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.

We tend to take such diversity for granted. But, in fact, all the pressures in television – financial, technical, cultural – push programmes towards the safe and conforming centre. So diversity is a fragile flower. It needs to be protected and nurtured. And once gone, it is hard to revive. More alarming still, like a built-over garden, when gone it is no longer missed. Yet its disappearance is a loss for all that – reducing our creative possibilities and diminishing the quality of our lives. At the heart of the structure is the BBC, freed from the commercial pressures by the principle of the licence fee. Without the BBC’s initially paternalistic but later public-service approach to broadcasting, we would not have had the range of programmes that we enjoy. The BBC is the yardstick against which other broadcasters are measured. If the BBC loses its way or is overwhelmed, all broadcasting is affected. Those who run the BBC carry a heavy responsibility. If they fail the BBC, they fail us all.

It has been the misfortune of those in charge of it over the last decade to be running an organisation that has stopped expanding. As military history shows, it is far harder to command an army in retreat than one that is advancing. What is more, some of the commitments imperiously entered into during the heady days of expansion now hang like albatrosses round the necks of the present management. I do not think an imperial analogy is out of place. The world of radio in the Thirties, and of television in the Fifties and Sixties, was a place of opportunity, of excitement, but above all of plentiful income. The BBC was constantly moving into new areas of broadcasting, either because it regarded such expansion as part of its rightful destiny, or to see off its rivals – motives in the true imperial tradition. There were pioneer jobs to be done, virgin territories to be opened up. Young turks quickly become proconsuls. No one asked why: only what and when. After all, it was the national instrument of broadcasting, wasn’t it? Besides, in those exhilarating days when there was enough income coming in to allow the abolition of a separate radio licence, the BBC could easily afford both to compete and to do its public duty.

So it bought property, it built studios, it took on more and more staff, it flourished – and it grew. Soon it was the largest broadcasting organisation in the world. There was scarcely an aspect of television or radio production for which it did not itself accept responsbility. At one end of the process there were men who spent their time inventing and designing equipment. At the other, salesmen hawking Great Expectations and Civilisation around the globe. In between were the many hundreds of people involved in the production and transmission of some of the world’s best programmes. Stirring times.

But after the fat years came the lean ones. Inflation spiralled, income slowed, public expenditure came under attack, and suddenly the BBC could no longer live in the style to which it had grown accustomed. For years now the BBC has been unable to fund by itself the major drama and documentary series. Producers must wait on tenterhooks for money to be raised from foreign broadcasters before they can see their ideas turned into reality. So it has no longer been possible to sustain the organisation and all its activities without more and more frequent trips to the Home Office for bigger and bigger increases in the licence fee. It was inevitable that sooner or later some government would shout enough. What is perhaps surprising is that an administration so keen to break the old political consensus, so dedicated to reducing public expenditure, so inimical to public monopolies, so supportive of the values of the marketplace, should have waited so long before turning its guns on the BBC. Governments of all persuasions have always found the BBC an over-mighty subject. Its control of the 20th century’s most effective means of communication, its grand manner, and its smug and sometimes arrogant assertion of a claim to know what’s in the public interest, tends to get up the noses of most politicians. In the circumstances, therefore, you might have expected the BBC to temper its imperialist ambitions. It says something either for its political naivety or, more probably, for its self-absorption that it did nothing of the sort. In the years after Mrs Thatcher came to power the BBC continued to grow. It added around three thousand staff to its already large payroll. It expanded into further areas of broadcasting. And when the licence fee came up for renewal, it put in a claim for a 41 per cent increase. All this at a time when the Government was taking an axe to public expenditure, when universities and organisations like the British Council or the Arts Council were facing cutbacks. The BBC’s approach smacked of a bid for martyrdom, or of the self-inflicted wound.

As one commitment has been piled on another, so the yearly bill the BBC has to pay simply in order to run its organisation has increased. Let me give an example of what I mean. I have used it once before – at the BBC, where it was not popular. It’s the story of how East Enders, the twice-weekly soap opera on BBC 1, was launched. The story starts with the BBC’s deciding some years ago that it needed a soap opera to compete with Coronation Street and Crossroads. Their problem was that they had no suitable studio to devote to a twice-weekly drama series. Imagine, then, the whoops of delight from Television Centre when the board went up at Elstree Studios: ‘Closing down sale – must sell, any reasonable offer considered.’ The BBC moved quickly to buy it. At around £7 million it was a snip. Four studios, two fully-equipped, a music studio, plenty of storage buildings, workshops, an office block, acres of room and a shooting-lot to build a soap-opera set on. Purring all round. The dilemma of the BBC’s soap had been solved. And with the new acquisition had come the possibility of new opportunities – all at a bargain-basement price. But something else had happened too. The BBC had taken on yet another responsibility. After all, Elstree is a big place. It needs to be guarded, cleaned, heated, serviced, administered and generally kept up. I have no idea how many people this takes, but it cannot be fewer than thirty. So with wages, pensions, National Insurance, the bill must be around £400,000. Then there are the rates, the cost of maintenance, the servicing of the £7 million. There cannot be much change from a million pounds a year. So there go 20,000 licence fees already. Last year those licences could have been spent on something else, like programmes. This year, next year, every year from now on, they will be being used to keep Elstree warm and tidy. And this is only the start. Institutions abhor a vacuum. The space at Elstree will be filled up with people from elsewhere in the BBC.

In some cases, the buildings they moved from have already been got rid of. But for the most part other staff will expand into the newly vacated premises. The BBC Training Department has now moved into Elstree, their old offices turned into cutting-rooms. Meanwhile its studios will be full of productions, its offices bustling with projects. It will be run efficiently – certainly more cheaply and flexibly than any ITV company could manage. Soon Elstree will be seen as an indispensable part of the BBC – impossible to cut or reduce, an essential provider of programmes. So what started with a simple enough thought – ‘Let’s have a soap opera’ – has resulted in yet more demands on the inelastic licence fee. And if, some time in the future, you were ever bold enough to suggest getting rid of Elstree back would come the reply: ‘But you’d only save tuppence on the licence fee.’ The story of Elstree is the continuing story of the BBC. You can find many similar examples. This is how the BBC has grown. This is one of the main reasons why every three years it needs to go back to the Home Office to demand a higher licence fee.

For a creative organisation size brings another equally insidious problem. The larger it is, the harder it is for its management to make quick, let alone difficult decisions. Inertia begins to take over from dynamism, mediocrity from talent, complacency from initiative. And there are always plenty of plausible rationalisations to justify growth and size – cost-effectiveness, economies of scale, great opportunities for staff, strength and independence. The greatest danger that size brings is that it makes an organisation look inwards and not outwards.

Such was the giant organisation which complacently confronted the Government – which reacted in its turn by appointing the market-oriented Peacock Committee. The tragic thing is that the BBC brought this crisis upon itself. Ten years earlier, in a wide-ranging and penetrating investigation of British broadcasting (a great deal more thoroughgoing than Peacock), Lord Annan had endorsed the licence as the best available system. But he also had some trenchant things to say about the way the BBC had conducted itself. A more responsive organisation might have used that opportunity to take stock of itself, to question whether, in an increasingly pluralist society, we needed a middle-class, middlebrow, middle-aged monolith. It did nothing, at that time, other than continue to expand. Having survived this latest report, it will probably again do nothing to change course. The cry will go up from the bridge: ‘Boarders repulsed, steady as she goes, don’t rock the boat.’ And that would be a pity, because the BBC’s present structure is no longer appropriate for the job it has to do. When we in IPPA, the Association of Independent Programme Producers, sent our submission to Peacock (who accepted, I am delighted to say, both our recommendations), we likened the BBC to a World War Two battleship – a great proud but obsolescent dreadnought, incapable of quick manoeuvring, requiring huge amounts of manpower and regular refits to keep it going, and in need of modernisation in the engine-room. A ship with a distinguished record of service, but the wrong design for the war it had to fight.

Once upon a time it seemed right that we should have a monopoly supplier of our television programmes. Once upon a time we found nothing wrong in insisting that if someone wanted to produce a television programme, he or she (and it was mainly he) had to pass through the eye of the BBC’s acceptance procedures and join its privileged club for life. We went along with the fact that here was an almost uniquely powerful arbiter of taste and setter of cultural standards that had to account to no one. We swallowed all this, we even applauded the results, because it seemed the only sensible way of doing things. But as the BBC has continued in this time-honoured way, the world outside has changed. The British battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse failed to notice what the Japanese Air Force was up to and ended at the bottom of the South China Sea.

In broadcasting terms, it’s Channel 4 that has turned the old way of doing things upside down. The creators of Channel 4 saw that to be a broadcaster, you did not also have to be a producer. You could buy in or commission all your programmes from outside. As a system it has enormous advantages for the broadcaster. You do not need to own vast and expensive facilities for TV production. You are not required to feed, house and administer thousands of people for life. You keep editorial control of what you commission by giving your programme-suppliers contracts which specify what you want. If they do not deliver, you sue them. Or more likely, you do not give them another contract. Programme ideas come, not from the chosen few inside an organisation, but from anyone who has the enthusiasm and the flair to offer them.

What the BBC now needs is a philosophy which owes something at least to Channel 4: it requires a new vision that has nothing to do with the preservation of itself as an institution, and everything to do with producing an exciting and diverse range of programmes.