We love middle-class comedy, says the doyenne of the genre, June Whitfield. Well, of course we do, because to the bourgeoisie it is surely the most artful flattery there is.
When our penchant for Boden catalogues, or pushy parenting, or indeed our spoilt children, are held up for laughs by the likes of shows such as Outnumbered, we laugh out of recognition but also from the pleasure of realising that the minutiae of our private lives are now considered so important that they are worth a brilliant cast, superb writing and not one but several prime-time series on mainstream television.
Whitfield then goes on to suggest that because we are all middle class now, the BBC’s desire to reflect other forms of lifestyle within its comedies is simply meretricious political correctness. Criticising a recent BBC Trust report which suggested that the Corporation ought to move away from comfy shows with not very scary swear words and affable boozing (such as Miranda) and into more “bawdy”, “blue-collar” fare (such as Mrs Brown’s Boys), the doughty star of Terry and June suggested that middle class had become a “dirty word” in the world of sitcoms.
Well, at the risk of being rude to Whitfield, who is now 88, it’s probably understandable that she is looking back to ancient sitcoms such as Terry and June with nostalgia and finds the raucous likes of Mrs Brown’s Boys overtly “in your face” (her words). My parents, both in their eighties, might say the same thing (although I don’t think they ever really went a bundle on Terry and June. They were more Good Lifers).
But the argument is more nuanced than just the conservative preferences of an octogenarian, because what Whitfield is suggesting is not that Miranda is more worthwhile than Mrs Brown’s Boys per se, but that the BBC was wrong to canvass opinion from “lower-social-grade audiences”, and order its programming accordingly.
Well, everyone knows that the BBC is fascinated by focus groups, the advice of which apparently informed this recent report. The BBC is so aware of being funded by the public that it now feels duty-bound to acknowledge every single viewpoint out there, and is forever holding focus groups from a variety of backgrounds to advise on a variety of policies.
Is this such a bad thing? I don’t think it is. We have long moved away from the time when the BBC –and, for that matter, any other broadcaster – was run by a handful of people dictating What Was Good for us, and too bad if you didn’t agree. You WILL find It Ain’t Half Hot Mum amusing, or the Footlights hilarious, etc. In the old three-channel era, you could get away with that, but in this pay-per-view age of a thousand channels, you simply cannot defend a national tariff without some notion of a public mandate.
Anyone who has ever watched a top-rated television show with Twitter racing on alongside them will know that there is no such thing as a passive audience these days. And broadcasters take ratings very seriously. If the audience doesn’t like it, its days are numbered.
So why not take a straw poll of people whose views are not always canvassed, and consider how broadcasting might engage and amuse them, instead of just grandly delivering products from on high? The BBC is always much more impressive when it shows that it is inclusive, not exclusive. I offer you the continued presence of Scottish football results on the national news as an example.
Surely the point about broadcasting is that the quality of the show has to be paramount, and should hope to embrace all viewers, whatever the “class” of the programme style. Indeed, if a “blue-collar” comedy were to bounce up on to our screens, and if it were brilliantly written and acted, why should we in the bosky middle-class ’hood not enjoy it? I have never heard of anyone saying, with regard to Mrs Brown’s Boys, or indeed Steptoe and Son: “It’s not funny, because it’s not about us.” And who has ever said, of Downton Abbey: “I can’t watch it, because it’s not about the likes of me.” If you find Family Guy too bawdy, there are a thousand other cartoons on offer at most times of night and day, although probably not many with a talking dog and a dictatorial baby.
Furthermore, because the BBC is almost entirely staffed by middle-class people, it is probably quite helpful to understand that not everyone out there is interested in the perennial issues which fascinate them. And if it has to send out a focus group to understand what “lower-social-grade audiences” (in the words of the Trust) want to watch, then surely that is better than just ploughing on regardless.
Who knows, understanding the make-up of the British public might sometimes lead to terrific programming. Which is why the sitcom W1A, a magnificent exercise in BBC navel-gazing, was no more than a drearily familiar exercise in in-jokes, whereas the Bafta-winning Gogglebox, which actually features people beyond the White Company database, was a triumph of inclusive comedy, possibly able to include the likes of June Whitfield.