A LICENCE TO KILL

Probably eligible for some disability benefit considering how many times it’s shot itself in the foot of late, the BBC has belatedly woken-up to smell the roses and has surmised it needs to act – and fast. How much difference a new DG can make to stop the rot is debatable; chances are his appointment has come too late in the day, but at least he appears to have hit the ground running. The roll-call of faux-pas made by the senior national broadcaster over the past couple of years is too comprehensive to go into here; but in an exceedingly short space of time, Tim Davie has reversed the ill-judged decision to mute the lyrics of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ on the Last Night of the Proms and has announced his intention to shake-up the corporation’s undoubted left-wing bias when it comes to its comedy output; he’s also declared that any high-profile BBC employees expressing a personal political opinion on social media will be reminded of the BBC’s commitment to impartiality before receiving the axe. Gary Lineker, beware – regardless of how virtuous renting out one of your spare rooms to an illegal immigrant may well be. For some reason, the old Harry Enfield sketch of a middle-class couple adopting a pet Geordie springs to mind, but there you go.

The Beeb has been controlled by the London-centric Woke elite for far too long, but Tim Davie’s appointment at the expense of the unremittingly useless Tony (Lord) Hall is no smooth transition. The new Director General has to confront a system that has seen the Oxbridge intelligentsia serve as recruitment material for the corporation for decades; all the talk of ‘diversity initiatives’ and diverting license fee funds into such idealistic schemes overlooks the fact that colour is not the issue – despite what the career-secure historian David Olusoga might say – but diversity of thought, opinion and class. Like the Labour Party, the BBC is not reflecting the views of those who continue to financially support it across the country, but instead obstinately echoes the enclosed bubble of the M25 clique whose insular outlook dictates the nature of its networked programming.

When it comes to comedy – one of the first targets addressed by Tim Davie – talk of left and right can be somewhat misleading in that many who are the butt of jokes on the likes of ‘Mock the Week’ wouldn’t necessarily regard themselves as on the right, anyway; sure, to the opportunistic North London-based Woke comedians that constitute the panellists on such shows, anyone who voted Leave or viewed the prospect of a Corbyn Government with dread is to the right of Hitler, but out in the real world the smug superiority of these unfunny hypocrites is regarded with indisputable contempt. The viewers (or listeners) aren’t as stupid as the programme-makers assume and can see through the patronising and condescending attempts at indoctrination via entertainment that the powers-that-be have been attempting for years. This is why campaigns along the lines of ‘Defund the BBC’ are gathering pace and why viewing and listening figures for shows aimed at educating the ill-educated masses are failing to set the ratings alight.

It’s worth remembering that the first electrifying rush of ‘Alternative Comedy’, with the likes of ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’, ‘The Young Ones’ and ‘Blackadder’, aired when Bob Monkhouse, ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ and Little & Large were still in production at the BBC. Forty years ago, the corporation was genuinely inclusive enough to encompass all concepts of comedy. This is something that has been lost along the way; perhaps the changing landscape of broadcasting over the last couple of decades has persuaded the BBC that the way forward is to become a niche broadcaster catering for one specific audience. However, this neglects the fact that the majority of the viewers and listeners that still broadly support the BBC belong to generations that remain loyal to the television set and the wireless; the youngsters the Beeb seems intent on fruitlessly courting tend to tune-in via different, less antiquated devices. This is why sacrificing one of the corporation’s few redeeming channels, BBC4, in the new DG’s overhaul would be a mistake; most BBC4 viewers, I suspect, still watch it on the telly rather than on the iPlayer. Ever since becoming an online-only incarnation, BBC3 and its appalling output (to anyone over 50) has completely suited its teen and twenty-something viewership with the unwatchable likes of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ and so forth; but these are not products of loyalty to a particular broadcaster, and those who look forward to such trash will not do so if it’s only available via the TV. They’ll just find it elsewhere online. There’s a lot of it about.

Unfortunately, the arrival of any new Director General spouting grandiose statements that he intends to make sweeping changes to the BBC evokes memories of Alan Partridge’s nemesis Tony Hayes and his ‘evolution, not revolution’ maxim – to which Norwich’s most famous son responded with ‘I evolve, but I don’t revolve’. The threat of throwing out the baby with the bathwater is always present and Tim Davie needs to make sure the work that undoubtedly needs doing doesn’t damage the few remaining vestiges of what makes the BBC so unique at its best. Last night, I watched Ravi Shankar’s daughter Anoushka deliver a mesmerising performance at the Proms – the kind of performance it’s inconceivable to imagine any broadcaster other than the BBC transmitting – and it reminded me just how vital it is that the BBC survives against all odds.

Ironically, considering it shifted the majority of its television output to the hideous ‘Media City UK’ white elephant in Salford in order to demonstrate its commitment to the regions, the BBC has summarily failed to uphold one of its traditionally strongest advantages over the competition ever since. All it seems to have done is export the enclosed London mindset to the provinces, no different from ex-pats patronising English themed bars in Spain. The effective cancellation of the multi-region ‘Inside Out’ series, in which local news stories are delved into with far greater depth than the 6.30 regional magazine shows will allow, has exposed how the Beeb has struggled to define what distinguishes it from Sky or ITV. Such programmes appeal to the precise audience the BBC needs to hang onto during Tim Davie’s regime; if it doesn’t, the arguments for its special treatment as a broadcaster will become even harder to defend.

As for the radio output, I do wish Davie would give Radio 4 a kick up the arse. The once-unmissable comedy strand of the station has become a platform for the worst excesses of Woke ‘humour’ of a kind that only provokes a titter amongst those who produce it; moreover, whilst I have no objection to general ‘diversity’ in voices heard on R4, how refreshing it would be for that word to include a wider spectrum than merely those who adhere to the Identity Politics dogma based entirely on ethnicity, skin colour and sexuality. Then there’s the current affairs issue, something that has caused the likes of ‘Newsnight’ and ‘Question Time’ to haemorrhage viewers this past year – your humble narrator included amongst them. Yes, there is a hell of a lot that needs doing; but Tim Davie appears to have made an encouraging and positive start. He might be up against the entire weight of the ‘W1A’ class at Broadcasting House, though someone has to at least try to take them on – otherwise, there is no justification for the BBC at all.

© The Editor

THE THIRD WORLD

bertrand-russell_02_7661The month of April 1970, if remembered at all, is remembered for two landmark moments in modern cultural history that made front pages around the globe – the drama of Apollo 13’s aborted moon mission and the news that Paul McCartney had ‘quit’ The Beatles; the former represented the apogee of the world’s fascination with the American space programme, whilst the latter served as pop’s final severance with its age of innocence. However, that month also saw another ending as significant in its own humble little way. April 1970 was just four days old when a controversial yet passionately cherished British broadcasting institution disappeared from the airwaves forever – the BBC Third Programme.

I was born a couple of months after the Light Programme and the Home Service were replaced by Radios 1, 2 and 4, so have no first-hand memory of them or their esoteric sibling, the Third Programme. Radio 3 may also have debuted on the same day as 1, 2 and 4, but contrary to popular belief (not to mention numerous online sources), the Third did not join the Light and the Home on the same shuttle service to the wireless necropolis in September 1967. It clung onto the evening hours for another two and-a-half years before time was finally called on a radio station unlike any other before or since. That the Third managed to receive a stay of execution when the rest of the BBC’s radio network underwent the most radical transformation in its history is testament to the friends it had in high places; but much in the same way that the sixpence survived the cull of £sd coinage in 1971 and remained legal tender for a little while longer, the Third Programme’s days were permanently numbered for the last couple of years of its existence.

The far-reaching conclusions of the report ‘Broadcasting in the Seventies’ (published in 1969) failed to envisage a future need for the kind of service the Third had provided since its inception in 1946. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War there were many reflections on what precisely the Allies had been fighting for, and some concluded culture ranked high on the list of western civilisation’s worthwhile achievements. Such a view had also flourished during the war itself with the formation of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and Arts, which was renamed the Arts Council of Great Britain following the end of hostilities.

As well as heavy government investment in public events such as exhibitions, opera, ballet, the theatre and the 1951 Festival of Britain, there was a widespread belief that the most widely accessible medium of the era, radio, also had a part to play in this promotion of culture. Despite the opposition of the BBC’s ex-Director General Lord Reith – who had always been against segregation in broadcasting – the BBC Third Programme was launched on 29 September 1946 with a specific remit from the start.

The opening night included a 45-minute Bach recital on the harpsichord, an address by the Prime Minister of South Africa, some Monteverdi Madrigals ‘on gramophone’, a concert of choral music from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and a discussion that promised to contain ‘issues of current interest as well as recurrent abstract problems’. Quite a contrast with the likes of ‘ITMA’ and ‘Variety Band-Box’ over on the Light Programme that same evening, but a clear message of intent that here was something brave and deliberately uncompromising in British broadcasting. When the legacy of the post-war Attlee government is discussed today, it is mostly the social reforms that are focused on, but belief that the Arts mattered was also key to the Left philosophy; Education Secretary Ellen Wilkinson even spoke of a ‘Third Programme Nation’.

The Third Programme may have featured traditional ‘classical music’ as part of its schedule, but it also gave airtime to the increasingly experimental and avant-garde strain of contemporary classical that would have caused British industry to grind to a halt had any of it interrupted the jolly soundtrack of ‘Music While You Work’. It also facilitated the birth of the iconic BBC Radiophonic Workshop, whose influence can still be discerned throughout electronically-based music to this very day. Yet it was the spoken word that the Third revelled in – and not in the Talk Radio sense of giving disgruntled gobshites in love with the sound of their own voices an opportunity to host phone-ins about immigration or the EU.

Lectures and discussions from the likes of Bertrand Russell, Albert Camus and other heavyweight intellectuals of the day were crucial to the Third’s identity and reputation, but so was giving exposure to the works of radical playwrights such as Beckett and Pinter, and poets who had no other broadcasting outlets such as T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath; Dylan Thomas wrote ‘Under Milk Wood’ for the Third, such was the station’s standing within the artistic community, not to mention that it was the prime source of copyright payments for poets.

Of course, it didn’t take long for accusations of elitism to be levelled at this unashamed highbrow presence on the nation’s airwaves, despite the fact that it was catering for audiences (albeit small ones) that hadn’t been catered for by radio before. Similar accusations are often levelled at BBC4 today. Who do these cultural types think they are – demanding that their own erudite tastes be funded by the licence fee? The fact is that devotees of the Third paid the same amount as devotees of ‘Housewives’ Choice’, regardless of the vast chasm between listening figures, and were just as entitled to have radio representation.

However, some of the criticisms aimed at the Third predictably had an impact when the BBC instigated one of its occasional pruning exercises. After eleven years of transmitting between 6.00pm and midnight, 1957 saw the Third cut in half, with the early evening segment taken over by the wonderfully named Network Three, an educational strand sounding more like a clandestine government department. Then, in 1965 the BBC Music Programme began broadcasting classical music during the day on the Third’s frequency, paving the way for Radio 3.

When the BBC belatedly woke-up to the need for music radio to reflect the dramatic changes in listening habits during the 60s and recruited a crew of pirate station DJs in time for the launch of groovy Radio 1 in 1967, it also decided to rebrand the Light Programme and the Home Service as Radio 2 and Radio 4 respectively. The Third Programme was a trickier proposition. Its audiences may have been small, but its place at the heart of the nation’s cultural life was so beloved that attempts to axe it met with fierce opposition. A compromise was reached that saw the Music Programme become Radio 3 during the daytime hours whilst the Third and Network Three continued to occupy the evening hours.

However, as many began to express dissatisfaction with the rebranded radio stations, the report that came to be known as Broadcasting in the Seventies was commissioned and its findings resulted in a clearer division between the functions of the respective stations that have more or less defined them ever since. For the Third, the writing was on the wall and it finally disappeared for good in April 1970; plays, documentaries, discussion and education were shunted to Radio 4, and classical music overtook the majority of Radio 3’s extended airtime.

This week marks the 70th anniversary of the Third Programme/Radio 3, and the institution remains contentious, with many questioning the cost of running a service that appeals to such a minority audience. Having enjoyed a weekend on BBC4 in which Keith Richards took over the channel for three consecutive nights, I was aware that the masses were tuning in to ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ and ‘The X Factor’ and that I was a member of an exclusive club seeking televisual stimulation of a unique kind elsewhere. But as I pay my licence fee (unlike most people I know), am I not entitled to an alternative? Last time I looked, we weren’t residing in a Communist Paradise and having to endure a collective schedule. In today’s homogenous society, it is more vital than ever that square pegs have their entertainment too.

Yet, even now, over 40 years after it was laid to rest, those who remember the Third Programme maintain Radio 3 is a poor substitute for its predecessor, a station that prefers the easy option of a music schedule with occasional spoken word interludes rather than the more challenging and adventurous remit of the Third.

Perhaps the Third Programme was destined to be a short-lived heroic failure, a product of a period when the Arts were regarded as important to the nation’s wellbeing as health, housing or education, an admirable concept that now appears quaint to the defiantly philistine, anti-intellectual ear of the 21st century, when culture is viewed as more suspect and more elitist than ever before. Maybe the Third Programme was elitist, but as Paul McCartney once said of ‘Silly Love Songs’, what’s wrong with that?

© The Editor