Why bullets are flying in Anderson country

Mark Lawson
Monday 11 April 1994 23:02

IT IS a remarkable development that, if Gallup were to take its clipboards around the English Home Counties this week, asking the question: 'Who is your least favourite person from Northern Ireland?', Gerry Adams would now only come second.

The clear winner would be Gerry Anderson, host of Radio 4's famously hated afternoon series, Anderson Country. This has become one of the rare individual programmes in the history of broadcasting to become a national controversy and the subject of newspaper editorials. ('Anderson Country must go,' thundered the Sunday Telegraph yesterday.) Of those foam- at-the-mouth shows before it, most - Cathy Come Home, Brimstone and Treacle, Death of a Princess - were the subject of debate over their message. The proper bloodied-brother to Anderson Country is Eldorado, the BBC 1 soap opera that was killed off last year after critical derision.

But Anderson Country is different. Not only is it the first radio programme to attain such bogyman status, but the opposition it attracts also has a special obsessiveness. Eldorado was regarded as a joke, a bad executive mistake. Anderson Country is - to judge from letters to the press and the BBC's listener reaction shows - considered an outrage, a sinister executive imposition.

How can such a fuss be explained? Let us consider the first possibility. Is Anderson Country really the worst radio programme ever broadcast? Probably not. But it is, more importantly, the programme least appropriate to its audience in radio history.

Radio 4 had never before broadcast a daily programme named after its presenter. This was one of its distinctions as a station. The wavelength was by no means without personality cults - the Today show was, in effect, Redhead Country three days a week - but these were accidental. And the other Radio 4 brand stamp was seriousness. There were quiz shows at sunset - the equivalent of the charity joke books Radio 4 listeners kept in their lavatories - but the majority of the daytime programmes were subsidiaries of journalism, theatre or literature. When blind-tuning a radio, Radio 4 was the most instantly recognisable station. It had a tone of its own or, as its listeners would better understand the concept, an accent.

Then Michael Green, the controller of Radio 4, had an idea. He would introduce Radio 4's first daily personality presenter. He or she would be what might be called a 'feature jockey', linking short reports with chat in the same way that disc jockeys set records into the jelly of their own celebrity. But, choosing to break two taboos at once, he decreed that the reports the feature jockey would cue up would be looser and frothier than had been normal on Radio 4. This was because the new executive shibboleth in BBC Radio is that - due to the increasing number of commercial stations encouraged by the Government - the corporation's wavelengths need to 'broaden their audience'.

The problem is that, when Radio 4 listeners appear on the network - on Call Nick Ross and Any Answers? - it is apparent that one of their major dislikes is change, and, in particular, the dismantling of tradition. So, in the concept of the new series, Green was already parking his tanks on their croquet lawns. What ensured his notoriety was the choice of presenter. As his feature jockey, he did not select a network regular. If Jenni Murray or Nick Ross had led the new show, there would still have been fuss at the format, but not the current middle-class meltdown. Even if the local celebrity promoted to be a national host had come from Radio Solent or Radio Kent, the debate would have been containable. But Green selected the star of Radio Belfast.

The vocal preference of the core Radio 4 audience is quite simple. English, except Birmingham, is best; Scottish more than acceptable; southern Irish permissible on a case-by-case basis; northern Irish, if at all, for interviewees in news programmes. It is wrong that this should be so - and it must be stressed that Anderson has always been the least sectarian of broadcasters - but it would be dishonest to pretend that this is not a part of the opposition to Anderson Country.

It is also the case that the objections to the programme are a surrogate for other disgruntlements. Some of the fuss is simply an expression of the general current distress of the English middle-classes. The Government looks corrupt and incompetent, the country can't win at cricket, and now some Londonderry airhead is blocking up the afternoons on Radio 4. Equally, the programme has become a focus for a general unease among the station's listeners. Grumpiness about the redesign of Gardener's Question Time, the perceived new sensationalism of The Archers, the relocation of the cricket coverage to long wave, and the launch of Radio 5 Live is all funnelled on to the very visible head of Gerry Anderson.

Yet it is because of this context - which, to a small extent, excuses Anderson personally - that the reception of Anderson Country is not a neglible matter. The row is about the BBC's relationship with its audience, its failure to explain its strategy.

There are three kinds of BBC controversy, which I would categorise as: directional, ideological and artistic. Directional rows - such as the sacking as director-general of Alasdair Milne and the arguments over John Birt's reorganisation of the corporation - are of great interest to broadcasters and the press, but impinge little on viewers and listeners. Ideological rows - over political bias or violence on television - are a matter of expert debate and measurement, in which the perception of the general public cannot, and should not, always be followed. However artistic rows - over the kind of programmes the BBC makes - are accessible and comprehensible to all licence- payers, who perceive a failure to respond as arrogance.

Like politicians who argue that you should not make policy from opinion polls, BBC executives object that you should not make schedules from the mailbag. It is certainly true that public service broadcasting does not consist of giving the public what it wants. For example, the Radio 4 news presenters have recently spent a lot of time interviewing foreign correspondents in an heroic attempt to explain the situation in Rwanda ('So there are the Hutus and the Tutsis, right?') The classic Radio 4 listener - the one who doesn't like Anderson Country and is pissed off about the cricket turning up on long wave - probably has almost no interest in internal African politics, but the decision has been taken that they ought to be informed.

That - in the area of journalism - is a reasonable definition of the remit of a non-commercial station. What the BBC cannot risk is appearing to have contempt for its audience. This is what Anderson Country - and the other changes to Radio 4 for which it has become the symbol - suggests. A body is needed off the sledge, and I think it is going to have to be Gerry Anderson's, and soon. The media pressure on BBC Television lessened after Eldorado was killed. But the murder - as Michael Green may be uneasily aware - was carried out by a new station controller.

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