THE OPEN ALL HOURS UNIVERSITY

YTAs BBC1 litters its post-‘10 O’Clock News’ weekday schedule with cheap, tacky BBC3 drivel and wonders why niche, minority interests are attracting niche, minority audiences, the abject failure of the senior visual broadcast medium to entertain the nation during lockdown is evident in spades; and blowing the seizure of the day has perhaps fatally weakened its already-diminishing clout. BBC1 during the hours I would be most likely to switch-on now reminds me of that old 90s Channel 4 show, ‘Eurotrash’, a programme that was a kitsch giggle during its day, but not one I imagined would serve as a blueprint for the national broadcaster 20-odd years down the line. At least ‘Eurotrash’ never pretended to be anything other than a frivolous celebration of the absurdly camp, though; it didn’t come with a fatuous political ‘message’, AKA a lecture in BBC Diversity to demonstrate just how on trend the Guardianistas running the Corporation really are. And they can’t understand why millions of licence fee-payers are turning away quicker than you can say ‘Normal service is being suspended because the Duke of Edinburgh has conked-out’.

Where are they going? Well, a sizeable chunk of the audience has found on YouTube what it once used to find on television – innovative, original, educational, informative and entertaining output. Not everything on YT is worth watching, of course; but there’s a hell of a lot more worth watching on there than can currently be found on terrestrial television. I must spend at least 85% of my viewing time on YT as opposed to TV and there are ‘favourite programmes’, as it were – channels to which I subscribe and look forward to their new videos appearing every few days. Some are remarkably professional, whilst others are endearing in their amateurishness, where an absence of media-training slickness comes as a welcome breather because it allows the heart, soul and personality of the presenter to shine through (not to mention the fact they actually possess such attributes), just like TV used to do back when it could attract the likes of John Noakes or Fred Dibnah.

Some YT channels have viewing figures that jaded TV execs still living off the back of ratings achieved in the 80s and 90s can only dream about today, which is further proof of how people are rejecting television and finding their entertainment elsewhere. I’ve seen with my own YT channel just how this works. Having quit YT a couple of years ago in the wake of all my videos being demonetised and constantly blocked and banned, I’ve recently returned with two new instalments of my most popular ongoing series simply due to the unprecedented and overwhelming demand for more in the last few months, a clamour I eventually realised I’d be foolish to ignore when so many have told me my old output has brightened-up dreary lockdown days. With the innovative ‘premiere’ system now a feature that didn’t exist during my uploading heyday, I’ve been able to set a fixed time at which a new video will appear and a window relaying live comments as it plays enables me to gauge an instant, real-time reaction from viewers. The latest video premiered at 6.00 last Sunday evening; within less than 24 hours, it had accumulated over 24,000 views. Four days later, it’s now on 48K.

But fear not – this isn’t merely a solo trumpet recital, for I spend far more time watching other people’s videos than making my own. There’s Joolz and his eccentric excursions into fascinating corners of the capital; Jago Hazzard and his arch, knowingly-nerdish tales from the Tube; John Heaton and his laidback dissections of Classic Rock back catalogues; light relief canine capers with Reuben the Bulldog and Oliver the Beagle; and (of course) the ‘controversial’ chat on ‘Triggernometry’. And those are just some of the ones I subscribe to and view each new video from. There are dozens of others I regularly come across and routinely dip in and out of, just as there used to be TV shows I’d watch intermittently without tuning in religiously every week. I can’t remember the last time television provided me with this abundance of viewing. At the moment it seems like every few weeks I stumble upon yet another YT channel that engages me and makes me search through the channel’s individual archive.

A few months back, I got into a genre of video that seemed the ideal tonic for anyone itching to venture farther afield than their own neighbourhood at a time when doing so was verboten. These ones are little travelogues without an on-screen presence; instead, the host has a camera attached somewhere on their person – hard to say where; possibly hidden in a hat, for no pedestrian they pass reacts in the way they would to a visible camera – and they walk on a set route for between half-an-hour to an hour. We see what they see; in fact, the picture is so seamlessly steady, it feels like we’re a drone gliding through the streets of London – and the ones I watch tend to be in the capital. Last summer there was a wonderful one strolling around Hampstead Heath (albeit not the route George Michael used to take); this was during the day at the height of a mini-heat-wave; another from the same time glided around Soho in the evening as the heavens opened. Hearing only the sound of the public, traffic, and the rain made the experience one of near-virtual reality – and reminded me of an updated interlude; this was ‘Slow TV’ that moved.

One character I discovered recently goes by the name of John Rogers. He has the quiet charm – and appearance – of Richard Thompson; but rather than treating us to an obscure English folk tune, he embarks upon intriguing walks in various uncelebrated areas around the outskirts of London. I watched one yesterday in which he visited the medieval village of Harmondsworth, which sits on the Western periphery of the capital. Harmondsworth comes across as something of a forgotten oasis surrounded by the environmentally-toxic M25 and M4, not to mention Heathrow itself on the doorstep. A sizeable chunk – over 700 homes – of Harmondsworth stands in the way of plans to build Heathrow’s third runway and opposition there is understandable. It’s ironic at a time when ‘Green’ is the favourite colour to spew forth from the scripted lips of politicians that such a carve-up of characteristically picturesque semi-rural England could be countenanced, and for a notoriously polluting industry that many have been happy to see put on ice due to you-know-what.

The building of Heathrow Airport back in the late 40s necessitated the obliteration of at least one centuries-old hamlet, and if the third runway eventually goes ahead, the entire village of Longford will also fall beneath the wrecking-ball. The area already had a history that the airport wiped from the map, including one of the myths of Middlesex, concerning ‘the last wolf in England’, which legend had it was killed in a wooded labyrinth on Hounslow Heath called Perry Oaks – a location that now lays buried beneath Terminal Five at Heathrow. I learnt all this just from watching the video, but the one-man band nature of these outings, whereby a solitary unskilled presenter with a naturally intimate, chummy style draws the viewer in and tells a fascinating story, is what makes them such a sedate and seductive format. BBC4 is still capable of producing similar programmes, but it’s been noticeable of late how much of that vital channel’s budget has been siphoned off to fund the trashy produce of BBC3, leaving many an evening schedule on BBC4 a veritable ‘greatest hits’ of its laudable music documentaries.

Then again, who needs TV? The old catchphrase of an annoyingly memorable theme tune once declared ‘Why don’t you just switch off your television set and go and do something less boring instead?’ – and it seems plenty of us are doing just that. Television only has itself to blame.

© The Editor

COME FLY WITH ME

stewardessNever quite sure on the exactness of the ‘once removed/twice removed’ distinction, but the easiest way to put it is that my father once had a cousin who lived in Maidenhead, Berkshire – the Parliamentary constituency currently represented by our Glorious Leader. When I spent a couple of nights at my dad’s cousin’s home as a nine-year-old in 1977, the nearest comparison I had at the time re the residence and neighbourhood was that of Margot and Jerry’s abode on ‘The Good Life’. Like Paul Eddington’s character, her husband also worked in London and commuted back to the suburbs each evening; their neighbours included Diana Dors, Michael Parkinson and Frank Bough (oo-er) and I remember her once telling me she could get me tickets for ‘Top of the Pops’ if I wanted to be a member of the audience once I was old enough. I only wish I’d taken her up on the offer.

The teenage record collections of her grown-up son and daughter that had been left behind when they’d flown the nest were ones I recall spinning on the family turntable, including the likes of Sweet, T. Rex and early Queen. They provided an invigorating alternative to Roger Whitaker and The Carpenters, which were the standard vinyl fare back home. That the same holiday also encompassed my inaugural stroll around the capital enshrines it as one of the few childhood vacations I can recall with fondness.

What has this got to do with anything, you may ask? Well, I only use the remembrance of an introduction to a different world as a roundabout means of leading into the story of Heathrow’s third runway. The house in question – which was, incidentally, the first I ever set foot in that had en-suite bathrooms – was directly beneath the flight path of what was then the world’s busiest airport. In ‘Remember Me’, Melvyn Bragg’s moving account of his first marriage, he writes of the mental trauma the noise of planes overhead caused his wife in their marital home in Kew, though I became accustomed to the sound during the short time I spent in Maidenhead. The aircraft quickly assumed the status of background ambience for me, though I appreciate this isn’t always the case for those residing in the vicinity for longer than 48 hours.

The news that the government has finally reached a decision on gifting Heathrow a third runway was bound to open a can of worms, and the first headline-grabbing consequence of the belated thumbs-up is the earth-shattering blow that Zac Goldsmith will be standing down as an MP due to his long-standing opposition to the move. The failed London Mayoral candidate announced he will honour his pledge to campaign against the expansion of Heathrow by resigning his Richmond seat. Whilst this may not necessarily be regarded amongst Theresa May’s Tory circles as a great loss, it is an indication that the Prime Minister’s final word on the long-running saga is a contentious one.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has long been a vocal opponent of a third runway at Heathrow, harbouring his own unrealisable ambitions for a completely new London airport during his stint as the capital’s Mayor, and he has already labelled the announcement as ‘undeliverable’. Education Secretary Justine Greening is also in the Boris camp, while Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell (whose own constituency includes Heathrow) has reacted with a predictable lack of enthusiasm to the news.

Theresa May’s predecessor ducked the issue throughout his premiership, under pressure from assorted NIMBY lobby groups as well as party members with constituencies that would be affected, though the PM coming out with a decision so early into her tenure at No.10 perhaps suggests an end to dithering on a subject that has been something of a hot potato in the South East for years. Adding a new runway to Gatwick was viewed as a less incendiary decision, as was extending the existing Heathrow ones rather than building a third. Now that the go-ahead for runway No.3 has been given, the saga is set to continue for several years, with first reports indicating it could be as late as 2020 before work even begins on building it; and who knows who will be in Downing Street by then?

A third runway promises upwards of 260,000 more flights into Heathrow per year (which will no doubt please those living nearby), though the cost of constructing it is rumoured to be upwards of £17.6bn, not to mention the demolition of an estimated 783 homes in the way of the redevelopment. With London currently experiencing the most severe housing crisis in its history, this is hardly the kind of news Londoners wanted to hear. London Mayor Sadiq Khan has added his voice to the condemnation, as have Greenpeace, with the organisation’s UK chief John Sauven claiming the decision will increase pollution; some union leaders, however, such TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady, have backed the proposals by viewing them as a boost to jobs and the economy. That this kind of statement allies the unions with Transport Secretary Chris Grayling is evidence that the third runway is something that cuts across party lines with Marmite-like precision.

Of course, if one doesn’t reside beneath the Heathrow flight path or faces eventual eviction as a result of the expansion, yesterday’s announcement has no impact upon day-to-day doings whatsoever. But for the residents of a small Middlesex village called Harmondsworth, much of which stands to disappear once building work begins, there is a weary resignation that two decades of campaigning against the third runway has resulted in defeat. Some are happy to be making a mint from the compulsory purchase of their properties, whereas others are understandably devastated – particularly the ones whose homes won’t make way for the runway and will therefore be essentially worthless as property investments once it arrives.

Over 150 years ago, the even greater destruction of Camden Town during the construction of the London and Birmingham Railway was documented in Charles Dickens’ ‘Dombey and Son’, and despite the author’s reservations over industrial progress, the railways were a necessary great leap forward; it would seem a third runway at Heathrow representing similar progress ultimately depends upon whether or not one stands to profit from it. And there, in a sentence, is the story of our times. The best and the worst.

© The Editor