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The French Revolution - How I got cajoled into doing something I knew nothing about
by Margaret Heffernan

When asked about the meaning and impact of the French Revolution, Chairman Mao is reputed to have said, ďitís too early to tell.Ē He might have been right but, in 1989, no one wanted to wait. Like all big anniversaries, the bicentenary generated a lot of television programmes and it seemed like I was in charge of most of them.

I was a producer at the BBC, had made history films for years and was a self-confessed French Revolution buff. No assignment could have pleased me better. A documentary series shot on location, a drama series featuring Alan Rickman and Simon Callow, a conversation with Simon Schama, even a comedy. And that was just the recorded shows. There was also to be hours of live TV covering fantastic celebrations across France. Jean-Paul Goude, Grace Jonesís collaborator, was in charge of the parade. Heíd never done anything like this before. French TV was in charge of the live broadcast; theyíd never done anything like it before. And, as if that werenít risk enough, Iíd never done live television before.

After a few trips and meetings I went to my boss and begged for mercy. I had ten programmes to complete before Bastille Day. That was fine. But I couldnít possibly oversee the live coverage as well. Even if I had the stamina, I definitely lacked the expertise. ďI canít do this,Ē I said. ďYou need to find someone else.Ē

At which point, he put his arm on my shoulder, looked me in the eye and said, ďOh Margaret, you just lack confidence. I know you can do this.Ē And, like a ninny, I demurred.

The live coverage was a disaster. Everyoneís ignorance was on display Ė for hours and hours and hours. At times, there was nothing to see on the screen but black screens accompanied by a near-incomprehensible commentary describing scenes of unimagineable (and, at home, invisible) splendour. It was poor radio and terrible television for two solid, commercial-free hours. When I flew home, I was met by my boyfriend whose first words were ďwhat a stinker.Ē

He was right. The whole thing had been a ghastly mistake, of a kind that a more experienced producer of live programmes would have avoided or at least averted. I had goofed, big time, on network television in front of millions of people.

The first thing I did was admit failure. My mistake hadnít been hours of awful TV; my mistake had been in letting myself get talked into producing something for which I had no experience. No one had let that happen but me. Iíd been weak and I said so.

But I didnít hide. At the time I didnít know how important that was. Because often, in the face of a public failure, thatís what we all want to do Ė and itís especially what women want to do. We want to retreat somewhere we can lick our wounds and not have to see all those eager faces saying ďwhat a stinker.Ē

Instead, I went to all the meetings where the programme was discussed. No one was as tough on it as I was. Many other producers had had similarly traumatic experiences working with French television. Live TV always was a risk. I found support and encouragement from people Iíd never even met.

Could the show have wrecked my career? Possibly. If Iíd gone around blaming everyone else (especially my boss) it would have. If Iíd insisted the show had been great, Iíd have lost all credibility. If Iíd hidden away, I would have lost confidence and resilience.

The moral of the story? When you make a mistake Ė hopefully not quite as public Ė own up at once. You donít need a hair shirt but Ďfess up. Get it over with. Donít hide; talk to people about it. Try (this can be hard) to laugh about it Ė not because itís trivial but because itís history. If itís over in your head, itíll be over in theirs.

Iíve worked with many people who canít do this. They canít acknowledge mistakes. Sometimes they can acknowledge that you were right but never that they were wrong. In denying their error, they fail to learn from it. And they isolate themselves. Usually in business, everyone knows who goofed. You donít get close to the ones who hide.

Itís not the mistake, itís the recovery that matters. I think I can honestly say that, since the French Revolution, I havenít been talked into anything I seriously believed I could not do. As for my ability to work with French television again Ė well, itís too early to tell.

Copyright Margaret Heffernan. All Rights Reserved.

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