My first proper job was with the BBC in Glasgow. I went for an interview as a temporary secretary on a day when the personnel manager was ‘indisposed’ after a long lunch in the bar. It fell to her delightful and long suffering secretary, Heather, to test my shorthand abilities.
She. read. out. a para. graph. so s-l-o-w-l-y. that I could. write. every. word. in long. hand. So when it came to typing the piece back, I got it 100% right. And I got the job, as a ‘pool’ secretary to cover holiday, sickness, maternity leave and other general absences. I loved every minute of it – working in current affairs one week, the sports department the next, doing stints in press and publicity and typing the billings for Radio Times.
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I still stick up for the BBC – even when it patently doesn’t deserve it – out of a loyalty which ought really to have run out when I left to join Channel 4. ‘You’ll regret it’ my head of department told me. ‘You could have a job here for life, a pension and a gold watch when you retire’. I left anyway and a year or so later the BBC started making people like me freelance, with little prospect of guaranteed work and certainly no job for life, never mind a gold watch.
But I discovered something this week which may test even my love of the BBC.
While I am in Glasgow with Dad my own home in London is looked after by a lodger. But she’s leaving to go back to Greece and I have had to find a replacement. In fact I’ve found a delightful couple who seem very capable and well organised and who are saving up to buy a place of their own so this makes perfect financial sense.
They are so well organised, in fact, that they sent me an email this week telling me that they would, of course, be applying for their own TV licence. ‘Nonsense’ I said. You’ll be covered by mine!’ But apparently not.
Even though they are sharing my house, cooking in my kitchen, watching my television in my living room, if they dare to watch television in their bedroom they need their own, separate, licence.
When I phoned to query this, the infuriatingly cheerful call centre staff just kept repeating the same paragraph that I had already read on the website:
‘If you are a tenant or a lodger with an individual tenancy agreement for your room it would mean your room is classified as a separately occupied place and you must be covered by a valid TV Licence to watch or record television programmes as they're being shown on TV. This includes the use of devices such as a TV, computer, mobile phone, games console, digital box and DVD/VHS recorder.
If you’re a lodger and have a relationship with the homeowner – for example, a family member, common law partner, a nanny, au pair or housekeeper – then you do not require a TV Licence’.
I don’t have an ‘individual tenancy agreement’ with my lodgers. In fact I don’t have any agreement with them at all beyond an expectation that they will feed the cat; that they won’t have wild parties, at least not without inviting me, and that they pay me some rent to cover the bills. Otherwise the way of life is much the same as the flat sharing I did when I first moved to London in the 1970s – when there were no such things as portable televisions or laptop computers, and the entire household crowded round the one, small, TV set in the living room to watch one of the three available channels.
It was then, and is now, much more ‘Friends’ than ‘Rising Damp.’ But that’s not how the BBC and the licencing regulators see it.
So if you are one of the increasing number of people thinking you are helping the housing shortage by renting out a spare room, or someone looking for somewhere to live without the onus of renting a whole property, and you think one TV licence will suffice – be warned! You could be breaking the law. (Maximum fine £1,000).
And if my good pal from Glasgow also stays in my house for a few months while she works on Downton Abbey, she also needs a TV licence of her own, even though she has a fully paid up licence for her home in Scotland. This is worse than Council Tax! As long as you are paying that levy at your primary address you can travel round the country for work, or to be closer to an elderly or sick friend or relative, without having to pay again.
When I joined the BBC I was told that not having a TV licence was an instantly sackable offence and I have never been without one – but three is surely excessive and I don’t believe this is what was intended by the legislation.
Perhaps I should reclassify my house as a hotel. Hotels are allowed up to 15 bedrooms under one licence.
One of my Dad’s first ever jobs was working at the Citizen’s Theatre in Glasgow with the likes of Fulton Mackay and Stanley Baxter. He always hoped to make a career of writing and arranging music but, in the end, and with a growing family, he did the honourable thing and got a ‘proper job’. He still speaks fondly of those days at the ‘Cits’ and we even have some of his sheet music and recordings from that time.
The other week I saw a BBC documentary about Stanley Baxter, but it was on too late for Dad and I wasn’t quick enough to get it via the iplayer. I rang the company who made the programme, explaining Dad’s involvement with Stanley Baxter and asking if there was any possibility of a DVD copy of the programme.
‘Although we made the documentary’ the girl said, ‘the BBC owns the copyright and we’re not allowed to send out copies.’
‘Really? But if I ask the BBC first and they say yes will you send me a copy?’
‘They won’t. It’s not their policy to send copies of programmes to individuals, because what if everyone who missed a programme asked for a copy?
Well of course my Dad isn’t 'everyone' so I asked again if they could find a way to make an exception. I was passed to someone more senior and repeated my request, adding ‘I’m just trying to do something for my Dad which he might enjoy and which might take him back to a happier place in his life. He’s got Alzheimer’s.’
‘Ah’ she said, her tone suddenly altogether different. ‘My mum has dementia. I’ll see what I can do.’
She rang back to say that on this occasion, as a one-off, they would send us a copy. But she needed to remind me that I couldn’t use the DVD for commercial gain, or copy it, or broadcast it. And that if the BBC found out we would both very likely be in trouble.
So now I’m facing trouble twice over – for not furnishing my lodgers with a TV licence (although it’s actually their responsibility to be covered, I would also be liable for a fine if I knew that someone was watching TV in my house without a licence;) and for asking for a copy of a BBC programme. Which, while I am still paying my TV licence, I helped to fund.
It seems that the dear old Auntie BBC of my youth - so encouraging, so full of great ideas and opportunities - has grown curmudgeonly and mean spirited; the sort of auntie that no-one likes to visit much anymore but feels obliged to keep in touch with.
I don’t want to fall out with her altogether, but I certainly don’t feel quite the same affection as I once did.