There’s an illuminating interview with Frank Zappa from the 80s on YouTube in which the late lamented musical polymath explains how the 60s counter-culture was able to flourish on major record labels because the guys running them were happily detached from ‘the scene’. They were honest in admitting that they didn’t understand what was happening, but as long as it sold records they didn’t care; therefore, they shrugged their shoulders, took a chance and signed-up every long-haired freak they could find. Zappa claims the rot set in when the old cigar-chomping suits retired and were superseded by hip young ‘experts’ who regarded themselves as the voice of The Kids; this presumed expertise was based on an arrogant cocksure confidence in their own ability to judge what would and wouldn’t sell because their ‘finger-on-the-pulse’ credentials meant they knew what was best for the record-buying public. But, as Zappa wryly observed, ‘the person in the executive chair may not be the final arbiter of taste of the entire population’.
This came to mind again after I viewed the latest ‘Newsnight’ opinion piece masquerading as balanced impartiality, leaving me to conclude that Emily Maitlis genuinely believes she’s Ed Murrow denouncing McCarthy now. To simply say the BBC’s TV news output has descended into a left-wing version of Fox News is too lightweight an observation; no, it’s clear these people think they’re on an ideological mission of a kind that not only exposes an insular London-centric outlook that presumes the rest of the country shares their enclosed worldview, but contradicts a founding principle that was crucial to – and justified – the contract between the BBC and its audience. The viewing public have no choice in subscribing to something they’ve always been told will present both sides of the argument, for the sweetener in the bitter licence fee pill was always that the dominant political groupthink within the BBC wasn’t supposed to contaminate content. For all Paxman’s pioneering of the bullish prosecuting barrister interviewing technique, I never got the impression he was nailing his colours to a particular political mast; he was as brutally unforgiving with Alistair Campbell as he was with Michael Howard.
Forty or fifty years ago, the BBC was run by its own equivalent of the old record industry ‘men-in-suits’; surviving programme-makers, producers and writers regularly recount the battles they engaged in with these characters, yet they are simultaneously generous in their praise of how, once a point had been made, they were largely left alone to pursue their artistic visions uninterrupted – and they knew the end result would be broadcast to an audience of millions. The retrospective spotlight tends to fall on the drama auteurs of this era whenever it’s up for discussion, but it wasn’t merely the likes of Ken Loach or Dennis Potter who benefitted; even groundbreaking comedy was allowed to flourish free from editorial interference. The individual Pythons have often recalled how the vague proposal for their first series was rewarded with 13 shows, basically ‘go off and do what you want’. No focus groups, no adherence to any box-ticking ‘diversity’ agenda, and no ‘offence monitors’ checking their thinking before transmission.
The men-in-suits are long gone now, of course; and in their place are the same kinds of conservative ‘hipsters’ Frank Zappa watched taking over the music business. The drying-up of new output that has characterised mainstream television since the lockdown suspended production has highlighted how desperately out-of-touch the regimes at our principal broadcasters really are – and not just in their blatantly biased approach to the news. Things almost appear to have reverted to that drab period at the turn-of-the 80s when the radical potential of what became ‘Alternative Comedy’ had yet to be grasped; the prime-time line up today seems as tired and irrelevant as then. For Graham Norton, read Larry Grayson; for Ant & Dec, read Little & Large; for all those allegedly ‘cutting edge’ panel shows supplied with a production line of identikit comics cracking the same formulaic gags, read ‘The Comedians’. Trump and Brexit have simply supplanted Irishmen and mothers-in-law. Even Charlie Brooker has undoubtedly lost it now; his recent and ill-advised return to the ‘Screenwipe’ platform that established his reputation ten-fifteen years ago sadly showed how his sharp satirical precision has been terminally blunted by success and domestic bliss.
For all its faults, YouTube has provided a genuine alternative to mainstream TV for me during the lockdown, but the channels I regularly follow on there are channels I was already following before anyone had heard the word Covid-19. It’s testament to how the balance of power has shifted that a genius creation such as spoof news reporter Jonathan Pie can sell out a theatre with a live show without having first made his name on television, as was the traditional route; in fact, I can’t ever recall having seen him on the one-eyed monster in the corner of the living room once; he’s done it all online. 30 years ago, he would have been given his own show on BBC2 – not today. And there are other characters on YT who would no doubt have had similar TV fame in the past – characters such as ‘Joolz’, an engaging eccentric in a bowler hat who takes the viewer on tours of numerous London locations and does so with wit, panache and endearing style. I look forward to his latest video outing in the same way I used to look forward to favourite TV shows when the BBC or Channel 4 made TV shows that could actually become favourites.
Another channel I follow on a daily basis is one called ‘Triggernometry’. Hosted by gleefully anti-Woke outcast comedians Francis Foster and Konstantin Kisin – the latter achieving a modicum of mainstream fame a year or two ago when he refused to sign a pre-gig document informing him what subjects he wasn’t allowed to make fun of – this channel consists of interviews with fascinating figures that the MSM increasingly avoids. Alongside more recognisable ‘outspoken’ characters such as David Starkey, Peter Hitchens, Melanie Philips and Douglas Murray, the pair have also interviewed everyone from ostracised anti-Corbyn Labour union man Paul Embery to level-headed trans critic of trans activism, Rose of Dawn; the subject matter tends to cover every burning issue of the day and the pair not only ask intelligent, insightful questions, but they give their guests the breathing space to answer them – and in the process, the ensuing discussion can actually make the viewer think. It’s the nearest thing I’ve seen in recent years to the old ‘Face to Face’ programme and is the kind of concept that would’ve been instantly snapped up by BBC2 or Channel 4 at one time – not today.
I guess my disillusionment with mainstream TV is reflective of the age in which I was raised and what it then provided. I have a similar attitude towards contemporary pop music; I still expect it to regularly reinvent itself and challenge me anew every two or three years because that’s what it did when I was growing up, yet everything I hear that’s ‘new’ sounds like something I’ve heard before. But it says more about the people running the institutions that once acted as facilitators for the groundbreaking and the fresh that the audience in search of such stimulation turns away from them in order to find it today. Mind you, if the nightly Two Minutes Hate from ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ has now become a reality as people are encouraged to stand on their doorsteps to boo Boris for 120 seconds, I suspect I can second-guess what will fill the ‘Clap for Our Carers’ slot once it finishes its current run. They’re welcome to each other.
© The Editor