INTERVIEW / Ms Bakewell gets to the heart of the matter: The BBC's award-winning presenter of the old school tells Sue Summers what's gone wrong in the corporation (CORRECTED)
Wednesday 18 May 1994
When Joan Bakewell received the Richard Dimbleby Award for the year's most outstanding personal contribution to factual television last month, she made some pithy observations not only about the corporation she has adorned for more than 30 years, but also the independent network that was once its competitor in quality.
Serious programmes, she said - the kind British broadcasters once prided themselves on making - were under threat as never before. But they must be protected. However politically inexpedient they may be, however unpalatable the truths they reveal about society, programmes that make us think must not be shoved out of the schedules in favour of soap opera and non-stop chat.
Her remarks, at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Bafta) ceremony, were so well aimed that both ITV's network scheduler, Marcus Plantin, and Alan Yentob, the controller of BBC1, were each convinced she was talking about him.
'But I wasn't only talking about them,' Ms Bakewell says. 'I was talking about a complete change in the culture of British broadcasting. The BBC used to be the place where the nation exchanged ideas, and for many years its values inspired ITV. Now television is just talked of in terms of new products, commodities, sales - which are part of the picture, but don't have the right to be the main picture. They must be the governing factors within which people should be nursing these other, cultural, values - and I don't hear those spoken of any more.
''The people who worked in broacasting used to believe in it. It was like the invention of printing, a new mode of communicating ideas - funny ideas, jolly ideas - which made it so exciting. Now television is just a tired old route on the communications highway.'
Joan Bakewell has come a long way from the Sixties days of Late Night Line Up, with its tubular steel chairs and earnest black-and- white arts discussions, when female intelligence was at a premium on the box and no feminists were around to object to Frank Muir's description of her as 'the thinking man's crumpet'.
Today she is a 61-year-old grandmother, living with her second husband, the theatre producer Jack Emery, in Primrose Hill. But she still seems rather girlish in her short skirt and dark bob, with the same dark-eyed, high-cheekboned prettiness and voracious enthusiasm for ideas.
She may no longer be the last word in presenter fashion, but is among the most durable and best regular presenters in what remains of the old-style BBC. She fell out with the corporation briefly in the late Eighties, when she was dropped, without explanation, from her job as BBC TV's arts correspondent. But now, restored to a high-profile position as presenter of the BBC's ethical debate series Heart of the Matter, she is the only woman of her age regularly on screen in British television.
'Forty per cent of the population is now over 50 - do they want to see non-stop young people presenting programmes?' she asks. 'I don't think so. Yet broadcasters are obsessed with trying to please the young.'
Now that Heart of the Matter has been 'privatised' and is produced for the BBC by Roger Bolton, Ms Bakewell sees herself as part of an independent company and insists that she is not living in the past.
'My sympathies are not entirely with the old guard,' she says. 'The BBC needed to be shaken up. The hierarchy had got too dug in and people expected an easy life.'
Neither does she want people to think she's 'got it in for Cilla Black', because she can see that Blind Date is an excellent programme of its kind. But there are, she says, too many programmes that are simply not good enough.
'There are a lot of boring programmes around,' she says. 'Originality, individuality - that's what's missing. There's a homogeneity about news and current affairs in which it all looks as though it's been through the same mill.
'For instance, Question Time was once lively and vigorous. It represented something cheeky and unique and challenging. Now it has become a nice, comfortable, but ordinary programme. That's almost a paradigm of the BBC.'
When she first worked at the BBC, she remembers a ferment of creative activity in which people were constantly inventing new programmes. 'Now they spend pounds 1.5m on a new logo for the news and people say, 'What's different?'.
'Then when they do get an idea, like Video Diaries, they go mad and give everyone in sight a video. So now we have Video Nation, which is really quite boring.'
Late Night Line Up, she says, was 'often terrible, but spontaneous'. She describes its Nineties equivalent, The Late Show, as 'over-prepared, full of meticulously scripted, meticulously made, meticulously edited dead wood. It's suffocating. And it's so elitist and forbidding, I feel excluded. If you're over 40, bad luck.'
Why does she think programmes have become so predictable and dull? One reason, she believes, is the propensity of the BBC's director-general, John Birt, for bringing in management consultants: 'There are too many consultants coming in without knowledge of what broadcasting is. They do it in the arts, too. Creativity isn't like tins of soup and you simply can't programme a theatre - or a TV channel - to be a winner all the time. You have to take risks. But John is rather in love with all these management ideas.'
More risks need to be taken, she says - but she admits that the lack of willingness to take them is understandable at a time when jobs in broadcasting are so hard to come by.
'I think media studies have a lot to answer for, too. All these graduates with media studies notes in their bags go straight into the business. Where do they learn about life? I was in my twenties when I went into TV, but I'd had children, I'd worked in advertising and teaching. I hadn't moved from an analysis of the situation into the situation itself. I wasn't trying to live a theory, just to make a few bob.' She pauses, then grins. 'Oh dear, Michael Jackson (controller of BBC2) is a media studies graduate, isn't he?'
John Birt's reforms will, she believes, probably settle down. 'I think people are frightened John will make 50 per cent change. I hope he'll make 10 per cent change, but it's got to be the right 10 per cent and I'm not able to tell which 10 per cent that is.'
She has felt the reforming hand of John Birt personally in the edict that all religious programmes - of which Heart of the Matter is one - have to move to Manchester. 'The BBC must be seen to encourage the regions because that's where backbenchers live,' she says. 'I've told Alan Yentob that I've been 30 years in the business and I came from Manchester. I'm not moving there. God may be, but I won't'
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