‘monstrous flattery of the ego of the “common man”’; the BBC & the ‘popular’

Things need to change – there’s no disagreement about that; but the efficacy of starting with the closure of BBC 3 can be disputed. Whatever else is in play, the choice of a less than highbrow channel to chop speaks to a long BBC unease with the ‘popular’.

Brian Winston
10 March 2014

There are a host of good reasons why the BBC should decapitate BBC 3 but isn’t it interesting that it is the edgiest, least [‘culturally’] worthy of its new platforms that is for the chop first?

It fits with a fundamental unease the Corporation has had from the outset in dealing with the popular. Anything other than Received Southern Pronunciation was always, of itself, a source of comedy. The first news-reader not to speak RSP (aka ‘BBC English’) was not heard until World War II. On occasion, Halifax-born Wilfred Pickles was given access to the microphone and the bulletin was delivered in an ‘educated’ – Northern voice, albeit a rather placeless one. This was considered startling, bold and daring exactly because on the BBC such an accent – any non RSP accent – was, simply, funny.

Helen Millais, radio’s first ‘star’ in the 1920s played a cockney, ‘Our Lizzie’ who greeted listeners: ‘’Ullo, me old ducks. ‘Ere I am again with me old string bag’. ‘Mind you,’ she said in one routine with some justice, ‘I don’t always hold with the programmes. They’re too ‘ighbrow’. And indeed they were, to the point where audiences in the 1930s were tuned in to the commercial stations in Luxembourg, Athol and Normandy. John Reith, the Corporation’s founding DG, refused to count the audience on the grounds that King David had been told by God not to conduct a census, but, from the BBC’s POV, it was best not to know.

The plain fact of the matter was that on the air popular artists were subjected to unprecedented levels of censorship. When George Formby, a mega-star in his day, was castigated for singing the mildly risqué Window Cleaner song in a 1937 broadcast from Birmingham, the station told London that he was doing it twice nightly in a local children’s pantomime and it featured in a ‘U’ certificate film on general release. Back came BH: ‘The people who complain of vulgarity in broadcasting may be those who think it immoral to go to a pantomime or even to a film’. John Watt, the head of the belatedly established ‘Variety Department’ was still complaining in the next decade: ‘It has been said there were only six jokes in the world, and I assure you that we cannot broadcast three of them’.

The real weak-spot, however, was music. It is far from being without significance that ‘Music’ in the BBC was, automatically, the classical repertoire. Outside this canon – which, by the way, only embraced 20th century classical music with unease -- lay ‘light’ music. Cecil Graves, a Controller of Progammes in the ’30s who was to be a co-DG during the war, seems to have had particular difficulties with the popular. He thought ‘crooning’ – although as a style it was ideally suited to the radio technology of the day -- was ‘a particularly odious sort form of singing’. In 1937, a concert of swing music broadcast caused Graves a fit of the vapours. ‘A “jam session”? What on earth that means I don’t know… Is it a new Americanism?... We must introduce some sort of supervision to prevent this sort of thing.’

And the drama was no more immune from such Lady Bracknell-esque threats than comedy and music. Dominating that strand of the output in these decades was Val Guelgud, actor Sir John’s brother. He was dedicated to experimental work and, indeed, produced the first television play – an avant-garde piece by Pirandello -- in 1929. But he staunchly ignored the public taste for drama, especially the American style thrillers which dominated the airwaves across the Atlantic. The BBC only got round to Send for Paul Temple on the eve of the war in 1938, and then it had to be made, far from Gielgud’s baleful eyes, in Birmingham.

A population under constant threat had a requirement for morale boosting that could not be met by such continued snobberies. In the war, the BBC was forced, finally, to come to grips with the taste of the majority of its public. It did this, without question brilliantly, with the Forces Network which was to become the Light Programme in the post-war tripartite division of its output. The Light Programme joined Home Service and what could, logically, be called the ‘Heavy’ - but was actually designated – the ‘Third’ Progamme. The qualifier ‘light’ speaks a certain dismissal, an elitism which lies buried deep in the BBC’s DNA. It was certainly not washed away by the war.

In 1948, Gielgud characterised the first successful long-running radio soap opera, Mrs Dale's Diary, as being ‘socially corrupting by its monstrous flattery of the ego of the ‘common man’ and soul-destroying to the actors, authors and producers concerned’. It concerned the blameless doings of a middle-class doctor and his family.

The coming of commercial television in 1955 and the subsequent arrival of pirate radio stations did more to combat this exclusionist tradition. Competition required response. Unlike with radio in the 1930s, this time the rivals were not foreign but domestic. The BBC again responded with flair. In the 1960s under DG High Carlton-Greene, it achieved a better modus vivendi with the popular than it had ever done before. And, as platforms and competitors, proliferated, this would seem to have stuck. Audience share and affection suggest this is the case.

But – faced with trouble --- here we are again. In his inaugural presentation last October Tony Hall enthused about the second generation of the i-Player but on programming it was all rather normal service – Shakespeare and (scarcely surprisingly) opera. And six months later, it is the pop tv channel for the kids which is for the chop.

Why am I not surprised that the real problems the BBC faces produce this as a first step to the solution?

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