This New Noise: The Extraordinary Birth and Troubled Life of the BBC, by Charlotte Higgins - book review

Losing the plot: how to save the BBC from itself

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The Independent Culture

The BBC might be the first thing you hear each morning as you stir your coffee, but it may also be the last thing you hear, for it falls to Auntie to announce the end of the world. In a nuclear war, if a submarine cannot raise instructions from land, then finds Radio 4 has gone silent, the commander can assume Britain is gone.

Only a mighty organisation can bear the responsibility of declaring Armageddon, and this colourful history of the BBC insists that it has an irreplaceable role in British cultural life.

Higgins has an obvious fondness for the Beeb, calling it “our playmate, our instructor, our friend”. Indeed, it would be easy to accuse her of sentimentality, especially when she refers to our “loving companion from which we need never be parted … it keeps company with the lonely; it brings succour to the isolated”, yet she goes on to present such a thoughtful paean to the BBC that we can excuse an occasional veer into effusive language.

The book is a pleasingly intricate jigsaw of biography, politics, and opinion, and the author is at her best when sketching bohemian characters from the BBC’s early days. She evokes the stern Reith, who’d stare at you “like a dowager duchess meeting a chimney sweep in her boudoir”. There’s the indomitable Hilda Matheson, pausing in her freezing office to pen dizzying love letters to Vita Sackville-West. We meet Ludwig Koch, whose earliest memory was being kissed by Franz Liszt and who traversed the country in the 1940s to gather sound effects, recording farm animals, factories, footsteps, and the ghostly sound of St Paul’s in wartime.

These sections have a rich, literary quality, enlivened further by diary extracts and charming anecdotes, such as the message pinned to microphones: “Don’t cough – you will deafen millions!”

But these lights fade as the book progresses, and we enter the modern era of the BBC, a place of management-speak, where creativity is hobbled by bureaucracy, and resources are diverted to big, clunking names rather than to the cogs who made the BBC spark, whirr, and glow.

And so, we swap mavericks for management, for the morass of the Jimmy Savile scandal, for attacks from those who resent the licence fee, and for constant machinations to bring in, and bring down, director generals. In these chapters of insecurity, squabbling and despair, Higgins makes it clear what has been lost, and we may find ourselves sharing the author’s occasional sentimentality. As the BBC’s original spirit thins, so its management thickens.

Can there be a future for the BBC, in a country where Scotland’s independence seems inevitable, and where there is competition from thousands of channels, Netflix and YouTube? Higgins believes so, as long as the BBC returns to its original purpose: uniting the country around the television set. Presenting live events in real time, such as a World Cup or general election, cannot be done via catch-up TV. Only the BBC can gather us round the screen, just like the good old days.