Fish! Something must be done about him - 07 July 2004
By Boris Johnson on my pending retirement 2004
My grandfather had a hero on BBC TV. Having studied the machine more or less since its invention, he had evolved some pretty individual views about the real performers. He watched the elder Dimbleby and the teenage Paxman. He saw Angela Rippon come and go and come again. Insofar as he had any views about the career of Noel Edmonds, he never let on.
In his declining years, as his pronouncements became more oracular, there was only one man who would provoke him to a sustained burst of approval. It is a measure of the longevity of this paragon's career that my grandfather's BBC TV hero was Michael Fish. "Ah yes," he would say, when the bulletin began. "Fish!" Who can say quite what aspect of Fish delighted the old jurist and astronomer?
It may have been his permanently bashful air. It may have been his sex maniac's moustache. Perhaps it was something to do with the way he goggled at the camera in the manner of a rattled maths master asked at the last minute to give out the prizes. It may have been the colossal Britishness of Fish, not just evinced by his constant talk of weather, but his faint air of apology for the frost and the drizzle and the general damp. It may have been the unremitting politeness with which he broke the bad news about tomorrow's downpour, like a man in the Tube, reluctantly tugging your sleeve to announce that you are treading on his toe.
My grandfather had a technical cast of mind, and he may have liked the way clouds, suns and bolts of lightning appeared and disappeared with a soft snap of Fish's Olympian fingers.
Whatever it was, the mere sight of Fish, hand pursed in emphasis of more bad news on the way, was enough to move my grandfather to a kind of ecstasy. And speaking as one of the more jaundiced observers of the BBC's output, it is a joy in which I share. There is no one to touch him, and it is all the more outrageous, therefore - and quite typical of Greg Dyke's BBC - that it has apparently been decided to dispense with Fish's services.
Is it because he is less accurate than other forecasters? It is not. He is the best. Fish is full to the gills with weather lore. And be in no doubt that it is exceedingly complicated, this forecasting business, fully requiring a skull as vast, shiny and evidently capacious as that belonging to the Beeb's greatest star. The Met office has just invested in computers capable of storing a million gigabytes of data. And it is still the case that Fish & Co can only promise you 85 per cent accuracy.
To give you an idea of their limitations, you can yourself achieve 76 per cent accuracy in weather forecasting if you simply announce that tomorrow's weather will be exactly the same as today's. The tricky bit, the bit where Fish's piscine magic is required, is when you have to predict a change in the weather. It needs confidence, and all the donnish savoir faire of Fish to be sure that it will not rain tomorrow, when it has rained today. In forecasting a big variation, the Met men can only achieve a modest 38 per cent accuracy, and that measure falls to 30 per cent in the ancient question of whether it will rain or not rain.
Given the huge scientific difficulties entailed in saying anything useful at all about the British weather, is it sensible to dispense with a man of Fish's experience? The BBC has announced a talent competition, and the front runners are both young women. There is Sarah Leigh-Barnett, a geography teacher from Nottingham, and there is Alexandra Body, a sales manager from Exeter.
I am sure that they have many attractions. No doubt they love the British weather in all its manifestations. But they are not, frankly, being recruited for their expertise - and I hope I have demonstrated that expertise in this subject is vital. They are being hired because they are young, and Fish is going because he is 59. That is all. Fifty-nine!
Does anyone really believe that his views on whether or not it will rain tomorrow will be any less valid for his having turned 60? Of course not. He is going because of our national fetish with youth, and because he would not, frankly, look quite as good as Ulrika Jonsson in a tight sweater. It is scandalous. Someone should do something about it, and those someones might as well be the Conservative Party. I say this not just because the end of my thirties are upon me, and I am all too conscious of my jaded muse and failing fires.
I say this because I believe there is a huge opportunity -- and duty -– for politicians to oppose ageism in all its cretinous forms. I say it because there was almost nothing in the Queen's Speech for the elderly, and since people want positive policies from the Tories, here it is. Lest you think I am skiing off-piste, let me assure you that I have cleared it with David Willetts, and indeed I believe it originally emanated from one of his two brains. It is, in short, that you can no longer be forbidden from using age when appealing against unfair dismissal.
So if they come to you and say, sorry, chum, you're 59 and we want a younger man or a sexy chick, you will be able to kick up a fuss. You can say, yes, but I can still forecast the weather! And if they won't back down, you can take them to a tribunal. It may lead to more tribunals; but something has to be done.
Too many good people are losing their jobs, when they have much more to contribute, much more tax to generate, and when they want to work and not be a burden on those who are paying their pensions. Think of the gorgeous replacements of Michael Fish: there will come a brutal moment when the same point will be made to them; and then they will be grateful.