Screengrab via BBC
Noel Edmonds appeared on Newsnight last evening with a ransom note for British culture. His Shatner’s bassoon visibly pulsating on the back of his neck, Noel explained that unless we all coughed up several billion dollars in licensing fees, he was going to eat the BBC like he was Pac-Man and it was a series of small white dots. Nom, nom, nom.
Apparently Noel is the head of a consortium of "big-name investors" who have been meeting in secret for 18 months. This group—who refer to themselves as "Project Reith"—now hope to buy the BBC in order to save it from its own worst excesses: to take it private, make it turn a profit, but also maintain its public-service mandate. A bit like Britian's Channel 4.
Jeremy Paxman frowned. Already tired from an evening of beating up political heavyweights and chewing over the fundamental origins of the universe, despite the direct threat to his existence, he must have sensed this was also his chance for a smoke break, the evening’s comic interlude. He leaned back in his chair. He adopted the little smirk of condescension that differs in tone and size from the much larger condescending smirk he reserves for Eurocrats, environmentalists, and Danny Alexander. So who were these secretive investors anyway? These were, Edmonds replied, "like-minded people." But who? “With the greatest of respect,” said Paxo, disrespectfully, "are they afternoon TV show hosts with beards?”
“We believe,” said Noel, “that the BBC is sleepwalking to disaster. We believe it will be lost to Britain. And that is not right.”
“What?” At this, Paxman sat forward in order to condescend a little harder. “And Mr. Blobby’s the man to save it?”
Practically immune to these tactics after a lifetime of jokes about his weird pink slug, Noel decided he was going to play the bigger man. “Well, Jeremy,” said the dwarfish fun-shouter, as he drew himself up to his full moral height, “I like the little extras you’re throwing into this… but the situation is…” The situation, apparently, was that the BBC has to undergo charter renewal in 2016, and that means going through a lot of bureaucratic paperwork and inter-governmental posturing to ensure it’s still worth funding. The option is and always has been there to dismantle the Beeb at these ten-year intervals but—spoiler alert—the charter has been renewed every single decade for the better part of 100 years.
Noel’s odds of success are so small that it seems, well, a bit weird that he’d go on national TV and inform Paxo that he wanted to be his boss. I guess a couple of points stack up in Noel's plus column: The BBC has been subject to an effective 20 percent funding squeeze since 2010. And thanks to a new law making its way through Parliament, you will now no longer have to go to jail for not paying your TV license—meaning that the BBC stands to lose some $300 million a year in unpaid fees. In the minus column: This whole "Project Reith" thing still doesn't make any sense.
Why exactly is the only 80s celebrity who has not been interviewed under caution suddenly popping up to tell us he wants to grind our national identity into a fine paste? It’s difficult to know what to make of Noel materializing in the world of real news like a starman crash-landing from the planet Ridiculous Bullshit. You can only assume that all the money the BBC paid him during his 30 years of service—enough to buy an 850-acre lodge in Devon—has driven a wedge between him and reality, a gap that is fast becoming a chasm. He is not a man widely prized for his grip on the facts. Indeed, Noel is known nowadays for being the wet-eyed Glenn Beck of British TV on programs like Noel’s HQ and Noel's Christmas Presents, in which he carries the can for sentimental patriotism and rages, quietly, against political correctness gone mad, occupying a zone of common-sense fetish and cut-price philistinism that can only be described as "ASDA right-wing." For all that he might complain about the BBC's possessing some inbuilt left-wing bias, the counterargument is still that it employed him, Cheggers, DLT, Steve Wright, Bruno Brookes, and a whole herd of smallest-c conservatives for ages.
So just who are these "like-minded" people who are backing Noel in the shadows? He is not, on first glance, the kind of guy a serious cabal of sinister investors would employ as their only chess piece in the game. Unless, of course, they wanted to disguise their steel fist in a velvet glove of blithering idiocy.
Noel drives around in a taxi and consequently has taken to keeping a life-size mannequin in the backseat "so that people will stop trying to flag it down." A practical solution to a practical problem, perhaps. But also: stupid. By contrast, if, say, Jeremy Irons turned up on Newsnight wearing a black turtleneck, laughing callously, and projecting 10,000 kilowatts of menace into the nation’s living rooms, people might this morning be more scared than bemused. Noel, on the other hand, seems a bit like a locksmith from Wallington who walked through the wrong door at Television Center in 1969 and has since been living the high life, while some chiseled and charismatic wit has had to resort to fixing locks in Wallington because he never got a callback on his interview.
Either the cabal is genuinely sinister (Rothermere, Ecclestone, Cheney, Berlusconi, Lakshmi Mittal), or it is hopeless (Brian May, Chris Akabusi, Joan Collins, and the life savings of 50 pensioners who wrote in to Noel’s HQ). Or, option three, as Paxman could barely be bothered to insinuate, it simply doesn’t exist. Noel is bluffing and, much like on his Sky show, is trying to will social change by simply going on about it.
No one would be too surprised if he were exactly that brazen, given what we already know about the man’s esoteric beliefs. Noel is a huge fan of The Secret (the famously shitty book). In fact, he gives all the credit for the rebirth of his career via Deal or No Deal to Rhonda Byrne's endlessly parodied tome and the "cosmic ordering techniques" at the heart of it (or what we used to call "writing things down and hoping they come true"). Deal or No Deal is a show that doesn’t even make sense on its own terms, a show on which people are often dressed as Red Indians or hippy flower children for no discernible reason, yet it attracts massive audiences every week.
Given the quantity of voodoo that must have required, gobbling up the BBC might seem like a cakewalk to Noel. After all, any man who can make millions off of a lucky, pink blob creature—and spawn a number-one hit single with the not so catchy hook “Although he's unconventional in hue / his philosophy of life will steer him through”—is operating on a different astral plane from the rest of us. Ask yourself whether you’ve ever thought of even one single pink felt creature that you could make a million quid out of. Well, Noel made many times that amount. He just thought of a pink blob, then, wham-o: Several million dollars turned up in his bank account.
That’s the Edmonds magic. Plus, as Paxman found out, at least he was always going to be practicing what he preached. Despite wanting to own the BBC, it turned out that Edmonds did not pay the TV license anyway. Why? Because he only watches shows online, and that isn’t covered by the license fee. As pensioners in Kirkcaldy sat on their sofas watching Edmonds last night, realizing that they were effectively picking up the tab for Noel to sit at home watching iPlayer in his underwear, even Rothermere and Ecclestone must have winced as they stroked cats in their lairs.
Follow Gavin Haynes on Twitter