Perhaps it was the knowledge that the master satirist behind the BBC’s The Thick of It had recently received an OBE from the Queen which made the first of the new series feel a touch self-parodic, almost affectionate in its humour. One could imagine Jeremy Hunt and Eric Pickles settling down to chuckle at the in-jokes, rather as Margaret Thatcher was said to have enjoyed Yes, Minister.
One has ceased to expect real edge or surprise from BBC comedy or drama. As none other than Armando Iannucci OBE argued in this week’s Bafta Lecture, the Corporation has been so bullied and hectored by politicians and the press that it has lost the confidence to back writers and directors who dare to produce work outside the cosy liberal consensus of the establishment.
These days, to find startling plot lines, moral ambiguity, daringly cinematic direction and edgy humour, one increasingly looks to imported programmes, often made by HBO, and shown on Sky Atlantic. There is a ruinous sense of correctness about much of the BBC’s output. However slickly made a programme may be, it will always end up erring on the side of safety.
Now, perhaps, is the moment for change. This summer has been a celebration of individuality. It was the theme of London 2012’s Opening Ceremony and in the sport which followed. Its voice was to be heard every day at the Leveson Inquiry. It proved its political strength when defeating the corrupt agencies of the state over the Hillsborough cover-up.
The BBC, in its woolly, anxious-to-please way, is at the heart of the old, corporatist establishment. If Iannucci is to be believed, it is dominated by committees and by commissioning editors who hand down instructions and guidelines to those actually making the programmes. An enervating fear of causing a public row, making the wrong kind of headline, hangs over everything it does.
It has been subdued by the ever-busy, ever-interfering army of the easily offended, badgered by po-faced moralisers in the press, bullied by politicians convinced that their own particular view of the world is not being reflected. The financial crisis, and threats to the licence fee, have weakened its resolve still further. Over the past five years, the default position of the BBC at any moment of difficulty has been to hoist the white flag, and apologise.
What the past two months have shown is that individuality is powerful. In a free society, the corporate and the comfortable are hobbled by their size and inflexibility. Even now, a spirit of independence and idiosyncrasy is beginning to make its presence felt in music and in book publishing.
The question is whether the state broadcaster will be part of a new wave of brilliant and unsettling newness, or whether it will be left on the sidelines, virtuous, dreary, and irrelevant.
Could Joey be the new Eric?
Down in Marseilles, the footballer and thinker Joey Barton has been reflecting on his new life, and the events which obliged him to leave England. The loss of temper which caused him to be suspended for 12 matches was the result of his “inner chimp”.
The collision between French culture and this tough but always interesting Liverpudlian will be fascinating to watch. Barton could be as enigmatic and controversial a character in France as Eric Cantona was in England. An enterprising newspaper or a publisher should commission the French diary of Joey Barton and his inner chimp without a moment’s delay.