A REPEAT PERFORMANCE

The old complaint always used to be that there were too many repeats on television; but I suppose it depended on what was being repeated. A classic BBC series such as ‘The Forsyte Saga’ benefitted from being repeated, with the programme and the audience joint beneficiaries. It earned its household name popularity when receiving a repeat run on BBC1 in 1968, having originally been screened on BBC2 the year before. At the time, the majority of the country’s viewers couldn’t receive the Beeb’s second channel on their ageing 405-line sets, so it was a shrewd move by BBC1, intended to justify the considerable expense spent on the serial. One is made aware of just how poor the image quality must have been on those 60s tellies when watching ‘The Forsyte Saga’ on DVD today; some of the makeup used to age the actors doesn’t necessarily bear up to digital scrutiny.

Glancing through musty copies of the Radio Times from the early 70s, it’s surprising how few repeats there actually are in the listings, something that contradicts the complaints about repeats even then. It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that complicated Equity rules regarding repeat fees throughout the 70s effectively limited how many programmes could actually be repeated; moreover, there was a gradual reluctance to rerun monochrome programmes from the 60s when the BBC and ITV were forever extolling the superior delights of colour television. And, lest we forget, the standard practice of wiping shows not long after their initial broadcast precluded them being seen again, anyway. Television had been, for most of its life, a transient medium that existed very much in the present; but that was about to change.

By the mid-70s, television had been around long enough to begin developing a sense of its own history, and the first wave of TV anniversary shows, such as the BBC’s ‘Forty Years’ in 1976, belatedly awakened the compilers of programmes reliant on archive material just how poorly-served the archives were. Added to this, there was an increasing interest in the back catalogues of long-running series like ‘Doctor Who’; even if there was no real medium available for the commercial release of the series’ archive, the salvaging of old episodes poised to be incinerated began in earnest during this period.

The arrival of Channel 4 in 1982 not only ushered in a fresh age of edgy broadcasting reflecting the here and now; it also revived several series that hadn’t had a decent repeat run in years, though the approach of this new kid on the broadcasting block to television’s heritage was as different to the regional ITV companies’ repeat policies as a charity shop is from a vintage one. The likes of ‘The Avengers’, ‘The Prisoner’, ‘Budgie’ and ‘Callan’ weren’t hidden away in the twilight hours, but given prime-time slots and elevated to the status of classics. Enough time had now passed since their first broadcasts to warrant the label.

The growth in the home video market from the early 80s onwards was initially focused on the produce of the movie industry, but television soon realised the potential too. VCRs sent many broadcasters scuttling in the direction of their depleted archives, hoping they could find the odd episode of a once-beloved series to stick out on VHS for twenty quid. Even if the rare case of a series preserved in its entirety meant it could have received a full video release, tapes were extremely expensive to buy at the time and could usually only hold a couple of episodes of anything at most. Many favourite series I now own in full on DVD were ones I just had a few episodes of on VHS releases for years; and in a lot of cases, the complete series on DVD cost about the same as two episodes on one tape would have cost me twenty-five years ago. Not all progress is bad.

The deregulation of TV in the wake of the 1990 Broadcasting Act meant there were many more channels suddenly available, though with numerous hours to fill, the cheapest way of filling them was to repeat old programmes. Yet, this also nicely chimed with an upsurge in nostalgia amongst 30-somethings for childhood shows; and when the more obvious and best-remembered of these finished their runs, one intriguing side-effect was that channels such as UK Gold and Granada Plus were then forced to excavate programmes that, in some cases, hadn’t been seen on British television for twenty years or more. Mid-90s off-air recordings of these can still sometimes surface on YouTube.

The arrival of the DVD and the innovation of the box-set finally took the decision of what old shows would or wouldn’t be repeated out of the hands of the broadcasters and did what even the VHS failed to do – it enabled fans to own the complete series of a favourite programme at a reasonable price, and usually (when old prints were digitally cleaned-up) in a better condition than even when they’d first been transmitted on TV. Companies like Simply Media, Acorn, 2 entertain and, best of all, Network have ploughed a similar path to the oldies channels of the 90s by following the release of the best-remembered series with the availability of the half-remembered and the near-forgotten; the half-remembered and the near-forgotten, however, are often worth investing in if one is interested in archive TV, as they regularly throw up pleasant surprises.

Whilst the advent of Netflix and other similar systems are now being heralded as not only the end of old-style appointment TV on terrestrial channels but as the end of the DVD box-set as well, when it comes to archive television it would seem the DVD is still its most fitting home. Yes, it may also be its retirement home; but opting out of television’s endless peak-time talent contests by escaping into a parallel universe of personal choice is the same as rejecting the radio and sticking the music on that you want to hear rather than the music someone else is shoving down your throat. At the moment, I’m back with Edward Woodward and his hygienically-challenged sidekick Lonely as they slip in and out of their shadowy and seedy, vanished 70s landscape of Cold War wallpaper. And in 2017, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.

© The Editor

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GONE WITH NOAKES

Before hyperactive twenty-somethings, uncles used to be the model – lacking the stern authority of father-figures, managing to earn respect with lingering juvenile slapstick silliness; when I was the child watching, uncles were everywhere. Derek Griffiths and Brian Cant on ‘Play School’ and ‘Play Away’; Tony Hart on ‘Vision On’; Johnny Morris on ‘Animal Magic’; Roy Castle on ‘Record Breakers’; yes…Rolf Harris; and then there were John Noakes and Peter Purves on ‘Blue Peter’. With the news that Noakes has passed away at the age of 83, having mercifully evaded the pernicious net of malicious revisionism that hangs over his television era, those of my generation cannot help but recall how much he meant to us at the time.

John Noakes joined ‘Blue Peter’ as a very young-looking 30-year-old when his far-from spectacular acting career was floundering. Becoming the third member of the team in 1965, he was quite unlike anyone to have appeared on children’s TV previously. Christopher Trace and Valerie Singleton were very much in a 50s parental mould – RP-speaking, frightfully middle-class and sensible; they represented the norm. Noakes was Northern and didn’t hide his Yorkshire accent, for one thing; and he never talked down to the audience, communicating with them in their own language. It never looked as if Noakes’ mother took a comb to his hair, so he was definitely ‘one of us’.

John Noakes was also child-like in his anarchic recklessness, quickly earning a reputation as something of an amateur daredevil that saw him put in situations that would today provoke a cardiac arrest in most Health and Safety Officers. He climbed up one of the chimneys at Fulham Power Station, up Nelson’s Column, up the mast 127 feet above the deck of HMS Ganges; he skydived with the RAF; and had a lucky escape when tobogganing at 90mph. There was a fearlessness to him that seemed to echo the tree-climbing zest for life his core viewing public were encouraged to believe they would one day grow out of. He clearly hadn’t grown out of it, so there was hope for all of us.

It later emerged that Noakes’ popularity with the young audience was something of an irritant to his on-screen sidekick Peter Purves. Not that the two men didn’t get on – far from it; but it seems Purves resented having to play ‘the straight man’ to Noakes’ comedy character; perhaps that’s why Purves went for the cool dude look, straight out of Carnaby Street. It was then up to Valerie Singleton to play the responsible parent to an unruly rascal and a coiffured dandy, keeping the boys in order. Singleton was the studio representative of the show’s backstage editor Biddy Baxter, whose strict headmistress persona often clashed with Noakes’ instinctive rebel. But the off-screen tensions benefitted the programme, as Noakes became (and remains) the longest-serving presenter in its history, clocking-in at 12 years 6 months.

One of the more ingenious ideas ‘Blue Peter’ came up with was to introduce dogs and cats as surrogate pets for those children watching whose parents wouldn’t allow them to keep either (me included). It was also an astute move in that animals are one of the best ways in for children to learn about the cycle of life in that they die after a few short years. Petra and Jason were the original dog and cat members of the line-up and when the series decided to keep one of Petra’s puppies Patch as the second canine star of the show, Noakes was entrusted to look after him. The first lesson of the life cycle came for ‘Blue Peter’ viewers in 1971 when Patch suddenly died after catching a rare disease during location filming. A few months later, his replacement appeared and a legendary double-act was born in the process, John Noakes and Shep.

The Border collie appeared to be the perfect best friend for a man like John Noakes; he was just as silly and loveable as Noakes himself. In fact, the two were so inseparable that they even gained their own spin-off series, ‘Go with Noakes’, in which John and Shep went on their travels around the country, usually indulging in the more energetic rural pursuits. By the mid-70s, John Noakes was one of the most famous faces on British television and it was all-but impossible to imagine ‘Blue Peter’ without him. However, that moment came in June 1978, barely three months after Peter Purves had also walked; for the children watching, both ‘Blue Peter’ and children’s television would never be quite the same again.

The clash between Noakes and Biddy Baxter wasn’t eased by his departure; although Shep was technically ‘BBC property’, Noakes was told he could take Shep with him when he left the programme as long as he didn’t capitalise on their celebrity by advertising products on ITV. Noakes agreed and then promptly did a dog food commercial with a Shep lookalike, infuriating Baxter. The ill-feeling lasted a long time, with Noakes refusing to participate in any of the programme’s anniversary reunions until Baxter had herself retired. The feud was a shame in that both contributed hugely to the success of the show and made it one of the jewels in the BBC’s children’s crown during a genuine golden age.

In the years after his ‘Blue Peter’ career ended, Noakes appeared occasionally on TV, presenting a regional series called ‘Country Calendar’ for Yorkshire Television in the early 80s and then largely popping up as a guest blast from the past here and there. His public bitterness about his ‘Blue Peter’ years was, to those of us for whom he was a hero, a bit like finding out your dad had been having an affair throughout his marriage to your mum. It sours the memory a little, but can’t take away the warmth that memory continues to generate. Patch and Shep were my dogs, Jason was my cat, and John Noakes was my daft uncle. Just as they all were to everyone else my age. RIP.

© The Editor

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BACK TO THE TEACHER

Okay, so it’s been a bloody grim week so far, and as a means of combating the worst elements of the twenty-first century, I’ve been retreating into the selective embrace of the past in the shape of programmes for schools and colleges produced in the 1970s. Thanks to YouTube, over the last 48 hours I’ve sat through 40-odd year-old editions of ‘Look and Read’, ‘Words and Pictures’, ‘How We Used to Live’ et al. If I dip into my desk drawer and pull out a copy of the Radio Times from the same era (the copy in question dated 31 August-6 September 1974), the centre pages provide the most striking contrast between television then and television now, for they contain a four-page guide to that autumn’s educational schedule across BBC TV and radio.

And the variety on offer in this schedule is all the more eye-opening because these series are all primarily aimed at adults; there isn’t even room for cataloguing the myriad of programmes produced for schools during this period. Got kids? Watch ‘Parents and Children’ on BBC1; like football? Listen to ‘Behind the Goals’ on Radio 3; just qualified as a social-worker? Watch ‘Developments in Social Work’ on BBC2; interested in ‘news-making, decision-making and forms of loyalty’? Watch ‘Focus’ on BBC1 – and that’s not the flute-based, yodelling Dutch prog-rock band, despite ‘House of the King’ being used as the theme tune to numerous educational programmes in the 1970s.

You can learn to speak German, Spanish, Russian and Welsh, learn to become a mountaineer, rugby player and gardener, learn how to understand economics, the National Health and local government, not to mention ‘systematic thinking in action’! Arts, sciences, languages, the community, home and leisure, work and industry, teaching – all fall under the umbrella of public service broadcasting in 1974. Despite his reservations over the one-eyed monster, no doubt Lord Reith would have been proud his original remit remained relatively intact.

Today, what used to be viewed as television down-time is filled during the day with cheap and cheerful antiques/cookery/house-buying and selling/quiz show formulas and late at night with rolling news, interactive game shows and repeats of daytime fodder with a man in the corner of the screen aptly gesticulating his way through ‘The Jeremy Kyle Show’. In retrospect, it’s amazing how a TV landscape that switched-off around midnight seemed to cram more into its limited broadcasting hours than one that never sleeps. The adult education programmes described above could usually be found hidden away last thing at night or presented together in a large chunk on a Sunday morning, sandwiched between a religious service and farming news; space in the listings may have been at a precious premium, but the schedulers always found a space to educate and inform as well as entertain.

Then of course, there were the twilight hours that were occupied by hirsute men in spectacles with little or no evident experience in front of a camera – the Open University. Who could forget that eerie, unnerving jingle jolting the armchair snoozer back to life far more effectively than a car alarm would do today? And who could forget programmes for schools and colleges? For anyone who was of school age in the 60s, 70s or 80s, they were amongst the few breathers from the classroom tedium on offer. What a ritual that was, being ushered into the library and watching the teacher wheel-in a huge telly, waiting for what felt like an aeon for the machine to warm-up, and then being greeted by some unsettling Radiophonic Workshop ditty accompanying a pulsating diamond or a circle of disappearing dots before the actual programme began.

It’s worth bearing in mind just how many hours were given over to schools broadcasts as well. An average BBC1 week during term-time would begin around 9.38am and would sign-off not long after midday; following a dinner-break for the test card, the news, ‘Pebble Mill at One’ and ‘Watch with Mother’, schools TV would open its gates again for another hour or so at the precise time of 2.2pm. That’s not even including BBC schools broadcasts on the radio, when the VHF wavelength on Radio 4 would be used exclusively for them between 10.00 in the morning and 3.00 in the afternoon.

We should also remember that ITV – yes! ITV! – played its part in the television education of the nation’s children as well. Even though commercial considerations freed them from a less rigid public service commitment than the Beeb, their weekday schedule ran from 9.30-12.00 and produced some of the most memorable schools programmes of them all. There was even an advertising armistice during these transmissions.

Calculate just how much of pre-24 hour TV on both sides of the British broadcasting divide was given over to educational programming and it’d be pretty impressive. It’s indisputable that many were cheaply-made on shoestring budgets, especially the Open University broadcasts; and some were uniquely dull in a manner that elevated visual boredom to a level that now seems quite radical, on a par with the worst Warhol movies or a contemporary art installation But I’d still be more bored sitting through an edition of ‘This Morning’ than an episode of Granada’s austere schools science show, ‘Experiment’.

Noble ventures are not something one would now really associate with British television. Most 21st century TV execs would probably regard ‘Comic Relief’ or ‘Children in Need’ as such, and in their own way, they are. But annual or bi-annual telethons, when the normal schedule is set aside for one night only to accommodate a good deed, are different to the noble venture that was educational television. It was a product of a period in which the people who ran television regarded it as a tool of communication that amounted to more than a ratings-chasing commercial cash-cow or a daytime sedative. Much like the internet is today, TV then was viewed as a multi-purpose medium capable of all that life can afford.

So, where did it go? Firstly, the advent of the VCR hailed the death-knell of schools programming in its traditional slot; secondly, in the mid-80s BBC TV schools programmes were shunted over to BBC2 in preparation for the launch of daytime BBC1 and the arrival of cosy sofa chinwags about child abuse and the menstrual cycle. Not long after, ITV transferred their schools schedule to Channel 4 in order that Richard and Judy could do likewise, paving the way for menopausal gobshites and underclass-baiting bullies. It is ironic that a slot once reserved for mind-expansion is now reserved for the gradual erosion of the brain cells, and after-dark telly today is no less retarded. It does seem a shame that the increase in broadcasting hours doesn’t seem capable of embracing the same breadth of broadcasting available when less was more.

© The Editor

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LAUGH? I NEARLY PAID MY LICENCE FEE

Anyone ancient enough may find the title of this post evokes misty memories of a half-remembered comedy series from a good 35 years ago; the truth is I nicked the title from the programme, though the title sticks in the head more than the content. From what I can remember, the satirical sketch show in question starred Robbie Coltrane before he became a ‘serious actor’, and followed a similar path to a predecessor called ‘A Kick up The 80s’, which had given an early break to Tracey Ullman. These BBC2 shows from the first half of the 80s essentially revamped the format of mid-60s TW3 sequels like ‘Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life’ and ‘BBC-3’, produced at a time when Alternative Comedy had gatecrashed the Light Entertainment fortress. TV welcomed it with open arms and an open mind.

If you perused yesterday’s post, you may have also viewed the video tagged onto it, which was my ‘satirical take’ on the upcoming General Election, using the well-oiled vehicle of the party political broadcast. Some of the comments that accompanied the video on YouTube repeated a complimentary phrase I’ve received on previous occasions, one I mention not to boost my ego, but because it has a relevance to this particular post – ‘You should be on the telly.’

The telly’s comedy schedule the day I posted this video on YT consisted of Keith Lemon and Paddy McGuinness on ITV, whereas BBC1 offered Michael McIntyre and Mrs Brown. Of course, comedy is subjective; what causes one person to soil their Y-fronts causes another to reach for the remote, but the view I personally have of these comedic offerings from the mainstream is that they are today’s equivalent of the Bernard Manning/Jim Davidson/Frank Carson working-men’s club school that Alternative Comedy reacted against at the turn of the 80s. If ‘comedy on the telly’ is what ITV and the BBC were serving up on Saturday evening, and that’s the company I’m supposed to crave, I’d rather not bother.

It’s hard enough trying to get a book published, so I’m certainly not prepared to promote what I consider to be a sideline by bombarding TV producers and then having to be funnelled through focus groups and committees; neither am I prepared to go to the Edinburgh Festival and spend a fortune playing to three or four people in a tiny theatre. The comedy circuit in terms of live performance remains a provider of new faces for television, but those who make up the numbers on endless panel shows are the Ed Sheeran’s of comedy; their ultimate aim is to play arenas, and it’s evident in their routines. For Irishmen and mothers-in-law as subject matters, substitute ‘My girlfriend/boyfriend said to me the other day…’ It’s what Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer referred to as comedy for parties of office workers – comedy intended to make the audience echo George Osborne’s belief that we’re all in it together.

This is the kind of comedy TV commissioners want. Nobody in their position today would commission something as alien to the ‘communal comedy’ mindset as ‘Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out’, let alone Spike Milligan’s ‘Q’, ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ or even later ventures into the surreal such as ‘The League of Gentlemen’. Every generation once had its comedy series, though just as the music scene seems to have abandoned its old practice of ripping it up and starting again, the expectation that each decade would produce one defining comedy series no longer applies. And the reason appears to be that television has lost its bottle. Even when it tries to do something moderately daring, such as the ‘Real Wives of ISIS’ sketch that appeared on the BBC’s ‘Revolting’ earlier this year, the conservatism of an audience raised on the lame comedy of the last ten years produces a hostile reaction that causes commissioners to stick to playing it safe. The fact that an established home for unconventional comedy such as BBC3 is now solely online speaks volumes.

Yet this situation has only really arisen in the past decade or so. As recent as 2002 and 2005, BBC2 produced ‘Look Around You’, the brilliant parody of firstly 70s schools programmes and then early 80s ‘Tomorrow’s World’ from Peter Serafinowicz and Robert Popper. I can’t remember the last time I saw either on mainstream TV; but they’re active online. Another occasional compliment I’ve received in the comments section on YT has been ‘Are you Peter Serafinowicz?’ – which is incredibly flattering, but perhaps reflects the fact he and I are operating in a similar area, the area being not merely making videos cut from the same cloth of humour, but the fact we’re online and not on TV.

Yes, there are undoubtedly many amateurish and pretty unfunny attempts at comedy on YT as there probably are on the telly, if not more; but at the same time, there are some very talented comic performers whose work is only available online; you rarely, if ever, see them on the goggle box.

Steve Riks is an impressionist who specialises in impersonating rock stars and putting them in unlikely situations; one of the most recent videos of his I watched was a short sketch in which Jeff Lynne rings up both Roy Wood and Noddy Holder, neither of whom want to speak to him. It was funny and simultaneously supremely silly, and Riks played all three parts. He’s also a dab hand at John, Paul, George and Ringo; but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him on TV and I don’t really expect to. How would he even pitch a premise like that to a TV commissioner looking for the next Michael McIntyre? The days when Galton & Simpson would be offered 13 weeks in a prime-time slot to write whatever they wanted are long gone.

Opinionated news reporter Jonathan Pie, who launches into a rant on politics when he imagines the camera has been switched-off, is another comedian whose work is only known to me via YouTube. The Russia Today/RT logo always appears on his videos, so his shorts may well be broadcast on the channel; but it’s not exactly the mainstream, is it? As with music, I no longer believe television is the definitive showcase for comedy today; by relying on the tired modern-day music hall-in-its-death throes vacuum of the comedy club, TV commissioners are looking in the wrong place.

© The Editor

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ELITISM FOR EVERYONE

Radio 4 listeners are creatures of habit. Different moments of the day are marked by the R4 schedule in clock-like fashion. From ‘Today’ to ‘The World at One’ and from ‘The Archers’ to ‘The Shipping Forecast’, the listeners know where they are and what time it is when a particular voice or theme tune rings around the room. These things may be insignificant to some, but to others they matter. Therefore, whenever a new-ish controller seeks to make their mark by axing a long-running programme or relocating a show to an alien time slot, Radio 4 listeners react in a manner that underlines how much both they and the station itself are regularly misjudged and misunderstood by the BBC overlords.

In 2006, the decision of then-R4 controller Mark Damazer to dispense with the UK Theme, an eccentric medley of traditional British and Irish melodies that had opened the station every morning since 1978, was greeted with a listeners’ backlash that even reached as far as Parliament; an online petition demanding the decision be overturned garnered over 18,000 signatures. It was all to no avail. There were suspicions the theme was dropped because it wasn’t deemed ‘politically correct’, something that could be seen as an overreaction but would also chime with the general opinion of the BBC’s attitude to those segments of its empire that don’t quite fit with the broadcasting business model of the twenty-first century.

Recently, Libby Purves’ Wednesday morning institution, ‘Midweek’, was dispatched to the wireless necropolis after 35 years on air; and now it seems ‘Saturday Review’, another R4 fixture with a lengthy pedigree is also to receive the chop. The latter is a radio equivalent of Mark Lawson’s late BBC2 ‘Review’ series – once referred to as ‘WWF Wrestling for the chattering classes’ by Elvis Costello – and often features infuriatingly smug and pretentious critics that make you want to throw the radio through the window. At the same time, it still provides a service in that plays, books and movies receive exposure on it that they don’t receive outside of broadsheet arts supplements. It’s apparently being dropped due to radio budget cuts.

Radio 4 listeners are passionate about their station of choice because outlets for what is increasingly viewed as niche broadcasting have diminished in the rush to cater for kids or teenagers or a ‘family audience’ that will accept whatever shit is shovelled up for them on a Saturday evening, the kind of surrender to the lowest common denominator formulaic ratings-chasing express that prime-time television embodies. Which other radio station would produce ‘Tweet of the Day’ or ‘Bells on Sunday’? Just because their audience is small doesn’t mean that audience doesn’t count.

Of course, it’s middle-class; it’s white, it’s elitist; the right says it’s too lefty; the left says it’s too far to the right, with Corbynistas booing Nick Robinson from ‘Today’ recently due to that very reason; you don’t hear many regional accents on it – and so on. I might be white, but I’m certainly not middle-class, and I like to hear well-spoken voices on the radio on account of not hearing many of them on the street. Elitism to me is when anyone from a working-class background is advised by their peers to avoid, say, the ballet, opera, theatre, literature, galleries, museums and so forth because ‘they’re not for you’. Inverted snobbery is a greater obstacle to the opening of artistic doors than snobbery from on high, and Radio 4 is one way in. It’s there for anybody who wants more than beer, tits and football. Just listening to ‘The Archers’ for me is an almost radical experience considering the environment I was raised in.

Radio 4, like its television sibling BBC4, sticks to the Reithian principles of informing, educating and entertaining; it’s an oasis of intelligence and illumination with programmes that provoke thought and discussion above and beyond the vocal merits of some bawling, blubbing Gary Barlow wannabe with a sob-story facing a firing squad of judges; there’s more than enough of that for those that want it everywhere else. Yet, for all the odious Tony Hall’s PR waffle about the Beeb’s investment in ‘culture’, the corporation’s most damaging cuts have been reserved for its cultural outlets. Fewer new programmes are being produced for BBC4 now than just two years ago; on many evenings its schedule is clogged-up with repeats; yes, they’re usually worth watching, but the chances are viewers have already seen them several times before.

Increasingly at the post-Birt BBC, the laudable ethos behind the corporation’s creation has been lost and buried beneath the scramble to appease ‘market forces’. One-time genuine alternative BBC2 has been reduced to competing with Channel 4 – another once-great innovator – in how many variations on formats that have been done to death over the last decade can be concocted: the cookery game show/celebrity comedians grouped together and sent on ‘life-changing journeys’ to far-off lands/famous names encouraging ‘ordinary people’ to achieve their dreams/etc. etc. As the old saying goes, this isn’t what I pay my licence fee for.

Tellingly, considering the cuts that have been inflicted upon the best of the BBC, money has been miraculously found to cover the salaries of its senior freeloaders. Thanks to Private Eye, we know that the previous Director of BBC Radio Helen Boaden was on a wage of £352,900 a year, with her deputy Graham Ellis on £212,800. After last autumn’s reshuffle, James Purnell was made Director of Radio & Education on £295,000 a year and Bob Shennan as Director of Audio & Music just about manages on an annual salary of £245,565. But the Beeb can’t afford a 45-minute arts review series once a week on Radio 4. Fancy that!

© The Editor

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LOOK AWAY NOW

There’s a news report by the late ITN reporter Michael Nicholson from the 1967/70 Biafran War in which an enemy is captured by Nigerian Government forces and then shot dead on camera as a brutal demonstration of the army’s authority. Nicholson himself retrospectively reflected that the whole ugly spectacle was set up to ‘impress’ him and the western media, but it was hardly unique in an era when television news viewed itself as a vehicle for showing the world as it really was, warts and all. Around the same time, there was the even more infamous clip in a similar vein from Vietnam in which a bound prisoner is approached by a military man and is promptly shot point-blank in the temple; the blood gushes from the side of his head as his instantly limp body collapses to the ground, a gruesome fountain that was replayed on TV news around the globe.

Both these notorious examples of reportage from the frontline of ongoing conflicts belong to a less squeamish age that is now almost inconceivable to imagine being beamed into the nation’s living rooms. Were TV news today to exhibit the same kind of content as it did forty, fifty years ago, each bulletin would require an announcement beforehand of the sort that now even accompanies bloody ‘Coronation Street’ on occasion.

As a child, I was often more anxious when the news began that I would be if a horror film was about to be screened. One might presume the 1970s was somehow a more violent place than the 2010s if archive news broadcasts were used as a guide; in some respects, it was, though on a street level, if you like. The wider world was no more and no less violent than it is in 2017, but the violence wasn’t as remote – it was there in the playground and the classroom and it was there on the telly.

There was probably a greater awareness of violence then thanks to the less censorious approach of our broadcasters. If one thinks of the world’s trouble-spots forty-five years ago – Rhodesia, Vietnam, Uganda, Northern Ireland – the violence there was graphically portrayed on television because the viewpoint appeared to be that to not show it would simply reduce TV news to radio news. This could have been a natural progression from what radio had done during the Second World War, when listeners were dependent upon their imaginations to visualise the horrors of Belsen as so memorably described by Richard Dimbleby when the camp was liberated by Allied forces. TV news enabled the sights to be seen, however horrible. It was deemed a necessary evil if the public were to understand the unpleasant realities of war and its aftermath.

There appeared to be a conscious sea-change in television at some point in the 1990s – disturbing footage from the Gulf War that depicted the charred corpses of soldiers only appeared after the war was won, for example. The official demarcation line of the 9.00 watershed was extended when it came to conflict so that even post-watershed news bulletins avoided anything that might give their viewers nightmares. As late as 1982, the piles of bodies in the horrific massacres at the Sabra and Shatila camps in Lebanon were shown on the TV news; the thinking seemed to be that these needed to be seen if the true appalling nature of the crime could be digested. Within a decade, it was difficult to envisage this kind of candid broadcasting.

The ‘don’t have nightmares’ catchphrase made famous by Nick Ross on ‘Crimewatch’ was taken up as an approach to television news from the 90s onwards, with the no-holds-barred presentation that had previously distinguished TV from radio abandoned in favour of an airbrushed picture of man’s inhumanity to man that meant nobody had to be exposed to it if they switched the news on. Of course, wall-to-wall massacres and murders are not something many would look forward to seeing, but by visually censoring the actual events being reported on, viewers are given a lopsided impression of such incidents that is akin to an adult placing their hands over a child’s eyes if a pair of tits appear in a movie the family is watching together. If something horrible has happened, the viewer should have the sense to know that tuning in to the news means they’re going to see it.

It’s possible the advent of the internet – where the curious can more or less see whatever they want to see – has influenced a greater degree of censorship on television. No severed heads sliced off by ISIS or the bodies of those ploughed down by the recent terrorist take on road-rage have been screened on TV news, but they can easily be located online; I’ve inadvertently stumbled upon the former myself. I didn’t necessarily want to see them, but seeing them did bring home the horror of their reality more than anything broadcast on television. Yet, crucially, the random selection of horrors online has no context in the way it would have on TV news, when the images would be framed within a report that their inclusion would justify. By refusing to countenance screening anything that might provoke nightmares, it feels as if the broadcasters are absolving themselves of any responsibility to the viewers, perhaps fearful of litigation.

Even streakers during prominent sports occasions are now swiftly mixed out of live broadcasts, with the commentator taking it upon himself to act as parent – ‘We’re sure the viewers at home don’t want to see that’ etc. I don’t necessarily want to watch a man’s member flopping about the touch-line of a football pitch, but the decision whether or not to watch should really be mine as an adult. In the 70s and 80s, broadcasters trusted viewers to make that decision and didn’t regard them as permanently offended virgin spinsters.

The ease with which so many take offence today and the aforementioned prospect of litigation could well have led us to this state of affairs re TV news; and for all the talk of news channels operating on a biased agenda that tells us what they want us to hear rather than giving us the whole story, it seems to me that this is most apparent in the censor’s scissors when it comes to anything unpleasant. They could always take a football results approach – ‘If you don’t want to see a severed head, look away now’ – but that won’t happen because John Craven’s pioneering bulletin was effectively the blueprint for the future we’re currently watching on the BBC, ITV and Sky. Don’t have nightmares.

© The Editor

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SPECULATE TO ILLUMINATE

Rolling news channels tend to break big stories in a melodramatic manner that invariably recalls the ‘War!’ episode of ‘The Day Today’ because rolling news channels for most of the time are about as thrilling a viewing experience as the test card – so many hours need filling and there’s often so little to work with. Therefore, when A Major Incident occurs, they can barely contain their excitement. At last, something to justify their existence! The first rule in the Major Incident manual is that the anchors abruptly disappear from the screen and effectively become radio presenters, as though seeing their perma-tanned countenances and lacquered coiffures will somehow belittle the gravitas of the news story.

The second rule in the Major Incident manual is to cut to a reporter on the spot, often one fairly low in the reporter pecking order, but the nearest on hand. Conscious this could be their Kate Adie-in-Tiananmen Square moment, their lack of experience is evident in the way they can’t keep a lid on the hyperbole by describing events in terms of ‘nothing like this has ever happened before’; there are also usually awkward-on-camera eyewitnesses shoved into shot for said reporter to quiz, ones whose accounts climax with the reporter asking them ‘how they feel’, as though they’ve just spoken to the Queen on a royal walkabout.

The visual lexicon of rolling news clichés roll on – there’s mobile phone footage shot in the wrong aspect ratio; there’s an expert in the studio the presenter can interview; there’s another expert down the line; there’s the distracting Sky Sports ‘Soccer Saturday’-style info blazing a trail along the bottom of the screen, basically repeating what we’ve already been told; there’s a ‘greatest hits’ compilation of images lasting around three minutes – aerial shots, people running away from whatever happened, police and ambulance crews doing for real what they’ve been though in endless hours of training, general panic and confusion – and it’s played out on a loop as speculation reigns. Throw in the phrase ‘Terror Incident’ to hammer home how serious this all is for good measure. As a means of finding out precisely what the hell is going on, one might as well consult the entrails of a sheep.

Following a phone-call, I stuck BBC1 on this afternoon and found it had turned into the BBC News Channel. From what I could gather, some nutter had driven his car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, exited his vehicle brandishing a knife, stabbed a copper, ran towards the Palace of Westminster, stabbed another copper, and was then cut down by an armed copper before he could get anywhere near Parliament. There was a report one member of the public was dead as a result of what happened on Westminster Bridge and an equally grim report that there was a body in the Thames. It would seem this was classified as a ‘terror incident’ rather than a knife crime on account of the incident’s location. I don’t know if there’s some sort of invisible demarcation line in London whereby, depending what side of it you’re on, the distinction is evident.

At the time of writing, the assailant’s identity has not been revealed. If he’s called Mohammed, I would guess that fits the terrorist bill; but as with any story of this gruesome nature, I wouldn’t expect to know many details so early after it taking place. Tuning into a rolling news channel in the thick of it is probably the worst way of trying to find out; the dazzling recycling of the same images over and over again intensifies rather than eases the viewer’s sense of bewilderment, while reporters not much more informed than the members of the public surrounding them are trying their best to give the impression they are. It’s like they’ve bragged they can recite a particularly lengthy poem, but when they get the chance to do so they don’t actually know it word-for-word.

JG Ballard famously opined that, for him, sensationalistic reportage of violent events began with the JFK assassination, which may well be true, though he lived most of his adult life in a pre-24 hour news TV age. Bar the old-school newsflash, which would interrupt a scheduled programme for a few minutes to report a breaking news story and then announce more details would follow on ‘The Nine O’Clock News’ a few hours later, the first time I remember a live event taking over the telly was the climax of the Iranian Embassy Siege in 1980, when the dramatic actions of the SAS in rescuing the hostages were just about Bond-like enough to vindicate the interruption and keep viewers watching. But it was a hardly a regular occurrence, more of an aberration in the way stories were covered.

As far as I can recall, the inaugural moment when the style of presentation viewers were again served up today gate-crashed mainstream television was 9/11; since then, any sign of an incident that can have ‘terror’ attached to it has warranted the same treatment. The problem is that nobody really knows what’s going on, certainly not in the first couple of hours following it, anyway. Sometimes, a degree of distance is required to provide a more measured response, but competing rolling news channels can’t afford to do that, so they have to keep showing the same images, repeating the same unconfirmed reports and indulging in speculative guess-work based on what they have so far. It’s not a very satisfactory source of information, to say the least.

It’s pointless me joining in the speculation with this post because I’m no more clued-up than you (if you’re reading it not long after I posted it, of course); I wrote it because I just find the reporting of these events in the immediate aftermath of them taking place incredibly frustrating and liable to induce the feeling of how the world is going to hell in a handcart, something I might not necessarily feel a few hours later when a clearer picture emerges. But the sad fact is we’re now all programmed to reach for the TV remote when we hear A Major Incident has happened, even if doing so leaves us none the wiser.

© The Editor

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