TV Review: Made in Britain, BBC2

Is Evan Davis the most modest man in Britain? In a recent Sunday newspaper Q&A he was asked whether he was too ‘lightweight’ to present the Today programme. His answer:

I’m keen not to lose the things that made people say I was lightweight, but I’m also keen not to be seen as lightweight. There would be no point if I became a clone of the others, but equally it would be no good if I was seen as the one who did funny features about walking dogs in the park. Finding that balance isn’t easy. In five years I might have cracked it.

This from someone whose CV is enough to make nearly ever other journalist at the BBC – or pretty much anyone else, for that matter – seem a bit lightweight: PPE at Oxford, where he edited Cherwell, followed by a Masters at Harvard then a spell at the high-powered and dry-as-dust Institute for Fiscal Studies. Indeed, for someone like that to be accused of being a lightweight is surely something of an achievement. Doesn’t it indicate that he must be remarkably good at wearing his learning lightly?

Tinsel Tits“, as he’s not known despite the playful allegations of tabloid journos, is no pushover either. A couple of years ago he asked the most killer question I’ve ever heard on the Today programme. Mark Serwotka, head of a public services union, was expatiating on how people in the private sector are paid so much better than his members. Davis cheerily wondered:

If it is so bad in the public sector then why don’t you cheer when the government says it is, perhaps, going to privatise the Post Office or to put workers in the private sector? You should be saying great this is our chance to earn a bit more. But I never feel that the public sector unions do cheer when the government says it will put things into the private sector.

Cue spluttering. Anyway, he seems to be doing something right: at the moment, it seems less the BBC’s Evan Davis, than Evan Davis’s BBC. I may be missing something but, as well as Today, I believe he does Radio 4’s The Bottom Line, BBC TV’s Dragons DenBusiness Nightmares with Evan Davies and Panorama. He somehow also finds time to do multi-part documentaries on business themes, first on the City and now Made in Britain (BBC2, Mondays at 9pm and on the iPlayer) about “what our country is good at and how it can pay its way in the world”.

This week’s was on manufacturing and made a pleasant change from the usual doom-laden prognostications (are prognostications ever anything else I wonder?). Davies reckoned that we were actually pretty good at making things, being the seventh-biggest manufacturing nation in the world. Of course, we’d lost an awful lot, but had managed to replace it with higher value activities, illustrated by an enjoyable look at the amazing machines that British Aerospace, Maclaren, and Brompton Bicycle are producing. This process was explained, and very well, with references to the economic theory relating to the comparative advantages of trade.

There was nothing flashy here, just an easy-to-follow and sensible interpretation of the facts. However, for all the positivity the conclusion was that we had to do better: we have an imbalance of exports over imports and manufacturing is best placed to fill this gap.

Davis reckoned the key was to save more, as more British savings would translate into more investment in British manufacturing. Perhaps. But isn’t it also plausible that greater savings might go into competing uses? Fiscal deficits, property development, financial services, consumer or leisure market activities, overseas investment, and so on? In fact, pursuing such alternatives might be very sensible. As Davis’s tells us repeatedly, high-performance economies make best use of the resources at hand and who’s to judge?

Certainly none of the interviewees suggested they’d had problems funding their growth. Indeed, Maclaren’s new factory for consumer sports cars cost an eye-watering £800m, and this for a commercially unproven product. For what it’s worth, a quick Google search turned up a recent report and CEO survey, both by PwC, which address the ‘key issues facing companies in the UK manufacturing sector’; access to funding or its cost don’t feature in either at all. And, as far as I know, academic studies haven’t been able to establish convincingly that British manufacturing has suffered from a lack of capital.

It was, then, a bit of a pity that a programme that started off keen to overturn some depressing myths ended by unquestioningly concluding something that is all too arguable. But whatever the merits of Davis’s conclusion I think it’s a very good thing that this sort of heavyweight topic is being aired at prime time on a main BBC channel. As the programme was written as well as presented by Davis, one has to wonder whether it would have been made without his journalistic skills and, I suppose it has to be said, his quirky charm.

Given his ubiquity, we may get a bit sick of him. And it may be that all this attention might go to his head (a head that’s looking a lot less like a peanut since he’s filled out a bit – he’s literally grown into TV). He’ll probably soon start trying to save the world. But in the meantime, he’s the best explainer of business to a general audience we’ve probably ever seen in this country: a serious role, and certainly not one for a lightweight.

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21 thoughts on “TV Review: Made in Britain, BBC2

  1. Worm
    June 23, 2011 at 09:06

    I think he seems a genuinely nice chap and I prefer his gentle style far above the belligerent John Humphries. Perhaps it’s not his questions on Today that people find lightweight, but the way he asks them – with lots of reticent ums and ahs and shuffling of paper, and, bless him, just look at the picture above. ‘Quizzical’ is the word I’d use.

      ian russell
      June 23, 2011 at 13:16

      I heard Humphrys explain he does that because that’s how he sees the audience asking the questions. He’s not wrong.

      Funny bunch, the Today team, (though, probably, not disimilar to The Dabblers in real life). Davis, whose features surely evolved along the same Linnaean line as Arnold E. Neuman’s, is probably the best. When paired with Webb, it’s good cop bad cop for the politicians.

      • Gaw
        June 23, 2011 at 16:32

        I think the Today team do a good job in circumstances which make it impossible to please everyone. I even like John Humphrys.

    June 23, 2011 at 09:23

    He does have a nice unobtrusive style but you sense he does dumb himself down a bit in that patronising BBC Breakfast way for Dragons Den (any light entertainer could present that in the way he does – I’d like to see him evaluate the dragons a bit), while ‘Business Nightmares’ was frustratingly slow and bleedin’ obvious. But he’s good on radio and infinitely preferable to the absurd self-caricature that is Peston.

    • Gaw
      June 23, 2011 at 16:40

      I found the Business Nightmares programme long on graphics and short on substance. But I wonder how the general viewer, who isn’t so interested in business would have found it. I found the most disappointing element was the talking heads (Branson, Dyson, Gerry Robinson, etc.) who between them hardly had a single interesting thing to say about anything. A bit strange that – perhaps the editing was partly to blame.

    June 23, 2011 at 10:00

    Sound man, Davis and the programme researchers must have burnt the midnight oil finding metal bashers. The statement seventh largest manufacturer, pure fantasy. On what, one implores, are these figures based. I once again chant my mantra. The market capitalisation (what your business is really worth if you flog it now) of one German manufacturer (Siemens) is worth more than the entire British manufacturing base. Take a drive, Mr Davis ‘twixt Ofterdingen and Essen or Bergamo and Milan then come back and re-tool your programme.
    The high tech machinery looks impressive but in reality the giant step forward took place twenty five years ago.
    Consider our one and only computer entrepreneur, Sugar and compare him with Steve Jobs or Michael Dell.

      ian russell
      June 23, 2011 at 13:02

      ”our one and only computer entrepreneur, Sugar”

      a) is he?
      b) is he?

      • Gaw
        June 23, 2011 at 16:41

        Both excellent questions, Ian. I’d answer yes and no. In any event, I think he’s a thoroughly bad thing.

    June 23, 2011 at 10:38

    When and not if the Japanese manufacturing industry retracts further the Honda, Toyota and Nissan assembly plants will disappear, along with the swarms of suppliers many of whom are Japanese subsidiaries, both Ford and Vauxhall are designed and mainly engineered in Köln and Groß-Gerau, the strings being pulled in Detroit. The UK operations now but of nuisance value to the parent companies. Ever since Concorde our aircraft industry has been mainly sub contracting to the boys in Toulouse, the one exception being Rolls Royce. With spending on defence whittling away by the hour many of the remaining manufacturers in that industry will struggle.

    Our biggest export in the last twenty years has been jobs, the undoubtedly shiploads of dosh swilling about in that time having been poured into the mortgage industry, the usurers and IPods. Invested sensibly in meaningful business would have ensured a better future for all.

    It is of great significance that the real growth industries over the past twenty five years have been essentially parasitic, lawyers, consultants and surreal finance this whilst the true core diminishes.

    • Gaw
      June 23, 2011 at 16:56

      Lighten up, Malty!

      Measuring the relative size of our manufacturing sector by driving round seems a bit of a doubtful prospect… Germany’s looks bigger and is bigger. Not sure what France’s looks like but it’s smaller.

      And as for computers, surely ARM and Autonomy knock Amstrad into a cocked smartphone? Anyway, I’m not sure there are many Continental European IT entrepreneurs that one can mention in the same breath as Jobs, Gates, etc. Perhaps there are, in fact, none.

      I’m not sure there’s any prospect of our car manufacturers moving. Finally, re the jobs going more generally, as our Evan pointed out, we’ve got a million more people in employment now that we had ten years ago.

        June 23, 2011 at 18:31

        Gaw, I did say he was a sound man and I use the driving around stuff as a pointer, the fact remains…as for the million jobs…Tesco’s have done well.

        Komputing and the Krauts. The application of process control in the machine tool environment (bolting computers to machines)…Robert Bosch, value added for Kraut gmbh…massive. Robert Bosch bolted to Trumpf laser technology, value added for Kraut gmbh…astronomic.

        Komputing and the Krauts, the MP3 codec (Fraunhofer), value added for Kraut gmbh through licensing…colossal.

        Kraut Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung may not have its names on laptops and desktops, apart from Fujitsu Siemens and HeidePC, down in the boiler room their stuff is everywhere.

        The British wander through the nand gate, one side of Letchworth’s Blackhorse Rd had the name ICL above it, had. Process control..Elliott automation were given a golden start when the engine was a thermionic device, squandered
        I was there, head stuck in the Concorde’s wing root stress analysis computers.

        Apologies for rant, pet subject, tunes of glory etc.

        • Gaw
          June 24, 2011 at 07:04

          The manufacturing sector of nearly every country in the world is going to fail to measure up to Germany’s. It’s what they do and sometimes it looks very clever, as it does now, and sometimes not so much as it did a few years ago. Ditto with our invisible exports which, of course, are currently in a down period.

          We worry about other financial centres (or some Londoners do) but what happens when Taiwan, Korea and even China start building machine tools as good as Germany’s? It’s a long game for sure.

          Anyway, in manufacturing, we don’t do too badly, statistically and anecdotally. Right now I wonder what the future has in store for Italy – I understand many of their niche manufacturing sectors are being destroyed by Asian competition, much in the way some of our older staples went but higher up the value chain.

    June 23, 2011 at 11:48

    ‘Made in Britain’ reminded me of one of those Simpsons infommercials – atomic energy, our nuclear friend – with Evan Davies as Troy McClure.

    • Worm
      June 23, 2011 at 13:06

      spot on Henry!!

    • Gaw
      June 23, 2011 at 16:43

      Indeed! I’ve now realised that one of the reasons I enjoyed the programme was that it was infused with the sort of optimism about technological and national progress that we seem to have said goodbye to.

  6. Brit
    June 23, 2011 at 13:53

    If it is so bad in the public sector then why don’t you cheer when the government says it is, perhaps, going to privatise the Post Office or to put workers in the private sector? You should be saying great this is our chance to earn a bit more. But I never feel that the public sector unions do cheer when the government says it will put things into the private sector.

    I will definitely be using that one.

    June 24, 2011 at 08:51

    I enjoyed watching his face on the trip in the Mclaren, I imagine that’s his Prince Albert face?

    Yup Its good to have someone at the Blessed Beeb who does not subscribe the the Keynes myths, not sure how long he will last believing that investment will only come from savings…but we can hope.

    Yes its all true, we are pretty good at making stuff, but I dont think the way we make stuff (high end, value added) is going to make a pop of difference to our current troubles.

    The problem is not GKN Drivetrain, its Shazza’s and trace’s nail and beauty parlor, and getting Mrs Wong from downtown Shanghai to pop down for a quick facial.

    This is why it was always an economic problem not a financial one, and until thats sorted (which it is not) I will remain laying in one of Private James Frazer’s coffins.

    • Gaw
      June 24, 2011 at 08:58

      Isn’t it the case that we’re just not as rich as we thought we were? We funded a lot of consumption and spending through borrowing of one sort or another. We have to pay that back before we can start having fun again. It seems a perennial British problem, living beyond our means.

    June 24, 2011 at 12:24

    Or as I say to anyone who asks what I do, “I do as little as possible for as much as possible”. I suspect everyone else on the planet tries to do the same thing.
    Except living in an advanced economy like ours, I have more chance of pulling it off than Mumbai’s dabbawalas……for the moment at least.

    July 5, 2011 at 20:16

    I watched Made in Britain. I quite like Davis, but I found his enthusiasm for the way British economy has ‘evolved’ quite out of touch and wrong with the issues facing all countries given global debt.

    He talks about making money, explains quite rightly that Britain can no longer afford to pay for low end manufacturing and gives us the propaganda twist that it is a good thing we send the work to China!

    Then he shows us BAE Systems success, a company known for corruption and that makes its profit selling arms to governments that torture and repress their people. That is Britain’s best manufacturing promise?

    It seems to me he overlooks the elephant in the room – that many economies are essentially doomed due to private banks that issue our currency and charge interest. In America and the UK – all money is debt (and in other countries also). No matter how an economy grows if its government is in debt due to letting a private bank print its money and apply fractional reserve techniques they will ultimately collapse.

    And what then for a country like Britain – we no longer have the skills or the infra-structure to restart low end manufacturing. When money is worthless due to inflation no amount of services can keep us going. Our people need to educate themselves amount the way money is transferred from poor to rich through corrupt systems, and to learn how to reclaim the skills and processes that we gave away. Mark my words – we will need them one day!

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