It wasn’t the greatest TV show the BBC ever produced. 1968‘s Talkback with David Coleman was supposed to give vent to the BBC’s audiences’ concerns. Despite Points or View, the Governor’s specifically ‘tasked’ (as we now say) the Current Affairs Group Special Projects Unit with the production; or so I understood. Actually, I understood little of whence the job came. Or indeed, why. Bit of a problem as I was producing this show but, actually, I understood little, period. As with all great bureaucracies, for those who labour therein, theirs is not, by and large, to reason why.
Contrary to the common opinion that the letters in such letters programmes were generated in house, a whole section dealing with real correspondence existed. I soon discovered, though, this had more to do with identifying squeaky-wheels than gauging response to specific output: ‘Have we had any letters about X?’ – ‘Who wrote them? We file them by writer’s name, not programme’.
What was clear within a couple of weeks was that if you gave vent to audience displeasure, the real, overwhelming and compelling issue facing the Corporation was background music. There was, we soon realized, a limit to how often even Coleman could milk a discussion on this matter – although Robert Robertson managed to do it for years. Nevertheless, despite being pressed for topics, we did ignore the answer-machine one morning when it announced: ‘Mary Whitehouse here’. The ‘clean-up TV’ demagogue was then in full throat but in those halcyon days of social upheaval and political incorrectness we felt no compunction about deciding to ignore her.
Indeed, it was hard to avoid adopting a certain Reithian elitism in regard the whole shebang. I was constantly reminded of Peter Cook’s routine about the Invisible Man – a late 1950s US TV series. The eponymous crime-fighting hero appeared with bandaged face and disappeared by taking off the bandages. The querulous ‘Pete’, pointing out that the invisible man was therefore now naked, was going to ring the BBC up wanting to know how many other naked invisible people there were polluting his television screen.
The depressing predictability of Talkback’s post-bag enhanced the attractiveness of Reith’s view that the BBC was entitled, as he had once put it,‘ to give the public what we think they need – and not what they want’. The post-bag confirmed that ‘few know what they need and very few what they want’ (as Reith had gone on). Apart, that is, from no background music. (Our elderly correspondents lived with the realization that many bodily functions degenerate with age but, apparently, they seemed to believe that hearing loss could be cured by writing to the BBC.)
The apotheosis of the futility of this little exercise, for me, was the item we ran on David Mercer’s play The Parachute. This was the golden age of one-off TV dramas and Mercer was one of its luminaries. The play, like many of its peers, dared to reflect something of what men and women got up to with each other, specifically in this instance the German upper-class in the context of dealing with Nazism between the wars. An elderly lay-preacher from, as I recall, Prystatin was invited to confront the playwright. ‘The play was set in Gemany, eh?’ said this guardian of the nation’s moral health. ‘Yes,’ replied Mercer. ‘Then why were the actors not talking German?’ Game set and match to the curtain-twitchers.
Curtain-twitchery was to flourish especially after Mrs Thatcher, a politician untrammeled by consistency, freed the broadcasting marketplace while encouraging ever more ridiculous levels of quasi-statutory content control. And this now – with its OFCOM ‘investigations’, findings, fines and compliance officers – defines our broadcasting: the hidden hand of the market on one side and the all too obvious clenching fist of the compliance culture on the other.
And from this flows, inter alia, the suppurating daily shock-horror drip of nonsense about the BBC. Paxman, we learned earlier this year, doesn’t like the music in the Corporation’s lifts. Clarkson’s job application to be minister of culture in a UKIP administration contained the “n” word. (Lis Howells elsewhere shows how this nonsense, though, can be seen as reflecting something more important.) And, worse than background music, some literary heritage drama had an (apparently) pre-electrical recorded soundtrack (no doubt in the interests of authenticity).
Authenticity, by the way, is a rich source of complaint. Consider the shock-horror discovery in 2011 – just before Christmas! -- that the polar bear cubs in David Attenborough’s Frozen Planet were acting being in the Arctic when they were really in a European zoo. Naked invisible nudists and now thespic bear-cubs! A naïf belief in the possibility of unmediated image making fuels such stupidities in order to bolster the illusion that the factual output tells the ‘truth’. Nevertheless – live with it! -- mediation (after all, what it says on the media can) can never avoid misrepresentations of one kind and/or one degree or another. That a greater truth – this is what bear cubs look like -- might be served seems ungraspable – certainly by the newspapers (who, of course, know a thing or two about ‘truth’).
I got aerated (well, I could have) by the Kaiser’s uniforms in the First World War drama 37 Days. The cast looked as if they had been costumed by the Belfast branch of Fancy-Dress’R’Us. The Kaiser, though, was such a snappy beau that, for example, he had sent a collection of uniforms to the Armies and Navies Pavilion at the Paris Expo of 1900 to represent German military might. He adored the British Admiral’s get-up (and rank) his granny Victoria gave him. In fact, according to Margaret McMillan’s The War that Ended Peace, they were all pretty obsessed with their tailors. The poorly fitting costumes, then, made the ill-dressed show unwatchable for me. If you can’t believe in the shmutters, what can you believe in?
Curtain-twitchery knows no limit and asinine complaints about accuracy, authenticity and, above all, ‘taste and decency’ obscure the real issues. ‘Taste’ and ‘decency’, by the way, are absurd bourgeois weasel words and they mask the none-too-thin edge of authority’s addiction to censorship and control. But are we talking about that? No, I would argue, we are not – the absurdity of their being in play, I mean, and the ridiculous amount of effort devoted to ‘policing’ them.
Even when we get to governance, which does matter very much indeed, the public debate asks no fundamental questions of the appropriateness of present arrangements in a democracy. (It never did in the past, either.) We take that as, almost completely, read and instead manage to trivialize this whole matter as well. Trust v. Board – how many angles on what pin, methinks? Guessing who will be the chair of the Trust (don't know, quite, what this person does or why) is nevertheless, apparently, worth a punt – certainly by the commentariate. Seb Coe, each way, anyone?
The only remotely serious strand of discussion currently is about funding regimes, but even here the root constitutional problem of a state-funded organ of opinion in a democracy in the 21st century is largely ignored. Decriminalizing license abuse is, of course, a serious matter but it is to fiddle while Rome burns in the fire of web-based distribution systems. The implications, cultural and economic, of i-Broadcasting are no mere matter of technicist flag waving as to its wonders. Rather, the changed technological environment speak to the very bases on which the BBC rests, financially, operationally, politically, ethically and culturally. The Corporation’s creation was an early 20th century solution (pretty brilliant at the time) to facilitate an early 20th century technology as a means of simultaneous mass communication. Does that still hold in a world of transborder, on demand, personalised consumption? Time to move on, one would think.
There are a mass of real issues here and they need to come to the fore: how can the new technology -- which so undermines broadcasting basic transmission model – actual operate and be funded? What is the future of universal provision? In the face of a new barbarism, can this be sustained? Isn’t the potential elitism involved in universalism’s possible abandonment a necessary thing? What is the future of an organization founded the same year as the British state acquired its current name survive if that state starts to disintegrate?
Moreover, we always tend to discuss the BBC – ourBeeb -- in isolation from the rest of the media, a clear and present absurdity in a Murdochian i-World. The first world’s state funded broadcasters are all in trouble. Surely, worth taking a look at how their situations might give us some pointers, if only to facilitate circling the wagons?
We restarted ourBeeb not just to talk about ourBeeb but also ourMedia; and, indeed, not about ourMedia alone but ourDemocracy. But to do this, we’ll just – finally – have to get used to the naked invisible nudists and start worrying about other things.