REVIEW / Extended plugging expressly forbidden

THE BBC has taken advertising for some time now. It's diplomatically disguised in most cases, naturally; a 'documentary' on the making of a Hollywood blockbuster, say, which plugs a hole in the schedules while also plugging the movie or those mysterious cases in which a director suddenly conceives a passion for shots of

an airliner taking off and landing. But with Omnibus's (BBC 1) film about Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard the slow capitulation to advertainment hit a new low.

You had to be watching closely to spot the hard fact - the credit that revealed that this extended puff for the latest product from the Really Useful Company had actually been made by the Really Useful Picture Company was in shamefacedly small print. But the preceding 50 minutes might have hinted to you that something was amiss. A bland concoction of extracts and explanations, it had all the cerebral bite of those glossy souvenir booklets touted in theatre foyers. At one point, surreally, Ronald Reagan was wheeled on to hymn the qualities of William Holden in the original film, an animatronic performance which revealed that the programme wasn't even discriminating about which stars it sucked up to.

Not that it was entirely devoid of critical content. 'It's one of the great roles of classic proportions,' observed the actress Glenn Close about Norma Desmond, the role she herself plays in the Los Angeles production. 'The lyrics have a kind of sophistication that maybe I haven't had in a while,' Lloyd Webber noted trenchantly. 'I suppose there is a danger of sentimentalising a great film noir . . .' Trevor Nunn conceded, before explaining that, naturally, they had avoided this.

Plenty of excuses will have flown around the corridors at Television Centre to justify this shabby stuff. Number one was probably: 'Oh, but everybody does it.' True. The new season of The South Bank Show (ITV) includes a programme on Dawn French which is to be made by Saunders and French Ltd. But LWT is a commercial company, not a public service broadcaster. The obligation on the BBC to take programmes from independent production companies has made it far more difficult to police any sort of corporate ruling in this area but it's still surprising that they're not more protective of the values on which the licence fee will stand or fall.

Excuse number two may have been: 'But we wouldn't have got his co-operation any other way.' True. There was so much music in last night's film that you could sell it as a greatest hits compilation without running any real danger of infringing the Trades Descriptions Act. Without Lloyd Webber's agreement that would simply have been impossible.

All these are just excuses, though, not justifications. It is one thing to eke out the BBC's limited budget with cheap buy-ins which help to fill the schedules in the small hours, quite another to compromise the critical independence of your flagship arts programme in order to secure popular material. Even if last night's Omnibus had been a masterpiece it would have been a dubious exercise, but it wasn't - it was a programme the BBC should be ashamed of having transmitted.

A few weeks ago the BBC issued the latest copy of its Producers' Guidelines, a document that makes for wry reading in the light of last night's broadcast. 'Programmes should never give the impression that they are endorsing any product, service, or company,' it declares robustly. 'A product or service must never be included in sound or vision in return for cash, services, or any consideration in kind. This is product placement and is expressly forbidden in BBC programmes.' It looks as though it's already time for a

re-draft.

If the BBC is going to surrender all notion of a distinction between itself and the commercial channels, somebody had better explain to producers that it is far more lucrative if the person doing the selling pays the television station - rather than the other way around.

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