TV is being aimed at morons - I know from my own experience

It must be right that the BBC told the agents of Frank Skinner, comic, to sling their hooks
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The Independent Culture
FOR MANY on the traditional right, the journalist Polly Toynbee and the broadcaster Melvyn Bragg have long occupied particularly warm niches in their pandiabolon of dangerous deities. The pro-divorce, pro- abortion Toynbee and the petition-signing, luvvie-loving Bragg are like Astaarte and Baal to the Dark Ages Christians who write leaders for the Telegraph or who edit the Daily Mail. Polly and Melv are the ones who, since the 1960s, have been leading the forces of chaos. And just as you do not often get high churchmen quoting admiringly from the Fifth Tractate of Black Necromancy, so it is rare to find the words of the New Labour duo reproduced with the editorial approval of the Mail and Telegraph.

Until this week. It is an article of faith among the fogeys and curtain- twitchers that everything about modern Britain is a fair bit worse than it was five minutes ago, and tragically worse than when the Duke of Wellington was PM. So this week's alarm call on the state of British television, independently sounded by the Braggbees, has found them delighted to have such unexpected allies. "The great and glorious Polly Toynbee is right," said the Telegraph, also endorsing Melvyn. The sound of indrawn breath was to be heard throughout Gloucestershire.

Polly's article in the Radio Times was an attack on a BBC2 series entitled Adult Lives, which is stripped (oh appropriate word) across four weekday evenings next week. I have not seen these films, but Polly must have done, and she described them as "sexy freakshows", dressed up as serious documentaries, like "a line of vicars reading Rustler on the Tube behind a copy of the Financial Times". Rustler must, I imagine, be a porn magazine.

Lord Bragg's assault was more general. Launching his latest series of the South Bank Show, he confessed that, "Sometimes I am baffled by the lack of intellectual ambition in British television. Am I alone in feeling that there is not so much a dumbing down as a failure to engage at the highest level?" He lamented the way in which documentaries and arts programmes were shunted to off-peak times, and how late night slots were increasingly filled with "laddo" shows.

At this point in the discussion any TV executive will reach for his or her well-rehearsed alibis. These will - according to channel - start with classic serials, move through live concerts and operas, name a brace of groundbreaking modern dramas, and dwell lovingly on hugely expensive educational blockbusters involving David Attenborough. And they will, rightly, dispute the notion of a Golden Age of television, referring you to The Black and White Minstrel Show and Miss World.

Well, here I want to add my own tale, throughout which you may detect the pungent whiff of bridges burning. There are cooking programmes on television; someone I met recently claimed to have counted 27 in one week. There are three shows about cars going out on the BBC next week. Gardeners will be spectacularly well catered for this autumn. There's even a programme for those daft about aeroplanes. Goggle-eyed, fidget-fingered purchasers of computer games can pause in their solitary pursuit and tune into a late-night Channel 4 programme called Bits. But if it's books you like, forget it. Outside the occasional documentary about a popular author, TV does not do books.

Briefly, for a year or so, Channel 4 had a show, called Booked, presented by me, which ran to 14 editions. The first eight went out anywhere between 11.15 and 1.30 at night on a Wednesday evening, the second six were transmitted on Saturday night at eight-ish. They were never trailed by the channel, and were allowed to try and find their own audience. Quite quickly the top authors agreed to come on the programme and talk about their work. We thought we were doing OK.

I won't go on. It has always irritated me that some presenters and producers measure the sagacity and performance of broadcasting executives according to whether or not their own shows are commissioned or recommissioned. I don't want to fall into that trap, so I'll be brief. Channel 4 had a shake-up, arts programmes came under the suzerainty of the new Head of Light Entertainment, whose first act was to say that Booked contributed nothing to his ratings, that it hadn't been talked about much in the press, and that he'd rather spend the money elsewhere. It wasn't to be changed, or relaunched with new, younger, Scottish presenters. It was just quietly dropped.

It may be that Naked Elvis, a C4 late-night pop quiz show, in which a nude man waves his penis just behind the contestants, somehow succeeds where Booked failed. Perhaps I should have invited Alex Garland or Gitta Sereny to join me and Nigella Lawson in a Lawrentian romp around the Booked studio. But what I think I see is a programme fulfilling (possibly inadequately) a need, being supplanted by programming for morons. And in that context the inevitable alibis do not matter a damn.

Channel 4 is, nevertheless, better than we have a right to expect. This is partly because we don't have a right to expect anything. Its money comes entirely from advertisers, it receives not a penny from the taxpayer to subsidise loss-making parts of its schedule. When, eventually, its chief executive, Michael Jackson, decamps to America, it may just become ITV2.

And this is also the reason why there is the current focus on the BBC. With a new man in Broadcasting House, quite a lot of us are concerned to ensure that the Beeb at least makes programmes that people with brains can watch. We fear 500 channels of repeats and Naked Elvis, enlivened only by the best American imports. If, say, BBC1 maintains its dire menu of docusoaps and celebrity-driven lifestyle pap, then we are giving notice that we will withdraw our consent, and throw our lots in with the Nether Wallop colonels.

Actually I'm reasonably optimistic. Last weekend I interviewed the new controller of BBC2, Jane Root. When asked what her channel was for she replied, without hesitation, "innovation". She didn't mean novelty. And she sure as hell didn't mean discovering a hit formula and repeating it over and over again until it maddens you. Root wanted producers to come up with ideas that they were passionate about, had thought long and hard about and had worked at. And it also must be right that the BBC this week told the agents of Frank Skinner, comic chat-show host, to sling their hooks, after they wanted pounds 20 million for their client to sign a two year deal.

The BBC I want to see will try to attract the best (and the undiscovered) talent by allowing it to do really good work; by encouraging its creativity. It will not waste its money in auctions for identikit blonde presenterettes, the Vanessa show, or over-hyped lads. Over to you, Greg.

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