The BBC has been a massive part of my life. I worked for it for ten years and then closely with it for a further twenty-nine, but it already held a strong place in my affections before I joined it and has continued to do so in my retirement. Its output has dominated my lifetime’s TV viewing, both for professional reasons and through personal choice (65% of my list of favourite British TV dramas are BBC productions and 90% of my list of British sitcoms). Former BBC employees have often been highly critical of the Corporation, not ever through any sort of animosity, but because they know that it is capable of reaching (and setting) the highest standards and are disappointed if it ever falls short. As it celebrates its centenary (which is actually the centenary of the radio service as well as the organisation as a whole, but TV is my main concern here) I was certainly looking forward to seeing how it would mark the occasion, especially through the use of archival materials, but felt that the very best way of doing so would be to produce some great new landmarks to add to the list of 100 which my former BFI colleagues have compiled here.
And, happily, that is what it has done. In my last blog I expressed the opinion that Sherwood was the best British drama series for a decade. Well, that accolade only lasted about 6 months! I did not use the term “a decade” lightly but was specifically thinking back to the last series which I would place higher, which is Hugo Blick’s The Shadow Line (BBC, 2011), number 6 in my Top Ten British drama series (see blog, February 2021). And whose work has now taken over the title of “best drama series for a decade”? Why, none other than the same Hugo Blick, back with his best series since, er, The Shadow Line.
It seemed very odd that the BBC should produce a western – not exactly a genre for which it is well known – but it seems perfectly natural that Blick himself should essay the form. You could argue that many of the essential themes and elements of his previous series – the blurred line between good and evil, the nature of trust, the stunning vistas, the dramatic stand-offs and shoot-outs, the search for revenge and uncovering a truth – make them surrogate westerns. And in The English (BBC2 currently and i-Player) they are all there in their natural setting.
All the other Blick hallmarks are there, too: a convoluted plot with a number of mysteries at its heart; characters coming to terms with their past and their destiny; the reflective dialogue scenes, interspersed with dramatic set-pieces; a female lead character; memorable supporting characters performed by outstanding actors (with a couple of juicy parts here for Blick stalwarts Stephen Rea and Rafe Spall); an ambiguous narrative which makes you both think and feel at once. It is also a great homage to the western genre, with numerous visual references to the classics, and the ending was perfect in showing how, as Stephen Rea’s sheriff predicts, the myth of the west (which those classics represent) replaced whatever may have been “the truth”. I was particularly delighted with the use of footage from the BFI’s Mitchell and Kenyon collection to make that point. Of course, it goes straight onto my shortlist and will be in my end-of-year top ten (well, I have already said Sherwood will be there, so how could it not be?).
One BBC drama which was certainly produced with the centenary in mind was the Doctor Who special The Power of the Doctor (BBC1), which marked the end of the Chibnall/Whittaker era and featured a number of previous incarnations of the Doctor, as well as his favourite adversaries. It was enjoyable, if a bit of a mish-mash, but was, of course, most memorable for the surprise regeneration of the Doctor as David Tennant. This re-unites him (for a few specials at least) with Russell T.Davies and one can’t help but feel that Davies thought a direct transition from the first female Doctor to the first black one would be too much for the more “traditional” fanbase and is thus keeping their loyalty by bringing back a favourite first. The revelation that we are getting an old doctor back came at just before 9pm on Sunday 23rd October. At almost precisely the same time, the BBC News app notification sounded on my i-phone to inform me that we wouldn’t be getting an old Prime Minister back, Boris Johnson having just pulled out of the contest for Tory leader, which I guess is what you call a win-win situation.
Turning to documentaries about the centenary and going back to my own time at the BBC, when I was the TV Archive Selector in the 1980s, I well remember getting regular visits from the legendary war correspondent Frank Gillard, who had been charged, in his retirement, by the Corporation with conducting confidential interviews with key BBC personnel and others, for use at an unspecified future date, but certainly with the centenary firmly in mind. He would pull up outside the South Block of the BBC Film and Videotape Library in Windmill Road, Brentford and together we would unload cans of 16mm film from the back of his Vauxhall estate and take them to “the cage”, a lockable and highly restricted cell in the safety film vault where the naughty programmes which nobody was allowed to see, like Yesterday’s Men, Dance of the Seven Veils or Brimstone and Treacle, were kept. The interviewees had been told that their contributions would not be allowed to be seen or used until after their deaths, in order that they should feel free to speak candidly. Several of them had already been used for documentaries about aspects of broadcasting history and I was, of course, keen to see how they would feature in the centenary programmes.
A number of the interviews turned up in John Bridcut’s How the BBC Began (BBC2), a two-part, three-hour survey of the Corporation’s first fifty years, presented thematically rather than chronologically. Bridcut had clearly been working on the documentary for some time and had himself conducted interviews with many of the key people who were still alive (though a lot of them, sadly, no more). As with his music documentaries, his approach to his subjects is empathetic rather than interrogative and he sometimes likes to film them listening to or watching archival recordings. As a result, the documentary was impressionistic rather than comprehensive, but contained plenty of interesting and enjoyable material.
For a more critical approach we would have to go back to David Dimbleby’s three-part Days That Shook the BBC (BBC2, August), though commentators were quick to point out that, being steeped in the culture of the BBC through both his own and his father’s careers, he was not necessarily the impartial observer he claimed to be. Where the Bridcut documentary focussed on the BBC’s first 50 years, Dimbleby’s was almost entirely concerned with the more recent 50, so together they form a diptych and it is little surprise that the former was about pioneering and innovation while the latter considered controversy and conflict.
Dimbleby, in the best BBC tradition, turned out to be a detached observer of the various issues he considered and was at times a very harsh critic, especially over the BBC’s handling of the Jimmy Savile case, both in terms of how he was allowed to get away with his crimes and how they were (or, more importantly, were not) reported after his death. This was truly a case of the disappointment at the failure to maintain the highest standards which I mentioned above and, coming from a BBC insider, carried more weight than the entirety of the Netflix series Jimmy Savile – a British Horror Story from earlier in the year, which was a good explanation of the phenomenon for an international audience, but not much more.
Among those interviewed by Dimbleby for his series was Emily Maitlis, who, along with the likes of Andrew Marr and Jon Sopel, left the BBC this year to pursue their own journalistic projects which are more akin to newspaper journalism in terms of the scope it gives them for expression of opinion. Nothing wrong with that at all and they are all doing good work, largely thanks to their BBC training. What I would reject though is the criticism of the BBC, whether implicit or, in Maitlis’ case, openly stated, over questions of “balance”, “impartiality” or, the perjorative phrase most commonly used nowadays, “false equivalence”. In a time when there is so much digital manipulation of opinion, we need a strong example of unbiased news coverage more than ever and that is what the BBC is specifically and statutorily there to provide. It may not always get to “the truth” of an issue but it is vital that it exists. This was brought home to me by the cartoon below, which I found on social media.
It is funny and makes a great point, but, thinking further about it, I came to the conclusion that “the idiots” must be given a say. If not, they will not be short of platforms for their ideas and will be able to say, with justification, that they have been censored by the mainstream media, which will give them further strength. Better to acknowledge their existence and challenge them openly. In a year which has seen so much political turmoil, I think BBC News has provided a true public service.
Still with documentary, the beginning of the BBC was not the only moment of great cultural significance in 1922, which also saw the publication of the “greatest poem of the 20thcentury”, T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land (a personal favourite, though I actually think Prufrock is even better), so it was highly fitting that this other centenary should be marked under the banner of the BBC’s most influential arts series, Arena. And a terrific piece Into the Waste Land (BBC2) was – given plenty of time for an in-depth consideration of the poem’s complexity, with recently discovered letters throwing new light on its meaning, interviews with erudite academic talking heads and an archival recording of the man himself reading his own words. Another documentary for the shortlist.
But it has not just been the programmes specially prepared for the occasion which have resonated in this BBC centenary year. It has sometimes seemed that events have conspired to emphasise the Corporation’s history and its centrality to our culture and our national life. One such was that warm summer night in late June when Paul McCartney took to the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury. Just turned 80, he put on a stunning show featuring his music from the past six decades. It was BBC history, but only by nostalgic association – and, of course, it was brought to us by the BBC.
If I had to name just one thing which the BBC does, which I regard as the most essential and the most praiseworthy, I think I would have to say The Proms. The Corporation has run this fantastic music festival, a true national institution, since 1927, broadcasting all the concerts on radio and many on television, and its own orchestras feature prominently. This year saw the return of a full Proms programme after the interruptions of the pandemic years and the crowds flocked back. Tickets for the best concerts were hard to get, but I secured one for John Eliot Gardiner’s performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis on September 7th. It was superb and I was delighted to have been present at the festival in BBC centenary year and made a mental note to watch the Last Night on the coming Saturday. But the next day, something happened which ended the season early and which, more than anything else, provided the historic resonance I mentioned above.
The BBC’s hundred-year history has been closely associated with the monarchy. It was the Queen’s coronation in 1953 (the year I was born), which helped establish the BBC television service as a central part of national life and the symbiosis continued throughout her long reign. Her death on September 8th and the commemorative events of the subsequent weeks, as well as the accession of the new King, saw the BBC at its best. True, they had been preparing for it for a long time, but nevertheless there were important choices to be made about the extent and tone of the coverage and they got it pretty much spot-on. The day of her funeral was impeccably observed, the coverage was superb and the presence of the ageing David Dimbleby, who has been so closely connected with so many royal occasions, as commentator for the final ceremony at Windsor, was perfect. It truly felt like the end-of-an-era moment which it was. Certainly the TV broadcast of the year.
And, of course, the occasion demanded the extensive use of archive material from the entire history of the BBC, given that the Queen had been born in 1926. Together with the documentaries and the repeats of classic dramas which I mentioned in my previous blog, as well as the re-positioning of BBC4 as an archive channel, this meant that the archive has been utilised this year more than ever before. It is also now more accessible and appreciated than it has ever been, as you can judge from this Guardian piece. I have always been proud of the small contribution I made towards the creation of the BBC Archive and pieces like this, as well as the centenary celebrations, have only served to reinforce that feeling. The BBC may be facing an uncertain future, but its past is secure.