The Elstree Story

John Gau

  • The Last Days of the Beeb by Michael Leapman
    Allen and Unwin, 229 pp, £12.95, June 1986, ISBN 0 04 791043 7

Michael Leapman has chosen what seems a presumptuous title for his book about the BBC. After all, the BBC is a bit like Russia – with an endless capacity to absorb criticism, punishment, even invasion, and still come out on top. A year ago Auntie was reeling from a barrage of punches from every direction. In the right corner were the privateers, the de-regulators, and the lobby who wanted to commercialise it. In the left, a range of radical and committed programme-makers who felt the Corporation was too establishment-minded, not responsive enough to the creative and technical innovations sweeping through the world of broadcasting. Then, with the appointment of the Peacock Committee, it really did seem as if the Government had brought in someone to deliver the knockout punch. Well, the professor has now reported and declared ‘no contest’. Advertising is out, and some time over the rainbow subscription television will be in. Once again the BBC has survived.

In fact, something has changed, something fundamental. For the first time in the BBC’s long history, someone has officially come up with a well-argued case against the principle of the licence fee. The consensus that public-service broadcasting depends on the BBC’s being free from the more pressing demands of the marketplace has been dented. That is perhaps the most significant thing of all in this curate’s egg of a report. And it is as well to remember that ITV itself was born as a result of Selwyn Lloyd’s minority report for one of the periodic Royal Commissions that punctuate broadcasting’s progress. The majority on that particular occasion came down firmly against introducing commercial television to break the BBC’s monopoly. And look what happened. Reports may get pigeonholed, but they have a tendency to set the agenda for years to come. Thanks to Peacock, what was once scarcely worth consideration is now an option.

His book is an entertaining account, mainly of the boardroom battles which have gone on in the BBC for the last fifteen years. As a former member of the Corporation who features in one chapter, I think it accurate enough; and I recommend it to aficionados of soap opera, though it lacks something of the sex and glamour of Dallas or Dynasty. Despite the suggestion running throughout the book that all is not well at the Beeb, however, the book itself does not, and perhaps does not really try to, address the role of the Corporation in the broadcasting firmament.

Like a lot of venerable institutions, the BBC finds itself out of joint with the times. Monolithic, monopolistic, mammoth cultural organisations are not the flavour of the month. It has survived its most recent crisis but who knows when and where the next onslaught will fall? The BBC is used to attacks from every side. But what must be really worrying about the last one was its sudden absence of friends. In the past, whenever it came in for criticism from left or right, it could rely on the backing and support of a wide range of opinion-makers. But when on the last occasion it trumpeted abroad its rallying cry, We are the best bargain in Britain,’ it met with a deafening silence. Why is it that the BBC is no longer the popular institution it once was, and does it matter?

I think it does. The BBC’s survival is immensely important to this country and will increasingly depend on people rallying to its defence. The great glory of British television is not so much its quality as its diversity. The claim may seem hard to justify, as we survey the barren landscape on our screens of a Saturday night. And undoubtedly much of television, with its appeal to a mass audience, makes few intellectual and cultural demands. But if you take a week’s programming on all four channels, the range of tastes catered for is remarkable. For all its talk of mass audiences, our television offers a lot for a multitude of minorities.

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