‘What the government is doing to the BBC is very dangerous’
We speak to Martin Borley-Cox about his 36 years in broadcasting and a new career in theatre
By Natalie Bloomer
Anyone who has lived in Northamptonshire at any point in the last 30 years is likely to have listened to, read or watched a news story by Martin Borley-Cox.
During three decades at the BBC he witnessed huge changes in the journalism industry and to Northamptonshire itself.
Now he speaks to NN Journal about some of the biggest stories he’s covered, his fears about the BBC and his new career in theatre.
Under pressure from successive Conservative governments, the BBC has made significant cuts in recent years. Now with a new licence fee settlement due to be made, the corporation is bracing itself for even more.
It’s something Martin Borley-Cox is all too aware of. He took voluntary redundancy from the BBC after working at the organisation for 31 years. He was one of several staff locally who did the same.
“The BBC is as vital now as it has ever been. What the government is doing to it is very dangerous - in reducing the ability it has to serve the British people in the way the British people need it to work for them through financial cuts that we see in local radio as much as in national services.
“I really feel sorry for the existing staff who are trying to do as much as they possibly can without the resources or the number of people they need. The quality has to suffer in the longer term if they do not have the people on the ground to go out and get the stories.”
Over the years Borley-Cox has covered some of the biggest national and local stories. Commentating on Princess Diana’s funeral cortege as it passed through Northampton on the way to Althorp House was perhaps the most memorable.
“I was standing on Harlestone Road in Duston, not far from where I lived at the time. Both sides of the pavement were three deep in people waiting to see the funeral cortege. One man pinned a white ribbon to my jacket. Another man was a journalist from a US publication. As soon as the hearse appeared - it’s windscreen covered by flowers - spontaneous applause broke out.
“The hearse passed within seconds and the crowd, now subdued, returned to their homes, no doubt to watch the TV coverage. One elderly woman, with tears in her eyes, said to me ‘our princess is coming home’.
“It’s one of those events when you feel you are witnessing history. I was in ‘professional mode’ trying to stand back and observe as an outsider but I must admit that my eyes were moist after the applause began, not for Diana but because the crowd was uniting in grief - a large group moving as one is an emotional thing.”
He says the days after Diana’s death were tense and emotionally-charged. Many people in the country were angry, especially with the media.
“I never personally experienced abuse but I recall a national BBC reporter close to tears because of the abuse she’d had outside the gates to Althorp with some people holding her personally responsible for Diana’s death. There is always a problem with some people being unable to distinguish between broadcasters or publications and their considerably different ethics.”
In the last 10 -15 years of his time at the BBC Borley-Cox was the district reporter for North Northamptonshire.
“The county changed enormously [during his time at the BBC] but especially Corby, there have been huge changes there over the years - the building of the swimming pool, the Cube and the new Tresham College. I think I’ve interviewed every MP for Corby, starting with William Powell.”
He led the way in reporting of the delays and spiralling costs of the Corby Cube (which is now the new civic centre for North Northants Council). After opening in 2010 work on the building wasn’t completed until 2015 and came in £13m over budget.
He has also witnessed vast changes to journalism itself. The internet has transformed the industry in the last two decades with many publications struggling to find a financial model that works amid declining advertising sales. But it has also allowed a new way of connecting to audiences.
“When I started it was the pre-internet and pre-mobile phone days. Stories were bashed out on typewriters and we had to call-in stories from phone boxes. Now I can broadcast in ‘studio quality’ from an iPhone. And during the first lockdown I was reading news bulletins remotely from my spare bedroom.”
With an attempt by some news organisations to put out clickbait to attract more readers to their sites and others slashing staff to save costs he says the need for real reporting is greater now than it ever has been.
“Strong local journalism is more important than ever - to hold to account those organisations that are making decisions on behalf of people and spending our money.”
Away from the hard news Borley-Cox enjoyed producing radio features on productions at the Royal and Derngate in Northampton. Having studied drama at university, he has acted a few times over the years and has always had an interest in theatre.
“I’d been dabbling in theatre over the years so it was always fun to do stories at the Royal and Derngate. I’d cover some of their Made In Northampton productions and go in to watch the rehearsal and interview the directors and cast.”
He also started working with the Northamptonshire based theatre company White Cobra in his spare time. In 2016 he directed a play (his first since before becoming a journalist) which they took to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
“It was called Another Fine Mess and was about a tribute act to Laurel and Hardy. That was great fun to do and we had huge success with it in Edinburgh.”
Now, he is directing a White Corba production of Bette and Joan, about the infamous rivalry between Hollywood stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
“It’s set at the time of making ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ On stage you’ve got Bette and Joan flitting in and out of each other’s dressing rooms and speaking directly to the audience.
“It’s a two women show with Victoria Miles playing Bette and Kate Billingham playing Joan. They are superb, they do a brilliant portrayal of the women. It’s a bitch-fest, it’s very funny - Bette Davis has described herself as a bitch so I think I’m okay to call it that!”
There is plenty of good material to work with, some of the insults the two stars threw at each other are as hilarious as they are harsh.
“There may be a heaven, but if Joan Crawford is there, I’m not going,” said Bette Davis.
Or this from Joan Crawford:
“Poor Bette! She looks like she’s never had a happy day…or night in her life.”
The promotional photo for the production shows the two women with over exaggerated make-up as they did in the film. Bette Davis said of her look at the time:
“What I had in mind no professional makeup man would have dared to put on me. One told me he was afraid that if he did what I wanted, he might never work again.”
Borley-Cox says Vicky Kelly who has designed the hair and make up for the White Cobra production has done a “fantastic job” of making Miles and Billingham look like Bette and Joan.
Although there are plenty of laughs in the play he says it is ultimately quite a sad story.
“The play is funny but at its essence is these two fading Hollywood stars who are really quite lonely and have sad backgrounds. These were strong women when strong women weren’t necessarily appreciated.
“You have all the comedy coming from the putdowns and bitchiness but then you have a scene where they’ll say a line that you just think that’s really emotional that shows how sad their lives were.”
Bette and Joan will go on tour in March 2022 and will be at the Royal in Northampton on April 1 and April 2. Tickets are available here: https://www.royalandderngate.co.uk/whats-on/bette-joan/
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