Terence Blacker: Twits, tweed and the class struggle

What is strange is the way BBC executives have always judged their audiences in terms of class
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The Independent Online

It is a small but accepted rule of contemporary discourse in Britain that, whenever tweed is mentioned in a speech or an article, something supercilious and sneering will be intended. Journalists who mark the changes taking place within book publishing will sooner or latter invoke the same image from the days when working with books was a profession for gentlemen - a respectable chap riding a bicycle to work, wearing a tweed suit.

So when Radio 4's new controller, Mark Damazer, addressing the Broadcasting Press Guild this week, commented that the network's core middle-class audience was "no longer a homogenous mass of people wearing brown suits and tweeds who play golf", the coded message could not be clearer. Tweeds denote twits. Put them together with a brown suit and a set of golf clubs, and the image is complete - a small-minded, suburban Pooterish snob with no place in the plans of the modern BBC.

In a way, there is nothing particularly contentious in what Damazer said. Glossing over the contents of my own wardrobe which, as it happens, contains two of the three offending articles, I can see that it is sensible to distance the institution once known as Auntie from anything remotely old-fashioned. Radio 4 is on good form at the moment, running a high standard of programmes and, in the tone it conveys, avoiding the twin perils of public broadcasting: an over-authoritative solemnity or, worse, a chirrupy, insincere populism.

"Dissent, excitement, thrills and fun" is apparently the formula for the Radio 4 of the future. There will be more sex, less political correctness, and "strong language" will be used when the context requires. The more tweedy of us will be hoping that the sex is kept where it belongs (in The Archers), that the swearing will be creative, as in Jerry Springer - the Opera, rather than a desperate attempt to get a laugh in a topical sketch show, and the dissent does not involve kowtowing to the creepy fundamentalist Christians who have recently been given more air-time than they deserve.

What is slightly strange is the way BBC executives have always, down the years, judged their audiences in terms of class. Admitting that Radio 4 is still essentially middle-class, Damazer argues that it - we - are now "an incredibly vibrant group with a wide breadth of interests and passions".

Not so long ago, the same network was seeing its listenership rather differently. Radio 4, the argument went, was too élitist. It was out of touch with ordinary people. It was appallingly middle-class. A new catchphrase was to be heard in top-level commissioning meetings at Broadcasting House: "What's in this for the dinner-ladies from Donnington?"

Perfectly good ideas would be rejected for failing the Donnington test. Announcements between programmes became twinklier in tone, full of avuncular asides and iffy, ho-ho jokes. Presenters were told to speak with a smile in their voices. Any hint of intellectual rigour, of sustained seriousness that required more than two minutes' concentration on the part of the listener, were the subject of severe disapproval.

This need to make Radio 4 accessible to all led to some odd contortions. Approached as the possible presenter of a new books programme, I was told that the series would be subversive (translation: jokey), have a relaxed, magaziney format (translation: no segment to last more than five minutes) and that, above all, it would reflect what ordinary people were actually reading rather than what egghead critics were writing about on the books pages (translation: interminable shopping precinct vox pops with Barbara Taylor Bradford readers).

Any author interviews? No, they were regarded as too heavy and élitist. Authors would be included in the programme, but thematically. For instance, if John Updike were in town, we would avoid asking him to talk about his new book, preferring to put a package together about golf, or the Sixties, or adultery in fiction, to which he would contribute.

People can sense when they are being patronised. Radio 4's campaign of populism failed utterly because the network's fake, cheery tone failed to attract new listeners and alienated many of the old ones.

There is more than a whiff of this class-conscious meddling in what Mark Damazer is saying. As an example of the way his programme-makers would challenge the assumptions behind political ideas, he revealed how Radio 4's coverage of Geldof's Make Poverty History campaign had successfully conveyed the message that trade with African countries was more important than debt relief or aid.

Perhaps, if he were a columnist or a politician, it might have been a worthwhile argument, but the one person who should not be pushing it is the man in charge of our most influential radio network. There is something alarming about Damazer's convictions, however sincere, playing a part in the way news and current affairs are presented.

Like his predecessors, Damazer is in danger of being condescending to radio audiences. Those of us in the incredibly vibrant middle-class to which he hopes to appeal, whether in tweeds or jeans, toting golf clubs or a dinner tray, would prefer programme-makers to be left alone and for theories of class to be left to sociologists.