Terence Blacker: Misplaced smugness at the BBC

Where the BBC now excels is in taking a rock-solid, established idea and giving it a sophisticated modern spin

Share
Related Topics

It was one of those moments of quiet smugness at which the British excel. The director-general of the BBC had delivered the MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Festival, arguing that the BBC is more popular than ever with the general public, that there is a gulf between the criticism of the corporation to be found in the press and the experience of ordinary viewers.

Mark Thompson's positive message was broadcast live on the BBC news channel. Later it was discussed on the BBC's Newsnight Review. Kirsty Wark and her four guests were, unusually, in complete agreement with one another. The BBC is a jewel in the crown of this country's culture. It compares favourably to any broadcaster in the world. American TV, they said, was particularly ghastly – little more than a device for plucking money out of the viewer's pocket, said one panellist.

With inconvenient timing, the Emmy Awards took place in Los Angeles a couple of days later, and offered an alternative view to this comfortable consensus. Two series, Mad Men and Glee, dominated the prizes. Both, like much of the best of American TV, combine commercial slickness with the sort of edgy originality of concept which one rarely finds in the BBC's output.

The Mark Thompson argument is that the mixed economy of British broadcasting, funded both by the market and the state, works well. In interviews, the BBC programmes in which he expresses particular pride are Strictly Come Dancing, Doctor Who, Sherlock and the sitcom Rev.

It is a revealing list. Where the BBC now excels is in taking a rock-solid, established idea and giving it a sophisticated modern spin. The result is entertaining, safe and marketable. Look beyond the crowd-pleasers to what is put out on the BBC's four channels, and one is struck by how little room there is for anything that is different, radical, experimental or elitist.

Astonishingly, to take an obvious example, there is not a single series devoted to new books – indeed culture is either presented in a pick-and-mix, magaziney format or is subjected to a sober documentary, invariably fronted by Alan Yentob. In its rare forays into the literary world, like the three-part history of the 20th century novel In Their Own Words, a plonkingly conventional approach is adopted, linking fascinating archive material with a scissors-and-paste narrative, more suited to the Discovery Channel than the BBC.

It is as if the influx of line managers has had a softening effect on the corporation. Its executives complain quite rightly that there is a politically motivated, anti-BBC bias in much of the press, and yet they are clearly influenced by criticism from the moralists of middle England. A fear of causing offence, of getting the wrong kind of news coverage, has eaten its way into the fabric of the institution.

Now when a series of short films by young directors is broadcast, it is likely to be on Channel 4. If leading playwrights are commissioned to write original dramas to be performed live, it will be on Sky Arts. An interesting series on contemporary song-writing, featuring detailed and fascinating interviews and performances, will also be found on Sky. Given its vast pool of talent and public money, it is the BBC which should be on the cutting edge, making at least a few programmes which take risks in content and style. If the result is a few scandalised articles in the middle-brow tabloids, then so be it. Those attacks usually mean someone is doing something right.

Ratings are not everything, BBC grandees have been saying recently. Daringly, Mark Thompson has suggested that "format leisure programmes" (people cooking meals, buying or doing up houses or selling things at auctions) might be reduced.

Away from the discussions about salaries, relocation and pensions, the BBC needs to remember that its public remit is not always to please the majority. From within the great bureaucracy of the corporation, it is time for individual talent – creative, radical, provocative, bloody-minded – to be given its head.

terblacker@aol.com

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I don't blame parents who move to get their child into a good school

Chris Blackhurst
William Hague, addresses delegates at the Conservative party conference for the last time in his political career in Birmingham  

It’s only natural for politicians like William Hague to end up as journalists

Simon Kelner
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent