At one time in the late 1970s, BBC2 would close down for the evening with a poem. BBC1 remained loyal to ‘God Save the Queen’, but its more erudite sibling opted for the kind of sign-off that reflected its reputation as a patron of the arts. Mainstream TV channels no longer go to sleep, of course; but the original glut of quirky and set-the-video shows that ITV ran during its early through-the-night transmissions are just as much a part of television history now as an actor reciting Ted Hughes at the approach of midnight. Repeats of programmes screened earlier in the week with in-vision sign-language, or switching to the repetitive tedium of rolling news isn’t exactly making use of all those hours supposedly freed-up for broadcasting when the closedown ritual disappeared forever in the late 90s.
To be honest, TV may as well finish for the day even earlier than it used to, for after around 11.00, there’s bugger all to watch, anyway. If your viewing doesn’t begin until, say, 9.00pm, you’ve just a couple hours to watch ‘new’ television before there’s a second chance to see something you saw a few days before. Back when TV had a limit on broadcasting time, nothing went to waste; today’s graveyard slot was actually used for interesting programming. All we have now is the weekly ‘Front Row Late’, which often comes across as ‘Loose Women’ for the chattering classes. No wonder I end up sticking a DVD on.
As a night-owl, it’s nice to have a little televisual stimulation when I’m at my most awake and engaged in a creative break; but the DVD box-set suffices in the absence of programme-makers providing the goods. As regular readers will already know, I’m something of a connoisseur of vintage British TV, both familiar and obscure. In fact, I own such a lot that there isn’t much left to purchase now. Consequently, there’s something of a ‘painting the Forth Bridge’ factor in that every couple of years I work my way back to a series and enjoy it all over again. Recently, I revisited the controversial 1978 BBC four-parter, ‘Law and Order’, which lifted the lid on corruption within the police force and the legal profession as a villain is fitted-up for a job he didn’t do. One instalment covers his time behind bars and is so graphically brutal it makes ‘Scum’ resemble an episode of ‘Porridge’.
A familiar extra on the best box-sets of this nature is the new documentary recalling the series in question, usually featuring cast and crew interviews. ‘Law and Order’ is no exception, and it wasn’t until viewing it again that I remembered Tony Garnett was the programme’s producer. The groundbreaking Garnett – one of British television’s most fiercely fearless figures – sadly passed away in January; when his CV was belatedly celebrated in the obituaries, his contribution to intelligent and compassionate drama with an attitude that punched-up was writ large. From his association with ‘The Wednesday Play’ in the 60s, his collaborations with Ken Loach (including ‘Cathy Come Home’ and ‘Kes’), his work on ‘Play for Today’ in the 70s, and all the way up to ‘This Life’ in the 90s, Tony Garnett was the kind of visionary character with a heart that British TV used to inspire and no longer attracts.
On the ‘Law and Order’ documentary extra, Garnett speaks of how the producer was venerated and left to his own devices at the BBC in the 60s and 70s, hence so much undiluted dramatic output that impacted on the public consciousness; free from managerial interference and spared committee groupthink, not to mention concessions to ‘diversity and inclusivity’ initiatives, the producer channelled his vision directly to the audience without any unnecessary cosmetic surgery en route. In 2009, an ‘open email’ by Garnett to the BBC was widely circulated, one in which his criticisms of the changes within the corporation contained the accusation that the techniques of BBC management ‘stifle the creativity which the organisation is supposed to be encouraging’. Of course, the impact of Garnett’s key productions was helped by them being screened during the three-channel, pre-VCR/iPlayer era; but even watching them 50-60 years on, the visceral strength of the writing, acting and direction remain comparable to any old movies rightly recognised as significant landmarks in cinematic history. Alas, in the same way that Hollywood eventually collapsed into the hands of lawyers and corporate executives, British television similarly surrendered to the artless automatons that have made the BBC its own worst enemy.
The left claims the BBC is anti-Labour and biased in favour of the right whereas the right claims the BBC is a hotbed of Remainer lefties. With the former, such accusations feel like a symptom of the incurable Corbynista persecution complex that its sufferers level at all media outlets – perhaps underlining their chronic lack of awareness re their own shortcomings. With the latter, there is some truth, in that the BBC is on the whole manned by graduates of left-leaning academia who tend to think the same way and feel compelled to infuse the corporation’s programming with their worldview. This has certainly seeped into news and current affairs, something which has prompted the withdrawal of Government Ministers from the likes of ‘Today’ and ‘Newsnight’ – though this counterproductive measure, reminiscent of that period when Alex Ferguson refused any post-match interviews with the Beeb, could just as much be seen as symptomatic of No.10’s control-freakery.
I totally understand those who have given up on the BBC; but I will say that over the past seven days via various BBC radio and television channels, I’ve watched a superb documentary featuring a Brummie folk musician of Irish descent looking at the fascinating history of the Irish community in Birmingham; I’ve listened to an especially touching edition of ‘Desert Island Discs’ featuring Arsenal legend Ian Wright; I’ve watched the return of one of the warmest and funniest comedy series of recent years, ‘This Country’; and I’ve heard former ‘disgraced Tory MP’ Jonathan Aitken tell his rollercoaster of a life story through his love of music on ‘Private Passions’. For me, all of these represented what the BBC can still do better than any other broadcaster, but I caught what I wanted and avoided what I didn’t want – for a monthly fee of £14. My phone/internet provider charges me around £70 a month; gas £33; electricity £55; even water, which is only paid between April and November, was £40 a month last year. Personally, when it comes to the licence fee purely in terms of cost, I have no problem with it. What seems to irk most is the principle of it.
No, the problem for me is not the licence fee, but BBC box-ticking and its related impact on so much of what it produces. The way in which the organisation has effectively written an Identity Politics agenda into its programme manual is the consequence of a corporation that falls over itself to hire on grounds of race, gender, sexuality et al, yet will not countenance anyone with a different political perspective. This gives Mary Beard free rein to see the history of the nude in art as all about the evil ‘male gaze’, or ensures every drama has to have a sufficient multiracial headcount, regardless of where and when the drama is set, or that #MeToo has to be said at least half-a-dozen times during every edition of ‘Woman’s Hour’, or that the arts have to be viewed through the prism of race or LGBT issues on every edition of ‘Front Row’.
It has also turned ‘Doctor Who’ from being an eccentric and exciting adventure in space and time to being an über-Woke, witless weekly lecture of pious, joyless, patronising, preachy and ham-fisted propaganda penned by piss-poor soap scribes with no knowledge of sci-fi or what made the programme work for over half-a-century. When the BBC wields its axe, however, the guilty parties won’t be losing their heads. And that’s the crying shame of what is one of the great cultural gifts this country has given the world.
© The Editor