Christmas TV schedules always include a few retrospectives from the TV archives, and I’ve just watched two that were sublime. First was “Victoria Wood: Seen on TV”, an absolute delight showcasing the career of possibly the most intelligent comedy writer in Britain today. Easily the best thing ever to come out of “New Faces” (well, Lenny Henry wasn’t bad) she is the unlikeliest comedy hero you could imagine: dressed like a wee suburban wifey, she has a face that she herself acknowledges you would pass by in the street. Not me. I’d rush up and get her to sign anything I had available: if Fate was good to me, I’d have a copy of the Woman’s Weekly in my pocket.
The programme is full of excellent analysis of just why she is so good: her ability to create a whole range of totally believable characters, a skill perhaps enhanced by her largely anonymous look working as a blank slate; her observation of the nuances of how people interact with each other blown apart by grotesquery (“Have you seen it on the trolley?”); her difference in coming from a background so unlike the Oxbridge or alternative scenes that held sway at the time of her rise and from the North (“We’d like to apologise to viewers in the North. It must be awful for them”); and most of all her fabulous writing (who on earth could write a line like “There’s hens in the skirting board”?). So many gems, like Acorn Antiques and, of course, “The Ballad of Barry and Frida”, possibly the greatest comic song ever written. And I looked up the “Two Soups” sketch on You Tube and fell off my chair laughing. Three times. A brilliant woman.
And then wee Ronnie Corbett got his own wee show. “The Two Ronnies” was comedy staple for kids of my generation, along with Python, Morecambe and Wise and Marty Feldman. A few years ago, I think he was seen as twee and old-fashioned, but his status as a top class comic has been reinvigorated by the number of projects new comics seem to want him to be part of. Stephen Merchant, David Walliams, Matt Lucas and Catherine Tate all sang his praises, and a host of new talent took part in his recent “The One Ronnie” show which reprised some of the best ideas of The Two Ronnies, including that wonderful word play that characterised their work (“I caught a child playing football on the pitch the other day. I had to order him off it.” / “Audrey Moffat! Now there’s a name! Considering all the friends we have in common, we should get together some time.”) and a drag “Songs of Praise” that is inspired. Every one of them spoke about Corbett’s generosity and willingness to do anything subversive to support fellow comics, including risking his reputation with the blue rinse brigade by snorting coke in a toilet cubicle at the BAFTAs in “Extras” and snuggling Bubbles’ bosoms in “Little Britain”. Eighty-two years old and the most be-jumpered and twinkly of anarchists. Super stuff.
For all its imperfections, The BBC still provides the greatest and most diverse broadcast service on the planet. I love it. A commercial provider would charge us five times as much for a quarter what we get. Sign this petition to protect one important part of that service.
I’m a huge fan of the BBC. For all its faults, it provides an unparallelled quality of service not just to Britain, but to the world. Yet it’s constantly under attack from the private media who claim unfair competition but are just embarrassed by the crap they put out in comparison; every time I hear someone complain about repeats on the Beeb, I remind them that they can always watch the same twenty year old episode of Star Trek three or four times a week on Sky 1 if they don’t like it. That’s why the recent retrenchment of the corporation in agreeing to half its website and abandon some radio stations infuriates the hell out of me. Get rid of Asian radio? Do you see Rupert Murdoch rushing to fill that little void in public service?
If it worries you too, then join the 38° capaign at http://38degrees.org.uk/page/s/bbccuts#petition . In the meantime, here’s an adapted article from TV critic Joyce MacMillan I used as a close reading passage with pupils all of fifteen years ago. It’s as good a dissection of populist Thatcherite psychology as I’ve read but, sadly, it’s message is still hugely relevant today:
“Read my lips, no new taxes: it’s been the guiding mantra of Western politics for more than a decade now, a creed so universally honoured, by all politicians with a chance of power, that it is now very difficult in most Western democracies to tell one potential government from another. Yet on Friday night, a man in the mainstream of British public life – a well-known wearer of grey suits, a leading advocate of the new market managerialism, a man whom socialists love to hate – stood up and made what was, in effect, a powerful argument for an increase in direct taxation to help preserve a public-sector institution at the expense of its commercial competitors. The man was John Birt, director-general of the BBC, who used his keynote address at the Edinburgh Television Festival to launch a campaign for a substantial increase in the BBC licence fee; and the case he made was, I think, almost unanswerable.
At less than 25 pence a day for two substantial television channels, five network radio services, a host of local, regional and national-regional programming, and – most importantly of all – one of the most reliable and serious broadcast news services on the planet, the BBC represents spectacularly good value by any measure. Yet in an age of rapid and expensive technological advance, and increasingly ferocious competition, the real-terms cost of a licence has actually declined over the last decade; small wonder that round after round of drastic efficiency savings, along with a fierce push to maximise commercial income, have been necessary to keep the BBC show on the road at all.
But will Mr Birt and the BBC get the increase they need to maintain standards and carry on competing? Not to judge by the immediate response to his speech, which has been almost universally negative. The weakest set of objections, and the easiest to refute, come from the representatives of those on low incomes, including a rent-a-quote handful of Labour MPs. Of course the flat rate licence fee is a regressive tax which bears heavily on the poor. But the idea that low income groups will be better served if the licence fee is allowed to wither away, and purely commercial broadcasting operations gradually supplant the BBC, is short-sighted beyond belief. Either the BBC is properly supported, or pensioners will end up paying almost four times as much – the typical annual cost of Sky television is around £320 – for a much less comprehensive service; if that’s progress for the poor, then I’m John Birt’s tailor. Nor should the BBC have much trouble in countering arguments from the far right, from those anti-public sector ideologues who want to diminish the role of the BBC purely because its successful presence drastically reduces the amount of British viewing and listening time available for commercial exploitation.
No, it’s in meeting the resistance of the public itself that John Birt, in his new role as defender of quality public services funded from taxation, will face his toughest test. For it’s here that the broadcasting debate falls foul of the same vicious Catch-22 that has come to plague the whole of Western politics in the age of privatisation; the iron psychological rule of the New Right project, which says that people will always rubbish services for which they have been forced to pay, but will always defend and overvalue those they feel they have acquired by personal “consumer choice”. According to a recent survey, only 47% of Scots are satisfied with terrestrial television services, whereas 65% are satisfied with their satellite or cable services. Of course, it s unlikely that these figures represent serious value for money judgements; even people with satellite or cable services do not use them four times as much as they use terrestrial television. But to admit that your satellite service at £6.50 a week is a bad bargain is to admit that you are a fool for buying it; whereas to complain about the licence fee, at £1.75 a week, is much like complaining about the weather.
And this is the subtle psychological trick by which the unemployed couch-potato in Pilton, slumped in front of the telly bumming about how great Sky television is, gradually becomes the ideological ally of that woman in Eastwood who can’t stop talking about her marvellous private hip operation; both, knowingly or unknowingly, have joined the poor bloody infantry, and unpaid propaganda corps, of an ideological revolution designed to deprive us of huge amounts of cash in return for inferior substitutes. And until we learn to resist being used in that way, to see through the trick, to recognise the danger it represents to all public goods that are essential to a civilised society, and give unequivocal support to those – even John Birt – who are willing to make a stand for decently-funded public provision – that revolution will not be stopped by a government of any colour, no matter how much we claim to oppose it, or wish it had never happened in the first place.”