail sorting office. According to Wikipedia, the show was twice disrupted by bomb scares: rather appropriate given the wartime subject of this comic classic.

In praise of ITV’s A Kind of Loving, 30 years on

Above: Vic Brown (Clive Wood) and Donna Pennyman (Susan Penhaligon) in A Kind of Loving

Spring 1982 was an unforgettable time. Britain was at war with Argentina. I was sitting my A levels. And ITV made Sunday night viewing unmissable with a magnificent adaption of Stan Barstow’s Vic Brown trilogy.

A Kind of Loving was a famous example of kitchen sink drama from the early 1960s. It told the story of Vic Brown, a working class lad who endured a shot-gun marriage after getting his girlfriend pregnant. ITV’s 1982 classic followed his progress in often-painful detail. Barstow oversaw the television version of his play, and ensured that Vic was not seen as an unvarnished hero. Instead, we saw the pain of his wife, Ingrid (brilliantly portrayed by Joanne Whalley) as Vic lashed out at her and her domineering mother. After Ingrid lost her baby, Vic moved south to work with an old workmate in Essex. One of the most poignant aspects of the series was witnessing Ingrid’s pain as Vic distanced himself from her as he relished his new independent life – and his growing relationship with Donna, an actress appearing at the local theatre.

Vic and Ingrid split, and we see the emptiness of his life without a true partner. In time, Vic and Donna meet again, and Vic builds a relationship with her and her son – his son. (Strange to think that I was the exactly the same age as the son in the final episode set in 1973.)

Watching ITV’s 1982 classic shows how TV has changed in the last 30 years. It took 10 episodes to tell Vic’s story – unthinkable now. It was broadcast months after another Granada classic: Brideshead Revisited.

I missed the last episode as my friend Anthony came round. Curiously, I didn’t record the missed finale in my 1982 diary. I was delighted when I discovered the series on DVD – but missed the finale again as the third disc was damaged. I finally watched the last episode on a flight to San Francisco this week, treasuring memories of 1982 and three of my favourite books. Highly recommended.

Now, when will someone release on DVD 1978’s ITV series Fallen Hero about a Welsh rugby player who switches codes to league?

James Burke: Connections revisited

I caught a glimpse of James Burke on Mark Lawson’s BBC 2 show about Seventies TV tonight. It was pure nostalgia.

Burke was a fixture on the BBC during that dramatic decade and the late 1960s. He came to fame as a Tomorrow’s World presenter and commentator on the moon landings.

But for me his greatest hour was as the creator and presenter of Connections, a 10 part BBC series showing how technological developments are interlinked. I found it enthralling. It was a highlight of my Sundays along with the less intellectually stimulating The Big Match. (Although the contemporary success of Nottingham Forest was a surprise.)

I remember my mother’s cousin being as enthralled by the Connections book as I was when he stayed with us for my grandmother’s funeral in 1981. Another era. It’s hard to imagine a major TV channel devoting a 10-episode series to technology and science in 2012.