Article by Geoffrey Heptonstall
Soon the BBC will celebrate its centenary. Expect congratulations from admirers, indifference from others, and attention-seeking reminders from the Corporation of its contribution to national life. We probably won’t see archive recordings of minstrel shows, but there will be, among the routine stuff, some worthy material.
Some years ago a young writer with a connection to the Corporation wrote in Encounter: ‘Standards of excellence in all areas of broadcasting have long characterised the BBC.’ As the author of those words I must declare my interest. Ten years working in local and network radio impressed me by the professional standard expected and usually achieved on tight budgets. On the darker side there were tensions and suspicions that made creativity difficult. I had a patron in John Drummond, but others were less appreciative. Initiatives of mine continued to be used, however, for some years after I was gone.
I didn’t ‘grow up with the BBC’, but it was there, along with other influences, in my childhood. As a teenager I really liked Late Night Line-Up, and the French films, and plenty of contemporary drama (notably David Mercer) and classic theatre. Then there were Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and the Danny Kaye Show imported.
As a writer the Corporation was one among a number of possibilities. It wasn’t top of my list. That is one reason why my connections to the Corporation withered. I remained at some distance. That is not how it is done. You have to love the Corporation to work for it.
Love means forgiving what might be intolerable in another context. . It accepts. It defends and excuses. Love is subjective. It is a matter of emotion rather than intellect, of faith rather than evidence, of wishes rather than hopes. Love is not a rational choice. It is not subject to clarity and meaning. Love can abandon sense and caution in pursuit of the impossible. It can destroy as surely as it can create. It can be wild and vengeful.
Love, therefore, is not really the word to use in public affairs. To work effectively you have to keep your wits about you. You appreciate, perhaps with reservations. You admire from a critical distance. The personal development of intellect and talent ought never to end. These things are not hierarchical. The young recruit is there to teach the old guard, or the story does not move forward. Unless, of course, you feel you have nothing to learn from anyone else.
It is not a question of daring to challenge a great institution. If- and it remains an if – the BBC is part of the social fabric then it must accept some measure of responsibility for the nature of society, good and bad. But if it is an innovative, creative organisation its members individually and collectively have the right, the duty even, to challenge the present state of things. It cannot be both a force for creative change, and also a cultural institution. The choice of identity has to be made. Institutions are by nature in favour of continuity. Change emerges from a dissatisfaction with existing conditions. You can’t have it both ways and remain true to yourself.
How we define ourselves as a society is determined by the tension between continuity and change. A synthesis arises not from an ad hoc consensus but from a deeper awareness of conflict. In an age of technology we look to media to provide the synthesis. This leads inevitability to critical attitudes. It is impossible to satisfy everyone all the time.
A few years ago I reviewed a history of the Corporation that claimed the BBC was the primary means of national identity. The writer took exception, saying I had distorted his case. He informed me he had written the BBC was ‘one of the means’. I looked at the book again. No, I had quoted him correctly. And, yes, his words lacked substance.
So much hyperbole surrounds the Corporation, some of it so questionable that only a rubber duck would accept it at face value. The question is not of love or hate, but of the range of feelings, in all their complexity, that sharpen or humanise the intellect when considering how best to proceed.
It was often the case that the broadcasters I admired had lives well beyond broadcasting. Often they were writers: Angela Huth, Kenneth Allsop, George Melly and so on. Benny Green on jazz was an education on air or in print. There was a long history of prestige radio and television forming the basis of books. Print evidently was considered the senior medium. Broadcasting has to be understood within that cultural context. So much can be transferred to other media.
For television as television the independents’ current affairs programming seemed to have the edge. ITV long ago mastered intelligent popular drama, often seen on Masterpiece Theater in the USA, and often presumed by its audience to be from the BBC.
An interesting development in the late Sixties was London Weekend Television, founded by David Frost who felt the BBC was failing in its public service duty. One name especially deserves to be remembered. In his tenure as Head of Comedy at LWT Frank Muir proved to be exceptionally innovative. He promoted a number of careers, and provided the genesis of what became Monty Python. The Corporation eventually got in on the act, but, as ever, the initiative came from elsewhere.
With regard to Pop, well, we all groaned at the poor choices on Top of the Pops. We watched it because of the occasional good choice. By contrast Whistle Test was not chart-bound. It went wherever something interesting was happening. Beyond the Corporation, Radio Caroline did not die with the other pirates. It survived for years with a loyal following. As for Radio 1, it was something you heard in the background at the hairdressers.
Today we still have Radio 1. Classic drama and foreign films are now very rare events on BBC television. The days of aspiration to be the hub of the national culture have passed for sure. The Corporation is respected as a source of news [and its foreign reportage remains one of its strengths, although the terms are uniformly Western liberal.] But generally on radio and television we find mainstream entertainment or lifestyle and leisure popular journalism, often acceptable of its kind but not in itself enough. Whatever happened to the mission to educate society?
To educate you must provide a lead. You cannot follow the complacent wishes of minds you hope to stimulate. In the process you cannot expect to be uncritically adored. If you like certain cultural experiences these are things you naturally wish to share. That is a more certain direction than trying to second guess the taste of people who don’t know their own minds. It is not a question of imposing minority tastes and values. It is a question of sharing a common culture. That is what broadcasting means. Widening horizons is the challenge that has to be met.
The perception grows that the challenge is not being met. A gradual withdrawal of serious intent and lively interest has been widely felt. The pursuit of a mass audience ‘out there’ or ‘up there’ has proved illusory. Populism is superficial and manipulative, whereas a common culture is a broad conversation between valid interests. There is cut and thrust before there is agreement. Not everyone will be interested in everything, but someone will be interested in something. All those someones and all those somethings create the conversation.
On the eve of the centenary adverse questioning has emerged from a quarter that cannot be dismissed. A group of influential voices within broadcasting have spoken in direct and unequivocal terms. They insist that the slide into trivia be reversed. They speak with the authority of years of serious experience in arts programming. Humphrey Burton is a creative administrator with vision. Norman Lebrecht is an engaging music critic and a creative writer [The Song of Names] of stature. Tony Palmer’s documentary films range from an acclaimed celebration of Benjamin Britten to pioneering claims for the higher reaches of Pop. What once may have looked wayward now seems prescient. Palmer, like the others, has been ahead of the game. And there they remain, urging ratings-chasers to stop and think what culture actually means.
Whatever happened to the pursuit of excellence? Of course it was an aspiration rather than a given reality. Not everything that went out was good. But
many people testify to the widening of awareness. Names once confined to a few became known to many. A general audience knew something worth knowing about writers and thinkers and artists and musicians.
A common culture was possible, and could happen again, but not if a philistine rabble becomes the target audience. There are those who choose not to be reached. That is their choice. It is not ours.
The context in which I wrote of the pursuit of excellence was a review of Kate Whitehead’s The Third, a critical study of the famous but long gone BBC radio channel for the arts. A thoughtful work, favourable to its subject, Whitehead’s book was ferociously attacked for a supposed betrayal. It was evident, shockingly, that the requirement was not an informed, critical appraisal. That was deemed disloyal.
It is not a betrayal to seek an opening up of a public conversation on a matter of public interest. Civilised debate among mature intellects is a reasonable expectation. Unless, of course, you fear you might lose the argument. And what then? What else but the opening of doors that should never be closed?
Kate Whitehead, a staff producer, soon left the BBC, never to return. Well, there are other pastures, many of them greener. Her book was replaced with another, The Envy of the World. The phrase was publicist’s copy. Evidently, nothing less than sycophancy would do.
The orthodoxy among the believers is that the Corporation is not only ‘a great cultural institution’, it is the epitome of all that is benevolent, enlightened and progressive in society. No adverse criticism is possible. Its mission is sacred, and it is a secular blasphemy to question it.
It is a radical necessity to question it, for I would suggest that the defence is not of the Corporation as it actually exists, but of an unrealized ideal of public service broadcasting. Ask people in the abstract if they support the BBC, and the reply is a strong affirmation. Ask people about specific programmes or perceived attitudes, and the response is much less sure.
This raises questions that are not answered, questions that are not asked. There are questions of accountability, of credibility, of authenticity and sincerity, of legitimacy, of what constitutes quality and of what constitutes the public good. What place can broadcasting have amid the myriad voices of ever-advancing technology? How must broadcasting respond and conytibute to a socially responsible society of the future? These are pertinent and objective questions that deserve the consideration the mandarin hierarchy is unlikely ever to give.
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