A culture secretary calling for more repeats on BBC television is, like a turkey moaning that Christmas is too far away, altogether perverse. But that is what Tessa Jowell did in her speech at the Edinburgh Television Festival at the weekend, deflecting attention for almost a nanosecond from the more pressing issue preoccupying the Government in its dealings with the BBC, the death of the weapons expert Dr David Kelly.
To be fair to Ms Jowell, she did not say that she thinks Only Fools and Horses is an under-exploited resource and should probably be repeated more often, ie twice nightly on prime-time BBC1 rather than a frankly inadequate once. She did not say that she would like to see just a tad more frequently the Morecambe and Wise sketch in which Eric and Ernie prepare breakfast to the tune of "The Stripper", nor that she is developing withdrawal symptoms having not watched an episode of Dad's Army for very nearly a week.
What she did say - in an apparent swipe at her predecessor Chris Smith, who was outspoken in his criticism of repeats-heavy scheduling - was that "it's fashionable, almost compulsory, at the TV festival, to knock the number of repeats and blame the laziness of broadcasters. But I believe there is a real public service in keeping these memories alive just as much as in creating new memories by commissioning new programmes."
Among the memories she wants kept alive are Jacob Bronowski's 1973 series The Ascent of Man, Mike Leigh's 1976 comedy Nuts in May, and Cathy Come Home, the 1966 dramatised documentary about homelessness, directed by Ken Loach, which virtually overnight bankrolled the charity Shelter.
By citing these undeniably superb pieces of work, Ms Jowell commandeered the cultural high ground, which makes it hard to observe that she was talking poppycock. Nonetheless, she was talking poppycock. For what is tomorrow's excellent new drama, if not next year's repeat? If, in years gone by, the BBC had come under pressure to keep alive the memories of programmes made a generation earlier, with a Secretary of State insisting that doing so was just as important as commissioning new stuff, the memories she is so eager to preserve might never have been hatched. The BBC should be told, and told again, not least by the culture secretary, that nothing it does is so important as conceiving, commissioning, making and correctly scheduling a wide variety of original programmes.
So, with due respect to the late Dr Bronowski, bugger The Ascent of Man. Let The Ascent of Man inspire a new series about scientific evolution, even let Ant and Dec present it if they can pronounce Galileo, but let not the BBC throw out a repeat of The Ascent of Man as a sop to those calling for more erudite programming, while lavishing a handsome budget on its new, not-at-all-derivative series I'm a Pop Idol, Get Me on to Celebrity Big Brother.
As a member of the Labour Party, Tessa Jowell should know, but perhaps finds it an unpalatable truth, that an institution that trades on past glories, rather than using the past to inspire a vibrant present and future, is destined to fall into disrepute. The repeat is a legitimate tool in television scheduling, but one that gets badly blunted by over-use.
The culture secretary does not seem to have considered that repeats might devalue the very memories she is so keen to enhance. Take Abigail's Party, another Mike Leigh play, first screened in 1977, and now revered by television enthusiasts much as Bernini's Ecstasy of St Teresa is revered by scholars of the Italian Baroque. It even has a tangible place in television's comedy lineage, for glued to Abigail's Party in a Manchester council house 26 years ago was the teenage Caroline Aherne, who decided there and then to become a writer-performer, and subsequently conceived, among much else, The Royle Family.
But here's the disappointing part: I watched a video of Abigail's Party a few weeks ago and found it dull, repetitive and unbearably hammy. I stopped it after half an hour, reflecting, as should Tessa Jowell, that revisiting iconic television, like returning to the French campsite where you had a particularly brilliant holiday 25 years ago, is often unwise. And it's even less wise to take your children, promising them a fabulous time.
Similarly, Jowell is being at best romantically naive, at worst irresponsible, by wanting to foist Cathy Come Home - which she claims was her inspiration in her pre-politics career as a social worker - on a 2003 audience. It wouldn't pack anything like the same devastating punch as it once did, and as with that French campsite, the younger generation would wonder what the hell we've been going on about all this time.Reuse content