Monday, February 03, 2020

Save the BBC! By JD

The British Broadcasting Company Limited began in 1922

In defence of the BBC and public service broadcasting

The first director general of the BBC was John Reith (later to become Lord Reith). Reith summarised the BBC's purpose in three words: inform, educate, entertain; this remains part of the organisation's mission statement to this day.

The term "Reithianism" describes certain principles of broadcasting associated with Lord Reith. These include an equal consideration of all viewpoints, probity, universality and a commitment to public service. These traditional values became synonymous with the BBC and were a template copied by national broadcasters around the world.

Reith was Scottish and his idea of 'traditional values' would most likely have been based upon Thomas Reid's 'Scottish Common Sense Realism.' (Reid's 'common sense' was adopted and adapted by Thomas Jefferson for America's Declaration of Independence and their Constitution.)

My own view of life is also, I hope, one of common sense and so here are my own personal memories of TV past and present, with a side track or two into the social context of the TV age.

The first TV my family acquired was in 1954 or maybe 1955, I'm not exactly sure but I recall walking home from school and, seeing the distinctive 'H' shaped aerial above the chimney pot. I ran the last 100 yards or so into the house. We had a telly! A large wooden mahogany cabinet which housed a tiny 9" screen. Just one channel, the BBC.

Our household had entered the new television age and because my father was the first in the street to have a TV it meant that we had a crowded house for the 1955 FA Cup Final between Newcastle United and Manchester City. I can remember sitting cross-legged atop the dining table staring at the tiny screen and its fuzzy picture. Fuzzy it may have been but it didn't matter because it was, or seemed to us, a magical miracle.

Obviously I soon became familiar with the children's programmes and my favourite from the early days was The Bumblies, a very imaginative and surreal show from 'Professor' Michael Bentine.

There were also several American western series, the most famous being The Lone Ranger with his 'faithful' Indian companion, Tonto. (This was clearly an in-joke by the producers and writers; look it up in your Spanish/English dictionary.)

But among the many western series the best for me was The Cisco Kid; his sidekick was called Pancho who was adept at mangling the English language. At the end of each half hour episode the pair would 'ride off into the sunset' with Pancho shouting "Let's went!" That particular phrase appealed to me for some reason and many years later I would try to explain/translate to Spanish friends.

And then in 1958 (I think) the ITV channel was added in our region. My mother's reaction to the programme listing in the newspaper was "They are all half-hour programmes." But she and my father came from a generation who were used to 90 minute feature films at the cinema and chopping that into half-hour segments to accommodate advertising breaks would have been annoying. They and most other people were perfectly capable of concentrating for such a short time but advertising breaks would inevitably, eventually weaken and fragment people's attention span.

At school the classroom wit declared that it was a shame how the programmes interrupted the adverts. Probably without realising it, he was on to something: It was the showman P.T. Barnum who famously said “Nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the taste of the American public.” The bosses of commercial TV clearly agreed with that sentiment!

The radio continued to be the source of home entertainment for a few more years and there were a lot of extremely good comedy shows: the Goons of course (or the Go-On show as one mystified BBC executive described it); there was also Beyond Our Ken and Round The Horne, The Navy Lark, Hancock's Half Hour, Ken Dodd and his Diddy Men, Al Read, and many more.

Most of those comedy shows on radio continued well into the 1960s but there was a gradual shifting of the audience from radio to TV and with the appointment of Hugh Carleton-Greene as Director General in 1960, television began to reflect the changes in society and audiences grew; helped along by the introduction of a third channel, BBC 2 plus the colour TV in 1968 as well as new and different programmes such as -

: That Was The Week That Was (1962)
: Dr Who (1963)
: Match of The Day (1964)

William Hartnell (right) as the first incarnation of Doctor Who

'Reflecting the changes in society' is not strictly accurate; it is more that the BBC began to reflect the attitudes of the Director General and his social milieu which would have been that of perhaps a few thousand or so in the metropolis which did not reflect, in my experience, the culture of the provinces. The provinces and the capital are two very different peoples as pointed out in a rather acerbic aphorism of Nicolás Gómez Dávila: "The modern metropolis is not a city; it is a disease."

And so the Beeb gradually reflected the so called 'swinging sixties' and current received wisdom is that it was the start of the decline of the moral standards of the established order and the beginning of a rebellious youth culture; but the reality is rather different.

The disaffection with the 'establishment' began immediately after the Second World War with the shock election of Clement Attlee's government when everyone had expected a grateful nation to elect the war leader Winston Churchill. The late forties and the fifties brought the first rebels (with or without a cause.) In Britain there was the rise to prominence of writers who became known as Angry Young Men. In the USA their 'angry young men' were in the cinema: Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953); James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955); Blackboard Jungle (1955); and Rock Around The Clock (1956).

During the sixties TV expanded rapidly and colour brought new possibilities such as the televising of snooker, which produced its own inadvertent comedy when commentator Ted Lowe said "and for those of you who are watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green."

That is one of the reasons so many sports commentators endeared themselves to the viewing public. They had no guidelines to follow and there was no 'correct' way to do what they did, so they relied on their own enthusiasm for their sport: Bill McLaren for rugby, Eddie Waring for rugby league, Peter O'Sullivan for racing, Harry Carpenter for boxing, David Coleman for football and athletics, and who could not love motor racing's excitable Murray Walker, sometimes known as Muddly Talker?

In many ways the sixties and seventies were a golden age for TV with the breadth of programmes reflecting the Reithian ideal to "inform, educate, entertain" and there were occasonally audiences of up to 20 million for some programmes.

As with most things in life, it couldn't last. The decline in quality of the programmes probably began in the eighties with a noticeable withering away of those three ideals. And with the increase in the number of channels available there was a need to fill those channels with something, anything no matter the quality. TV companies were, after all, in the business of selling their audiences to their advertisers. The formulaic repetitiveness of the programmes on offer means we have now arrived at a situation where the only place we see anything really creative or imaginative on our televisions is during the adverts.

Bruce Springsteen in 1992 released a song called "57 channels and nothin' on." That title and the reason for it are self evident.

The current hostility to the BBC is based on a perceived 'lefty' bias within its programmes. A quick scan through the schedule reveals not so much a bias as a kind of schizophrenia. I don't see any socialist propaganda in these from the BBC -

: Dragon's Den
: The Apprentice
: Bargain Hunt; Cash in the Attic; Antiques Roadshow
: Homes Under The Hammer
: Festival of Remembrance from the Royal Albert hall
: Trooping of the colour
: State opening of Parlaiment
: The Proms

And does that perceived bias have any influence on viewers/listeners; do they even notice it? The 2016 referendum result suggests not and the recent election result must have come as an even bigger shock to the 'lefties', whoever they are (I have never been very sure who is to be defined as a 'lefty' and who is not. A clear definition would be helpful; slur by slogan is not a great deal of use to anyone except perhaps those who use slogans as an alternative to thinking.) To suggest that TV has such a powerful influence on its audience is an insult to the people of this country and those who continually carp on about left-wing bias really ought to get out more and meet some 'ordinary' people for a change, a refreshing change in fact.

The BBC is still the best and usually the only place to see excellent Arts programmes; it offers very good travel shows; I am not so sure about its science output, the last good science presenter was Sir Patrick Moore. The BBC has zero competition when it comes to the excellence of their music programmes both on Radio3 and on TV. The commercial channels are a wasteland without music in my view!

The BBC is so much a part of our culture perhaps we do not realise how important it is as our national broadcaster. The great State occasions are always covered by the BBC, part of their public service remit. At Christmas and Easter it is the BBC which gives us the annual carols from King's College, Cambridge as well as the appropriate church services during the two major events in the Christian calendar. And they still show Songs of Praise every week, however diluted it seems to be at times. The commercial channels pay little or no attention to any of those things.

So to all the siren voices calling for the abolition of the BBC, I would say: be careful what you wish for, it might come true and you will regret and miss it, if or when it disappears!


A K Haart said...

I know a single mother who never watches BBC, her kids never watch BBC and she doesn't even have a TV aerial. They watch Netflix, yet she pays the TV licence because she is frightened that she may receive threatening letters if she stops paying. This is one of the things I loathe about the BBC and I would certainly be happy to see it sold off.

CherryPie said...

For many a year I did not have a TV. There was always the threat that you were under suspicion for avoidance of payment for something that you were using. The threat did not bully me into buying a TV licence. There never was that threatened knock on the door.