Tag Archives: BBC

No fixed points

 

During the 20th century and into the 21st,  culture in the UK became wider and more democratic, but not necessarily deeper. When Shakespeare’s plays were first performed, their audiences consisted of people who had far less formal education than any of us   yet those plays are today still considered mostly too inaccessible to read or to watch. Few people today feel shy at making fun of contemporary art and architecture. My own generation certainly played our part in this decline through our dismissal of classical music and exaltation of pop and rock music from the 1970s onwards. 

Such a gloomy perspective probably springs automatically from ageing. Whatever, Radio 3’s programmes to mark the 70th anniversary of the BBC Third Programme provided several opportunities to reflect back on some of the country’s (and my) steps in the cultural journey. 

One of many intriguing facts which emerged both from the documentary The Envy of the World, first produced for the 50th anniversary in 1996, and the discussion Who Cares if You Listen?, was that William Haley, BBC Director General of the time, imagined that each of the new post-war radio stations would overlap in their content and that people could be coached into listening to the most intellectually demanding material on the Third Programme. Of course, that would have seemed a reasonable ambition then since the mainstream listening of the Home Service and the Light Programme would be regarded today as specialised and not always easy!

Haley’s vision of the Third Programme may now seem grandiose and pompous, but, as pointed out by Jenny Doctor and A.C. Grayling on Who Cares if You Listen?, it was formed from a widely-shared post-war ideal of renewal, building on generations of individual auto-didacticism.  “The war had made a lot of people more serious,” said Etienne Amyot, the Third Programme’s first head of planning. Similarly, Ellen Wilkinson, the Minister of the Arts in the new Labour government, believed, as Philip Dodd observed on People Power, that Britain could become “a Third Programme nation”.  

The Envy of the World was able to bring forward several distinguished cultural figures  – playwright Harold Pinter, composer Peter Maxwell Davies, philosopher Bernard Williams –  to reminisce eagerly about the exhilarating education in music, poetry, drama and ideas which they received as regular listeners to the early Third Programme, but they of course were all young at the time, and, when you are young, adventure and experimentation of all kinds comes naturally. As mentioned earlier,  my own Radio 3 listening in the pre-internet age was always erratic, but one programme which I did hear regularly was Critics’ Forum. Acquiring a radio of my own at the age of 17 or 18 in the mid-1970s,  I came across this arts review magazine by accident one Saturday tea-time and was quickly lured by its elevated conversation on books, theatre, cinema, music and broadcasting. Its time slot was inconvenient but I was always happy to catch some part of it regularly even as my activities and priorities changed during its broadcasts of the next 15 years.

Critics’ Forum was produced by Philip French, also a long-time film critic with The Observer. The engrossing Philip French and the Critical Ear  included the snippet that the programme might have continued longer than 1990 but for disagreement between French and the new Controller of Radio 3, John Drummond.  Critics’ Forum was based on a Home Service programme from the 1950s and 1960s called The Critics, and so, as the documentary pointed out, it is apposite that its closest modern equivalent is back on Radio 4, Saturday Review

(Although the premature termination of  Critics’ Forum reflects badly on Drummond, I always associate his tenure as Controller with that great early 1990s initiative of weekends of programmes from cities abroad – Berlin, Minneapolis/St Paul and Prague    which must have been the inspiration for the themed or residency weekends and seasons which have continued on Radio 3 to this day.)

The Third Programme ran for six hours every evening, although that was cut to just three hours in 1957, due to a combination of low audience figures and the then widespread fear in broadcasting circles that the popularity of television was dooming all radio to extinction. Amazing in many ways that the concept of a radio channel dedicated to high culture remained sufficiently strong in the BBC management mind for a full decade more until the more confident days of 1967 and the new stations of Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4. 

One of William Haley’s ideas for the Third Programme was that it should have “no fixed points”, no mandatory programme or timing such as for a news bulletin. Each evening was a blank page for whatever the planners imagined, no matter how different to what had been broadcast the night before, and occupying the full six hours with one event or theme if appropriate.

It seems natural now to compare the Third Programme story to that of those later TV channels which were created with smaller and specialised audiences in mind: BBC2, Channel 4, BBC4. Each of these gradually shifted into something blander and less innovative. A neglect of foreign-language and small-budget films and of the famous plays from the theatre canon; a neglect of opera and classical music outside the Proms; a tendency to repeat and recycle the safe rather than the challenging from the archives; factual programmes which adopted a sensational tone and style and which were dominated by the personality of the presenter rather than the richness of the topic; an over-fondness for the history of popular music and TV; a serious over-fondness for the format of the game show.  It has happened to BBC2 and Channel 4 since the millennium, in my opinion, and most disappointingly, to BBC4 within only a few years of its launch.

In contrast, the present-day Radio 3 still bears a good deal of similarity, in the best way, to that original template for the Third Programme. On a few random glances through early Third Programme schedules via BBC Genome, you can find Bach music alongside a Bernard Shaw play Jacobean drama and discussions about contemporary Africa and literature and the visual arts alongside world musicAny evening on Radio 3 this year could have provided an equally invigorating mix.

 

 

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Some questions and ideas about the BBC

 

The Media Show’s special debate on Radio 4 on the future of the BBC included many familiar viewpoints on the corporation’s role, funding and organisation. So it was cheering to hear one contributor, David Elstein, say something which was more unusual: that much of current BBC drama was “low-ambition” compared to that by US producers.

It was an opinion which accords with my own, and challenges the popular one  – created and shared by industry professionals themselves –  that we live in a “golden age” of British TV drama.

Elstein, himself a former producer and executive with various broadcasters, is now the chairman of Open Democracy. By  coincidence, the web-site is currently running its own on-line survey entitled “100 ideas for the BBC”.

Among attractive suggestions from its contributors are that the BBC should make its decades-rich archive of programmes more widely available, perhaps with schools particularly in mind, that BBC4 could be much more artistically innovative, that there might be a return to a proper coverage of literature and of industrial relations and the trade union movement, that the partnership with the Open University be reinvigorated, that excellent local arts events be given a national platform and that the successful 1960s-1980s Play for Today practice of single pieces of drama from individual writers be reintroduced.

Any reservations I might personally express about the present-day BBC are of course the familiar moan of the middle-aged who enjoyed a genuine “golden age” without always appreciating it. But, here goes anyway in order of urgency…  Too much overlap between BBC2 and BBC4;  too much overlap between Radios 1, 2 and 6; the weakness in drama; too much low-quality news; the inflated status and salary of certain “personalities”; and that strange TV creature of the 21st century, the “reality” genre where real people turn themselves into pantomime caricatures and producers make excessive use of drama techniques like camera effects and music enhancement, for example  Strictly Come Dancing, The Apprentice, Fame Academy,  How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?The Great British Bake-Off, The Choir.

And the things which are still really good? Most of Radio 3 , some of Radio 4 and definitely the  iPlayer facility.

 

 

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Back to days of hope, in both senses

 

Once upon a time, and for a long time, I rated Days of Hope, a 1975 TV film series written by Jim Allen and directed by Ken Loach, as the best programme I had ever seen on television.  There were a number of reasons for my strength of feeling. Some were to do with my youth when I first saw it and the way its English working-class political narrative fitted in with, and fuelled, my burgeoning interests in history and politics. One was certainly the fact that it looked and sounded like no other drama I had seen on TV before.

Of course, its qualities, at that time quite new to me, are now more familiar and easy to recognise. It was filmed solely on location – which meant it was actually a film, at a time when TV plays were mostly set in a studio with only occasional use of outdoor locations. All of the actors were unknown faces, and many were amateurs, so they definitely looked like real people. In addition, the way they spoke and behaved was spine-chillingly authentic, as if they were in the same room or from along the road . Days of Hope first appeared in an era of TV drama when writers tended to receive the greatest prominence, so I remembered it as a Jim Allen work, although now I appreciate that much of its impact is due to director Ken Loach.       

Days of Hope is subtitled as “four films from the Great War to the General Strike”. It follows the fortunes of three characters in a Yorkshire farming family : Ben, his sister Sarah and her husband Philip. In the first film, Philip is a conscientious objector while Ben joins the army voluntarily and serves in Ireland. The second centres on Ben, who deserts from the army and supports striking miners in Durham. In the third, Ben is now a Communist activist while Philip is a Labour MP. The fourth deals with the General Strike where Ben and Sarah see the strike as an opportunity to bring about a working-class revolution while Philip loyally follows the TUC leadership’s conciliation.  In all of the films, politics is these characters’ (and many others’) overriding  motivation.

I immediately became of great fan of Paul Copley, who played Ben. I was always keen to see him over the next few years in other TV performances and was gratified to read about his success in theatre work. As TV drama fashions changed, he appeared less often, so it has been pleasingly ironic to see him again recently in another drama set in the same historical period but with a totally different tone, Downton Abbey.

Seeing the whole cast again, it has been striking to reflect how few are still recognised. Perhaps the most visible is Alun Armstrong, another great actor from the north of England who has perhaps enjoyed a more high profile career since than Copley, and who here has a smaller though important role. Nikolas Simmonds, who played Philip, turned after this to directing and teaching, but died relatively young from a serious illness. Pam Brighton, who played Sarah, also moved into directing, particularly with the politically engaged Dubbel-Joint company. Most of the other performers have  had few other TV or film credits.

There is no doubt that one of the reasons for my high estimation of Days of Hope was that I had watched it in the distant past of my youth and  had not had the chance to re-assess it in the light of changing tastes and experience. Despite Ken Loach’s success as a film director in the past twenty years, it has never been repeated by the BBC. My recent viewing via You Tube was my first in thirty years, and this came about probably because the films have only recently been issued on DVD.

In my memory, the first two films were the best, because of the strong characterisation, the rural settings, the rawness of the dramatic incidents with their sudden bursts of violence and the occasional very effective use of unaccompanied singing.

First time around, I remember finding the final film difficult. It is by far the longest, the three main characters in whom I had become interested are featured less, and it includes several scenes of complex trade union argument about the progress of the General Strike. Thirty years has given me a broader context in which to place these scenes. Cinematically, they make a fascinating parallel with the similar scenes in the 1995 Loach/Allen Spanish Civil War film Land and Freedom, where farmers and soldiers debate the rights and wrongs of land collectivisation. Historically and politically, Loach and Allen were probably commenting as much on the contemporary tensions within the Labour Party and the trade unions, which became all the more obvious and significant later, first,  with the emergence of the Social Democratic Party, and, later, in Tony Blair’s New Labour project.

TV and cinema drama scenes which feature long discussions between characters are so rare now, that it is easy to think they would only feature in the work of tendentious political writers and directors – but no, rather they are evidence of how strongly TV in the 1970s was still influenced by theatre. Watching a repeated episode of the more mainstream Colditz, for example, I was struck how a scene between a British POW, who had been brought up in Germany, and his childhood friend who was now a Nazi was extended into an equally detailed political discussion.

Although this latest viewing of Days of Hope did nudge away my rose-coloured spectacles occasionally, it was still brilliant to watch, first, to re-assess  it alongside Loach’s more recent films;  also, as an alternative, more politically engaged perspective on a well-covered period of 20th century history; and, finally, simply to make you wonder at the fact that, once upon a time, programmes like it appeared quite often on prime-time TV!

Some more observations are available on Screen Online and Senses of Cinema.

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BBC4 – an opportunity missed?

 

When one is tempted to complain about what’s on television, it’s often easy to forget that, not only are particular programmes or channels aimed at people very different from us, but also the people who make programmes and run channels are people very different from us. Even taking all of that into account, I still feel that BBC4 is a channel where great opportunities are not fully developed. This topic has been discussed by more knowledgeable commentators than me,  but here is my tuppence worth.

The channel started life as BBC Knowledge, and it seems originally to have been planned as a channel of high-ish  culture and documentary.  In its early days, that’s certainly the way it looked to this person who didn’t receive its programmes and only read its schedules.

Some intelligent and imaginative ideas have been retained. The idea of Friday night being (mainly pop and rock) music  night, with a mix of new and repeat programmes, seems to be popular, as are many imported dramas like The Killing and Lilyhammer.  The daily World News is a refreshing alternative to other BBC news output, although it was better still when not scheduled as a rival to Channel 4 News.

But why are the foreign films (classic as well as contemporary) not a regular feature instead of an occasional one, thus providing a genuine alternative to most of the movies on BBC1 and BBC2? It’s always been hard to see foreign language cinema if you live outside London, but sometimes in the past BBC2 and Channel 4 provided that cultural service. It’s a perfect niche for BBC4.

Surely, too, the BBC must have a huge drama archive available for rescreening.  They must have tapes of dozens (maybe even hundreds) of productions of the great playwrights of the past  featuring well-known actors which would still look perfectly watchable in 2013.  When the Boat Comes In and Colditz, mainstream rather than prestige fare when they were first released but brilliantly crafted in comparison to much 21st century TV drama, were shown on the Yesterday channel.  Why not Saturday night as drama night on BBC4?

Also, although some imported dramas have been high-profile successes on the terrestrial channels , one keeps reading of US programmes  which either never get shown regularly here, or get pushed onto channels like FX which few people have access to. Were The Wire and Breaking Bad so expensive to buy, or were their distinctive audience-grabbing qualities so hard to foresee?

Finally, performances of classical music and opera are shown rarely outside the summer  Proms season, yet there is a big audience for them up and down the country and all the year round.  The status of composers and performers of this type of music tends to stay more steady in popular taste than those of pop or rock music, so surely there are safe rescreening opportunities  here?

I often think that many of the people who are responsible for producing and screening programmes nowadays simply lack confidence in judging what is good quality and what is less good. Undeniably, there has been blurring of the boundaries of high and low culture over the post war decades : some of the areas of high culture have been marginalised and are now unappreciated and undervalued; popular culture in turn has continued to expand and profit. One consequence during  the past decade has been this strange phenomenon where documentaries are made in the style of drama, with imposed characterisations, suspense and emotion – although it’s equally possible that has developed merely because writers and actors are too expensive and demanding!

Perhaps the executives responsible for BBC4 should think of it as the TV equivalent of Radio 3. The latter has been popularised significantly in the last twenty years, but I suspect most licence-fee payers would still consider most of its content substantial and stimulating, even if specialised, and certainly worth supporting and developing.

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