15 years… but I’m only just starting, really

Our Sir Stan tribute.

Our Sir Stan tribute.

A £500 pay cut and a demotion. That’s what it cost me to land a job here at The Sentinel in October 1998.

To be fair to the then Editor-in-Chief, who I’ll admit to being a little intimidated by, there were no vacancies on the Newsdesk and so I began life at my home city paper as a reporter.

As for the pay cut, I think it was perhaps his way of saying: ‘You’re on probation. Just another reporter. Show me what you can do.”

Against all odds, I’m still here – 15 years later – having seen off (in the nicest possible way) two editors and almost 200 journalist colleagues who have retired, been made redundant, left the company, or, in some sad cases, passed away.

To say that The Sentinel has changed a great deal during that time would be an understatement – both in terms of our working environment and what we do.

When I started, our photographers were still developing prints in the dark room.

Fax machines were still de rigueur. There was no internet and mobile telephones were still like bricks.

Few people had them and the idea of sitting there and being ignorant of the world and everyone around you while fiddling with a phone would have seemed preposterous.

The internet was still very much a geek thing and if you wanted information you couldn’t just ‘Google it’ or fall back on Wikipedia.

You either telephoned someone, picked up a reference book or looked in our library – which is probably one of the reasons I have such a healthy respect for our archive.

Many of my colleagues (particularly the crotchety old, cardigan-wearing sub-editors) at our Festival Park offices would disappear off to the pub at lunchtime for a couple of pints to ‘liven them up’ for the afternoon.

Half the journalists regularly frequented the ‘smoking room’ which was located up a corner of our vast ground floor editorial department.

It stunk to high heaven and every time someone opened the door the awful smell wafted across the newsroom.

Those early days are a blur for me. Within two weeks of starting my job I was doing shifts on the Newsdesk – the engine room of any newsroom.

The hours were long, as they still are, and I’d be up at 4am to drive into the office and prepare the news list for morning conference.

We had seven editions back then – all printed on site and staggered throughout the day. I couldn’t help but feel proud of working here.

Within a couple of months of me joining the paper the gaffer had appointed me Deputy News Editor.

Since then I’ve been privileged to be News Editor, Head of Content, Assistant Editor and now Deputy Editor and columnist.

My memories of colleagues who have moved on are still fresh and my recollections of each role vivid.

Our campaigns – such as Proud of the Potteries, in answer to some half-baked survey which said Stoke-on-Trent was the worst place to live in England and Wales – really mattered to me, as a local lad.

When Sir Stanley Matthews died I remember the UK Press Gazette (the trade magazine for hacks) lauding the Blackpool Gazette for its special 24-page tribute to the great man which had been produced by its journalists who had worked ‘through the night’.

We had worked 24 hours straight and produced 64 pages for the next day. From scratch. I’ve still got a copy.

I recall our 20,000-signature campaign for a new North Staffs Hospital – taken to 10 Downing Street by a little lad who must now be old enough to go the pub.

I remember the first time I planned and compered a Sentinel event – Our Heroes in 2006. I was so nervous I couldn’t eat a thing and spilt red wine down my tux.

I remember the first Stoke’s Top Talent variety contest – with a queue of entrants snaking round the Victoria Hall at half eight on a Saturday morning.

I recall planning our first Young Journalist Awards and Class Act competition which gave away tens of thousands of pounds to local schools.

I’ll never forget the sheer terror of walking on stage at The Regent theatre in panto for the first time – and the strange mixture of elation and sadness as I took my final bow 33 shows later.

More recently I returned to news writing to help expose wrong-doing by former directors at Port Vale and was proud to be involved in the subsequent battle to save the club.

I was also privileged to travel down to London with two veterans to present our 17,000-strong petition to save the name of The Staffords.

And so it goes on.

Fifteen years ago this week I joined The Sentinel and now I look around the newsroom and there are only a handful of people who have been here longer than yours truly. Suddenly (and I’m not quite sure how it happened) I’m one of the old heads.

Thankfully I’ve still got Rob Cotterill, Dave Blackhurst, Steve Bould and Dianne Gibbons to look up to.

Astonishingly, they’ve more than 150 years’ service between them.

All local. All proud.

I guess I’m only just starting, really.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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In all honesty, this press regulation bun-fight has nothing to do with regional newspapers

The Sun's excellent front page yesterday.

The Sun’s excellent front page yesterday.

In the wake of yesterday’s historic agreement on press regulation we now have the entirely predictable and unseemly spectacle of the main protagonists doing their very best to claim victory and rewrite history.

Despite protestations to the contrary, it’s plain for all to see that, as per usual, leaders of all three political parties were more interested in point-scoring and saving face than genuinely achieving an accord which satisfied both the public clamour for change while safeguarding one of the pillars of our democracy.

Frankly, I’m very cynical about the Leveson Inquiry and rather despondent about the subsequent witch hunt.

This is not because I don’t think the inquiry was warranted. Neither am I cynical because I would try to defend any of the nefarious activities of certain journalists working for certain media organisations.

I’m cynical because I see how MPs, scarred and seething in the wake of the expenses scandal, were champing at the bit to bash Fleet Street.

I’m cynical because the rich and famous with axes to grind turned the inquiry into a cause célèbre and rather hijacked the very legitimate aims and concerns of the Hacked Off campaigners.

I’m cynical because, if anything, the real danger to people’s privacy and the enemy of good journalism – the internet and social media – was beyond Lord Justice Leveson’s remit, despite it becoming more relevant (and intrusive) by the day.

I’m cynical because many broadcast journalists who should know better are taking the moral high ground and reacting as though their counterparts in the print media have leprosy.

I’m cynical because the hacking of telephones by a minority of national newspaper journalists (exposed, of course, by other national newspaper journalists) has somehow been allowed to tar the entire industry with the same brush.

Lastly, I’m cynical because my colleagues and I in the regional press are wondering where Leveson and yesterday’s vote leaves us – the thousands of ordinary regional newspaper journalists who haven’t the faintest interest in hacking someone’s phone but may well pay a heavy price because some fools once did.

A few days ago the Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) Lord Hunt visited The Sentinel.

We gave him a whirlwind tour of Stoke-on-Trent and then he met staff on a paper that’s been chronicling the history of this part of the country for 159 years.

Lord Hunt gave us an insight into his meetings with senior politicians ahead of yesterday’s all-important vote and spoke of his hopes and fears.

We expressed our concerns that the regional press seemed to have been forgotten in the almighty post-Leveson scrap but could well pay the price of misdemeanours by staff on national newspapers.

He spent a couple of hours at Sentinel HQ and during that time we did our best to accentuate the differences between ourselves as A Friend Of The Family and the red tops and broadsheets who caused this mess.

We explained that we are the only media organisation with the resources and the inclination to cover both magistrates and crown courts in North Staffordshire on a daily basis – thus playing our role in the administration of justice locally.

To that end we extolled the virtues of my colleague Dianne Gibbons, who greets me in the office each day at 7.30am with a smile before heading off to court.

Dianne has been with The Sentinel for more than 50 years.

Like her colleague Dave Blackhurst, our health reporter for more than 30 years, Dianne’s knowledge and professionalism is unparalleled and the service they both provide to our readers is vital.

We informed the Chairman of the PCC that we are the only media organisation which provides in-depth coverage of local government – attending every city council meeting and outlining in full the ramifications of things like local authority cutbacks.

We told him of our investigative work which has exposed everything from the goings-on at Port Vale under the previous board of directors to various council gaffes and concerns over the capability of doctors at our local hospital.

We showed Lord Hunt our successful campaign to save the name of the Staffordshire Regiment which attracted 17,000 signatures on a petition which was taken by veterans to 10 Downing Street.

We told him about our public events – from the ever-popular Our Heroes Community Awards and the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Awards (now in its 38th year) to our Class Act campaign for schools, our Young Journalist Awards scheme run in conjunction with Staffordshire University, The Sentinel Business Awards and Stoke’s Top Talent which we organise in partnership with The Regent Theatre.

We pointed out that we mark all the important occasions in our neck of the woods with souvenir supplements – from the Olympic Torch coming to our city to Stoke City’s 150th anniversary or 40 years of the Dougie Mac.

Hopefully Lord Hunt went away knowing that we echo the view of Lord Leveson himself who said: “It is clear to me that local, high-quality and trusted newspapers are good for our communities, our identity and our democracy and play an important social role.”

This is what we strive to do at The Sentinel every day – irrespective of what Hugh Grant thinks.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

Don’t write local newspapers like The Sentinel off just yet

There is a book in the mini library in my office. It is blue with gold lettering and is entitled: ‘Rendezvous With The Past: Sentinel Centenary’.

It celebrates the first 100 years of the newspaper I work for and, unbelievably, was published back in 1954 – almost 20 years before I was born.

That’s right, The Sentinel is 158 years old. Its first issue emerged on January 7, 1854, and it was sold for threepence.

Since then, through two World Wars, various economic crises, under several monarchs, and despite numerous technological advances, this newspaper has been part and parcel of life in North Staffordshire and South Cheshire.

Last week, however, some of our colleagues in the broadcast media were voicing The Sentinel’s obituary.

Blurring the stories of the takeover our parent company with a separate decision to close the Daily Mail’s printing press in Stoke-on-Trent, they were helpfully reading us the last rites.

The first many of us knew of the rumours of our demise were from the messages of condolence which appeared on social media on Thursday morning.

‘Sad to hear about The Sentinel closing’ Tweeted one concerned city councillor.

Then readers began ringing in and advertisers started querying their accounts.

Suffice to say The Editor-in-Chief wasn’t best pleased and the thin partition wall separating our rooms did little to muffle his annoyance.

To be fair, many ‘experts’ – usually former journalists or academics – have been predicting The Sentinel’s imminent closure for several years now.

Indeed, if I had a fiver for every time someone had claimed the end is nigh for us old-fashioned print hacks here at Etruria I’d have enough money to, well… buy an annual subscription for The Sentinel.

The doom-mongers’ logic is simple: The circulation figures of every newspaper in the country – both national and local – have fallen over the last 20 years, thanks in large part to the advent of the internet and digital media.

They argue that people can now access information on their telephones and other hand-held devices or computers at home and in the workplace and many enjoy the immediacy of broadcast media.

It is also absolutely correct to say the economic downturn has hit advertising revenues hard and my industry has suffered more than its fair share of redundancies since 2008.

On the face of it, the prognosis seems gloomy and it is, of course, in the interests of our colleagues in radio and television to talk up our decline.

Their pessimism is shared by many former newspaper journalists turned public relations professionals/retired persons espousing the view that standards have fallen and things are ‘not how they were in their day’.

At the same time we have seen the rise of so-called ‘citizen journalism’.

It seems anyone can be a journalist these days. You don’t need any training, you don’t need any knowledge of the law and you don’t need to be able to assimilate information or even string a sentence together.

Just get yourself access to the internet, a funky pseudonym and an attitude and, hey presto, you’re Clark Kent. Or not.

You see, it’s one thing to write some unsubstantiated nonsense on a website read by three men and a dog and another thing entirely to have you work printed in a format which is properly scrutinised daily by hundreds of thousands of people.

Very few people record radio station news bulletins or can be bothered to listen again or watch TV news programmes on the internet.

However, there are plenty who will march into The Sentinel’s reception waving a copy of yesterday’s paper and crying foul if we make a mistake.

Working for a newspaper is harder than working as a broadcast journalist and please don’t let anyone ever tell you different.

As one of the few people left at The Sentinel who has ever had the dubious privilege of making a phone call and saying the immortal words: ‘Stop the press’, I’d just like to say: Don’t write us off just yet.

The Sentinel still sells almost 50,000 copies every day – making it the sixth biggest-selling regional newspaper in the country.

In addition, our website is visited by more than 400,000 unique users each month. See, we can do new-fangled too.

Here at Etruria we employ nearly 50 full-time journalists and still see it as vital to cover council meetings and court hearings and inquests every day – something no other media organisation locally has the staff to do on anything other than an occasional basis.

How many times does a regional television camera crew visit the ST postcode area each month? How often do you hear local radio stations following our lead on stories?

What’s more, The Sentinel still understands the importance of championing the communities it serves – as do its journalists, many of whom are local to the area.

Think about the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality of the Year Awards; The Sentinel’s Business Awards; the Class Act campaign for local schools; the Young Journalist Awards and Stoke’s Top Talent variety competition.

Whether it’s through the Our Heroes community awards, the Save Our Staffords campaign or by breaking the stories such as the ones which led to the removal of the discredited board of directors at Port Vale – this newspaper provides what I honestly believe is an invaluable service.

The Sentinel had been doing its job for 118 years when yours truly was born and I’m confident it will still be delivering journalism to local people long after I’ve gone.

We walk with the ghosts of colleagues long since passed here at The Sentinel and let me tell you we carry the burden of the weight of history proudly.

So the next time someone tells you the local rag is finished, just give a wry smile and tell them you’ll only believe it when you read it in The Sentinel.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Proud to see Stoke’s Top Talent shine once again

When you are involved in the organisation of any big community event there’s always that nagging doubt: The fear that no-one will actually turn up.

In this case I needn’t have worried. When I arrived at the Victoria Hall in Hanley at half past seven on Saturday morning the queue of entrants and their supporters was already snaking around the building.

It felt like a homecoming. Stoke’s Top Talent was back after a year off and so was the buzz surrounding our showcase for home-grown stage stars.

They say the role of the media is to inform, to educate and to entertain.

Stoke’s Top Talent certainly ticks the third box and, like the Our Heroes awards which we judge tomorrow, provides this newspaper with an opportunity to champion the communities it serves.

The contestants came from all over our patch. From across North Staffordshire and South Cheshire.

They came from Crewe and Congleton, Biddulph and the Moorlands, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Stone, Stafford and, of course, the Potteries.

For some, simply performing in front of hundreds of people at the Vicki Hall is thrill enough. Not everyone harbours dreams of a career in showbusiness.

For example, at the age of 74, I suspect crooner Graham Horne knows that the competition is unlikely to propel him to West End stardom.

But, as he said himself, he just loves to sing in front of an audience and he did Ol’ Blue Eyes proud once again.

I reckon it would take a brave man to bet against Chell’s finest making it through to the latter stages of the contest.

In sharp contrast to Graham, there were scores of youngsters there on Saturday for whom the dream of a career in musical theatre is very much alive.

From the brilliant dance act Dolly Mix who just get better and better to guitar virtuoso David Jiminez Hughes, of Silverdale, who won a few hearts and minds at the end of a very long day.

For them Stoke’s Top Talent could well be a springboard to future success – allowing them to follow in the footsteps of Abbey Hulton dancer Aaron Corden.

He was sat right behind me on the front row, watching this year’s hopefuls with a wistful look in his eyes.

Now one of the top dancers at a prestigious performing arts school in Cambridge, Aaron has already danced for Take That and the Black Eyed Peas and will be back home in Stoke-on-Trent for Christmas appearing in the Regent Theatre panto alongside whoever wins the competition which kick-started his career.

For others with no great ambition beyond the contest itself, it was simply a case of testing the water.

Some were doing it for charity like the Dolly Tubs – four ladies with big personalities squeezed into leotards and tutus in the name of Caudwell Children.

They showed us their best sides as well as their backsides and no-one minded that we’d only just had breakfast.

Some of the contestants will have wanted to do this for years: Wanted to prove to themselves that they could stand up in front of an audience and sing, dance, tell jokes or perform tricks.

Whatever their reasons for getting involved, the 147 acts who had their moment in the spotlight on Saturday can be rightly proud of themselves for having the bottle to get up on that stage.

For me, being a judge will always be something of a surreal experience because I’m just a punter.

I’m not in the industry. I don’t do am dram. There are so many people more qualified than yours truly who could be judging the contestants.

But that’s why Jonny Wilkes and Christian Patterson were there. That’s why panto producer Kevin Wood (‘the judge with the grudge’) and West End star Louise Dearman will be at the heats and grand final in September – along with a host of other famous faces.

Me? Well, I once embarrassed himself in panto but my main qualification is that I have the distinction of having sat through every single Stoke’s Top Talent audition and heat since year one.

I just try to say what I see – which isn’t always easy when Jonny Wilkes is writing inappropriate comments on your judging sheet, trying to make you laugh when you’re speaking and stitching you up with the voting.

Ever the performer, you have to be on your toes with our Jonny when there’s a mic around.

Even so, it was a wonderful day which I could tell meant a lot to Jonny. Christian, meanwhile, seemed genuinely blown away at the calibre of some of the acts. He wasn’t alone.

It was a day of raw emotion ranging from the nerves of first-time contestants to the elation of those put through to the callbacks.

Then there was the genuine pleasure of seeing a few familiar faces return stronger and better with two years’ worth of practice under their belts.

On Saturday we have the unenviable task of cutting the remaining 110 acts down to just 50 who will contest the heats.

It really is a case of comparing apples and pears when gymnasts, dancers, singers, musicians, comedians, a drag queen and a mentalist go head-to-head.

However, unlike some of the the TV talent shows which make a point of poking fun at some of their contestants, Stoke’s Top Talent is a win-win for all concerned.

Everyone will get their moment in the sun and everyone will walk away with huge respect from the judges, their fellow competitors and the audiences.

What’s more, someone will walk away with a cash prize of £2,000 a professional theatre contract.

For me, though, it’s all about generating pride. Pride in our communities and pride in the potential of local people to aspire to great and memorable moments which will stay with them all their lives.

*The callback auditions for Stoke’s Top Talent take place on Saturday (August 4) at the Victoria Hall in Hanley, starting at 9.30am and are free to watch.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

Why not try the theatre? You might just enjoy yourself

It would certainly make for interesting reading if the people of North Staffordshire were surveyed to ask them whether or not they go to the theatre on a regular basis.

I suspect the numbers who would answer ‘yes’ are pretty small. Maybe 10 per cent at best.

The truth is that, aside from the annual trip for a Christmas pantomime, most families don’t give much thought to watching live stage productions.

It’s simply not high on their list of priorities.

While tens of thousands flock to watch Premier League Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium once a fortnight and 5,000-plus visit Vale Park to see my lot play, local theatres are forced to eke out an existence.

This is a crying shame when you consider the wonderful venues we have here in the Potteries.

In The New Vic at Basford we have Europe’s first, purpose-built theatre-in-the-round putting on many home-cooked shows every year as well as top-drawer touring productions.

In Hanley we have no less than three superb auditoriums. The newly-refurbished Mitchell Youth Arts Centre, the magnificent Regent theatre and the grand old Victoria Hall.

Those of us with long memories may still wince at the city council’s Cultural Quarter overspend but no-one can say the project didn’t gift us two bloody great, very distinct city centre venues.

In addition, we shouldn’t forget the Queen’s Theatre in Burslem and equally fine Stoke-on-Trent Repertory Theatre on Leek Road.

All of the above put on superb live entertainment but, sadly, this is very often in front of half-empty houses.

Despite being privately-run businesses, many theatres rely heavily on local authority subsidies which – in the current climate – are harder to justify than ever before.

So why the apathy? Why aren’t more people choosing the theatre for a good night out?

Some people will doubtless blame the cost – although it’s certainly less expensive than tickets for a football match (depending where you sit) – and probably on a par with a trip to the cinema.

Others will blame the lack of variety and the quality of the shows on offer.

However, the reality is that if you look across all our local venues there is usually something to suit the taste (and pockets) of everyone.

If you ask me I reckon the reason that most people don’t go to the theatre is because a) they view it as the preserve of the middle classes or b) they’ve never experienced a live show. Or both.

Perhaps it’s the fault of schools. Or perhaps it’s our demographic.

I know some blokes who wouldn’t dream of setting foot in a theatre – preferring to sit in their local boozer or in front of the telly every night than stepping outside of their comfort zone to watch a stage performance.

The great tragedy of this is that they don’t know what they are missing and the theatres are missing them.

The great irony is that local drama schools are filled with bright-eyed, enthusiastic and multi-talented youngsters itching to perform in front of bigger audiences.

Many of them, along with a few contestants who are a little longer in the tooth, will be taking part in this year’s Stoke’s Top Talent competition which kicks off in less than two weeks’ time.

All of them, I know, would dearly love your support.

The show is called Stoke’s Top Talent but in truth the acts will come from all over The Sentinel’s patch – from Biddulph and Congleton to Newcastle, Leek, Stafford and Stone – as well as the Potteries.

Through the competition, which offers cash prizes and a pantomime contract, they will get to appear on stage at the Victoria Hall and possibly The Regent theatre where the heats and grand final will take place.

Among the 170-plus acts taking part in the auditions will be bands, singers, musicians, dancers, impersonators, magicians and comedians.

The competition is championed by our own stage star Jonny Wilkes who gives up his time for free to work with the contestants and compere the show.

Stoke’s Top Talent is the reason that teenage dancer Aaron Corden, from Abbey Hulton, is now living the dream of working towards a career in musical theatre.

Self-taught from watching videos of Michael Jackson on the internet, he once carried a bench from Northwood Park to The Regent theatre to provide a prop for his act.

Having performed as a dancer for none other than Take That and the Black Eyed Peas over the last 18 months, he is now one of the top students at a prestigious performing arts school in Cambridge.

But a week on Saturday Aaron will be back at the Victoria Hall where his journey began, to watch this year’s hopefuls as they try to impress the judges.

Why don’t you join him and a very partisan crowd for the auditions?

It is a free-of-charge family day out and gives people who have perhaps never seen inside the place which recently played host to made-in-Stoke-on-Trent rock god Slash the chance to look around.

As someone who’s been lucky enough to appear in panto at The Regent and be a judge for Stoke’s Top Talent, I can assure you that you’ll be in for a treat.

*The auditions for Stoke’s Top Talent are free to watch and take place at the Victoria Hall in Hanley from 10am on Saturday, July 28 – with the call-backs the following Saturday, August 4.

The closing date for entries for Stoke’s Top Talent is Friday, July 20, and anyone interested in entering can download the application form by logging on to: http://www.stokestoptalent.com

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

The sorry state of the UK’s dumbed-down TV is forcing me to watch period drama

That’s it then. There’s nothing for it. I guess I’m going to have to watch Downton Abbey.

Having set my stall out long ago against costume romps, the latest viewing figures for British TV are so depressing that they leave me with no choice but to cave in.

How did it come to this? Well, the sad truth is that ITV’s flagship period drama – the most successful since 1981’s Brideshead Revisited – is actually the only proper programme in the top 10 most-watched shows of 2011.

According to figures just released by the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (Barb), reality TV and ‘talent’ shows account for six of the top 10 slots.

The X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent each grab two places while Strictly Come Dancing and I’m A Celebrity (Get Me Out Of Here) also chart.

Now, as a staunch supporter of our very own Stoke’s Top Talent, I’ve got nothing against variety competitions. If they do what they say on the tin, that is.

But the X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent aren’t anything of the sort.

They are, first and foremost, entertainment programmes and anyone who doesn’t understand that simple conceit is being emotionally mugged.

Let’s face it: If they were genuine talent competitions then the likes of Jedward and Wagner would never have got anywhere near a television camera.

They were put through to the finals in order that we would all sit around asking each other why they had made it to the finals.

As one of the few people in the UK not under the spell of PJ and Duncan – sorry, I mean Ant and Dec – I have to say I’m A Celebrity (Get Me Out Of Here) also leaves me cold.

Morecambe and Wise they are not and if I want to watch people eating a kangaroo’s testicles I can observe the queue for pies at any League Two stadium that Port Vale visit.

As for Strictly (I’m told you’re supposed to shorten the title) I have no real objection other than the fact that it seems a tad self-indulgent of the BBC to throw its own presenters into the mix with the so-called celebrities.

For example, no sooner had Alex Jones finished fawning over the latest guest on the unfathomably random One Show than she was all sequins and cleavage doing a rumba.

When you take out the boring annual Coronation Street set-piece and the yearly Eastenders misery-fest that leaves only Downton and the Royal Wedding – which topped the chart with an average of 13.59 million viewers but doesn’t really count as it’s a one-off event.

I’m afraid to say that, had it not been for William and Kate’s nuptials, Simon Cowell’s empire would have reigned supreme once again.

What a depressing thought.

Granted, I’m not your archetypal television watcher: If a programme doesn’t contain space ships, the supernatural, an archaeological dig, cricket, Port Vale or Bon Jovi then it’s unlikely to be on my radar.

However, once in a while a fine piece of drama or a brilliant new comedy will grab my attention.

For example, programmes such as the excellent Band Of Brothers or current hit shows such as Boardwalk Empire or Game Of Thrones made the cut.

Of course, the aforementioned sweeping epics were made by U.S. network HBO because neither the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 nor Channel 5 have the resource or the gumption to pull off anything so cinematic.

The truth is I haven’t watched terrestrial telly for a long time and so I have to ask: Did IQs drop sharply while I was away?

Along with the shows I dismissed earlier there is even more vacuous tripe to avoid like Big Brother, Geordie Shore and The Only Way Is Essex.

I’ve clearly turned prematurely into a curmudgeonly old git because it seems to me that warm and engaging family programmes (Auf Wiedersehen Pet/The Darling Buds Of May) and non-offensive and clever comedies (Only Fools and Horses/Blackadder) are now considered too bland.

Meanwhile brainless is the new mainstream as we continue to worship at the cult of celebrity.

We’ve got more channels to choose from than we’ve ever had yet the only time the nation properly comes together is to watch warbling non-entities or Z-list celebrities wretching over a plate of cockroaches.

It’s so bad I’m almost looking forward to the Olympics. Yes, OK, and Downton Abbey.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Not such a Wacko idea, Darren…

I was chuffed to bits that someone I met last year through Stoke’s Top Talent is attempting to learn a living from his undoubted ability and devotion to his musical icon. Darren Cyples, from Burslem, has been working on his Michael Jackson dance routines for almost two decades and let me tell you he is awesome. Not only does he look the part and have all the Wacko Jacko garb, he has the King of Pop’s mannerisms and moves down to a tee. I remember speaking to Darren at the after-show party following the final of Stoke’s Top Talent at The Regent Theatre. He was disappointed not to have won but I told him not to give up. Now aged 38, Darren, who actually works for a taxi firm, is trying to earn a living as a Michael Jackson tribute act thanks to encouragement from friends and family. Good luck, mate. You deserve to succeed.