The BBC's voice of two nations

The popularity of `Our Friends in the North' and `Pride and Prejudice' reflects a divided Britain, says Jeffrey Richards

Jeffrey Richards
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:48
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Monday night's final episode of Our Friends in the North has left many people bereft. The serial captivated much of the country, sketching a panoramic view of life in Britain from the Sixties to the Nineties. Taking a left-wing perspective, it featured such topical themes as police corruption and political sleaze, family break-up, juvenile crime and Alzheimer's disease. At once sweeping and intimate, both moving and angry, simultaneously historical and contemporary, it has followed in the distinguished footsteps of BBC series such as Boys from the Blackstuff.

The BBC has always seen its role as that of the voice of the nation, so what does Our Friends in the North tell us about the BBC and the nation?

In the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, the BBC sought to cement the nation around the ceremonial, sporting and religious calendar. Its prevailing values were the monarchy and the empire, the family, law and order, Protestantism, chivalry and good sportsmanship. There was a BBC voice and a BBC style - clipped, reasonable, well-modulated and middle class.

The BBC's attitudes were embodied in Dixon of Dock Green, in which Jack Warner, playing George Dixon, the archetypal bobby on the beat, epitomised the working-class backbone of England: respectable, sensible, restrained, hardworking, good natured, decent. Indeed, all Warner's parts, such as Dan Archer, the patriarch of Ambridge, were reassuring, optimistic and consensual, celebrations of the status quo and unchanging values - a far cry from the fragmentation and brutalisation of the working classes depicted in Our Friends.

But the world of Dixon vanished forever in the Sixties when a series of social, economic and cultural changes of seismic significance transformed the nation. For the first time in British history, it became fashionable to be young, provincial and working class. The BBC sought to reflect this, and the voice of the nation became unprecedentedly critical, raucous and unruly.

Satire programmes ridiculed the Establishment. Rock music gained its own radio channel. Dock Green was superseded by Kirby New Town, where the Z Cars patrolled. Thereafter it became increasingly difficult to tell the difference between the police and the criminals they pursued. The Wednesday Play became the flagship of social realism, with dramas such as Cathy Come Home setting the nation talking about just those issues of homelessness and deprivation that Our Friends in the North has so graphically explored.

The North, which had for years been seen as mainly comic, became the approved site for dramas of grittily realistic social comment.

Yet there is a paradox. The BBC's great success immediately before Our Friends was Pride and Prejudice. It is difficult to imagine a more different type of drama. Having abandoned the classic serial for 10 years, the BBC has triumphantly re-established its pre-eminence in this field.

It is, however, possible to reconcile these two threads in modern BBC thinking. Lord Reith, the BBC's founding father, saw the corporation's audience as essentially unitary and cohesive, the family gathered around the wireless and later the television. He believed that programming should be integrated and uniform. But just as the family has begun to break up, so too has the old unitary audience.

A very obvious split is now emerging. The BBC's superb Dickens adaptation Martin Chuzzlewit was in direct competition with ITV's Cracker, which vividly explored the dark underside of modern urban living. In today's cinemas, one audience is packing into Trainspotting, a film about young junkies in Edinburgh; another audience into Sense and Sensibility.

In persisting with its classic serials alongside its social realist drama, the BBC is catering to both these audiences. It is still the voice of the nation, but that voice is a reflection of alternative visions: one realist and radical, the other romantic and nostalgic. There is little cross-over between the two. But the success of both suggests that the BBC now caters to a Britain more divided than at any time since Disraeli coined the concept of "two nations".

The writer is Professor of Cultural History at Lancaster University. His next book, `Film and National Identity', will be published next year.

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