The BBC on the Rack

Writing about the BBC by James Butler, Stefan Collini, Marilyn Butler, Owen Bennett-Jones, Andrew O’Hagan, Jenny Turner, Jenny Diski, Karl Miller, Ian Jack, Lynsey Hanley and Hugo Williams.

The BBC on the Rack

James Butler, 19 March 2020

A post-broadcast era need not be a post-democratic one; an increasingly plural public sphere could be a resource as much as a threat. The BBC’s hegemony in Britain affords it opportunities to defend its own role and the role of public service broadcasting generally. It is a commonplace that it has many admirers but few friends. Now it is under naked attack by the government, it may find it has more than it thought.

Beebology: What next for the BBC?

Stefan Collini, 21 April 2022

One chorus takes up the theme that programming remains ‘elitist’ and ‘middle class’, another that it has become demotic and debased. Many people seem to feel that so long as The Archers and the shipping forecast are left untouched, then all is right with the world; others seem to think that the problem is precisely that The Archers and the shipping forecast have been left untouched for too long. It’s not easy to come up with any really new complaints about the BBC.

Rise and Fall of Radio Features

Marilyn Butler, 7 August 1980

The BBC was genuinely proud of its creative writers, its caged lions, among whom the poet Louis MacNeice was the star exhibit. In terms of cost effectiveness, a feature was a loss leader: no accountant would ever understand what MacNeice and his colleagues precisely did in the months it might take them to write or piece together one of their programmes.

Diary: Night Shifts at Bush House

Owen Bennett-Jones, 8 July 1993

One of the problems of working for BBC World Service programmes like Newshour is that no one in Britain listens to them. That’s not strictly true. If you broadcast at night you discover that there are a surprisingly large number of insomniacs around with their radios on throughout the night.

Light Entertainment: Our Paedophile Culture

Andrew O’Hagan, 8 November 2012

The BBC isn’t the Catholic Church, but it has its own ideals and traditions, which cause people to pause before naming the unwise acts that have been performed on its premises. Perhaps more than any church, the BBC continues to be a powerhouse of virtue, of intelligence and tolerance, but it is now suffering a kind of ecclesiastical terror at its own fallibility. One has to look further into the institution to see another, more obscure tradition, the one that leads to Savile and his liberty-taking. There was always an element of it waiting to be picked up. Many people I spoke to wished to make that clear, but – feeling the Chorus watching from above – they asked for anonymity.

The BBC claims to be looking forward to a newly interactive and demanding audience of ‘participants and partners’ and ‘communities’ and so on; but there is an opposing possibility, a movement to lonely super-consumerism, fan and fantasy fused together in wi-fi symbiosis. Sometimes, I think Russell T. Davies and his team have built a commentary on this process into Doctor Who’s current storylines. Sometimes, I think I am hallucinating this notion, from watching too much Doctor Who too close together, causing plots to ripple and shimmer with interference, story-arcs to swim across my eyes.

Made for TV

Jenny Diski, 14 December 1995

What the BBC Drama Department under Sydney Newman offered its authors was above all ‘the right to fail’. That right has now been rescinded. But it has to be said that, uniquely, television’s commitment to Potter was at least as strong as Potter’s devotion to it. Dennis Potter was allowed to fail frequently and always recommissioned.

Diary: Balance at the BBC

Karl Miller, 9 October 1986

Broadcasting should be allowed to go on being both balanced and unbalanced, while public-service broadcasting should be both popular and unpopular. This could be a way of scaling down the BBC, and it could be a basis for the defence of the BBC which is now needed, with a government engaged on a wrecking of national institutions which calls itself a cure.

Churchill’s Victorian oratory seemed unsuited to the microphone age, yet somehow it worked and survives still as a favourite British way to remember the war, so much so that it has its own dedicated group of false memory victims, who imagine they heard Churchill make his Dunkirk speech (‘We shall fight on the beaches’) on the radio on 4 June 1940, when in fact only those in the House of Commons heard it that day; Churchill’s first recording of it was made in 1949.

Airtime for Hitler

Lynsey Hanley, 8 August 2018

In 2008, a Newsnight producer called me to ask if I would appear in the studio with the British National Party leader, Nick Griffin, to debate ‘the white working class’.  I told the producer he had to be joking. What was he doing even thinking of having a fascist on the programme? He seemed mystified by my response. Wasn’t it a good thing that the BBC were listening to the concerns of ‘the white working class’?

Four Poems

Hugo Williams, 11 February 1993

Later on, I sit down to supper with myself,/having opened a bottle of wine./I touch my glass to the TV screen/in a toast to the BBC./My house is your house, old friend!/Stay switched on all the time if you want to.

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