Aidan Smith: Time we admitted the BBC is a national treasure

Phwoar and Peace has proved an artistic and commercial success for the BBC but the Corporation may face restrictions that could limit its ability to be a world-leading broadcaster. Picture: BBC
Phwoar and Peace has proved an artistic and commercial success for the BBC but the Corporation may face restrictions that could limit its ability to be a world-leading broadcaster. Picture: BBC
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ARE attacks on the BBC simply a way to reduce competition for the commerical broadcasters, asks Aidan Smith

My father was a BBC producer for 25 years. I can’t help wondering how long he would last at the Corporation today and what would be his response were he to be stopped in the corridor by a clipboarded woman from HR asking the question: “Would you consider yourself middle-class?”

I’m thinking of one corridor in particular at the BBC’s old Edinburgh studios – always in semi-darkness and carpeted with squishy red rubber to minimise disturbance for what were often live broadcasts from the studios, especially when small boys had to spend whole afternoons there in what passed for childcare in the late 1960s.

I loved that corridor, those studios, Dad’s exciting job. At school, when everyone in the class had to stand up and say what their father did for a living, my answer of “TV producer” caused some to presume he was responsible for the imitation teak boxes which housed the valves. I think my exhaustive list of all his programmes, the profiles of actors and authors and the football documentaries, might have come across as smug. Really, though, it was pride.

But I’m not sure he’d survive in the modern Corporation, or even want to. This BBC seems to be almost constantly under attack. Right now it’s being battered, among other things, for being too popular, too competitive and not “diverse” enough. In response to the latter charge, Auntie is willing to quiz employees on their socio-economic background to ensure it’s not dominated by the middle classes.

Here’s how I reckon my father would answer that inquiry: “I’m the son of a cobbler. I was expelled from my state school for attempting to set fire to it. I didn’t go to university. I lied about my age to enlist, saw no action in hot lands so played tennis in a fez, then told my children that the small wound on my neck was from a cutlass. My career in the ‘media’, as you would call it, began on the Dalkeith Advertiser. I believe the BBC to be the greatest broadcasting organisation in the world and that it should bow to no one, least of all governments. Am I middle class? Maybe I’ve reached that status by the way you’d define it, madam, but I enjoy making programmes about Jock Stein just as much as I do Muriel Spark, possibly even more. I think I’m bloody diverse enough, actually.”

This month sees the publication of a White Paper detailing the BBC’s future. If the leaks thus far are to be believed, the Beeb is in for a pretty grim time. There will be more regular and rigorous checks on the quality of its programmes. A crackdown on competitive scheduling. Restrictions on the promotion of Beeb shows. Stars having their earnings made public. Oh, and did I mention diversity?

My father would hate all of this. How is “quality” supposed to be measured? More pertinently, how will this government measure quality? The Prime Minister has shelves at home featuring books on Parisian interiors and Michael McIntyre DVDs, and his culture secretary recently admitted he had a relationship with a woman who turned out to be a prostitute. I mention this in the hope we can gain useful insight into preferences, but in any case, isn’t quality subjective?

Murder, polis, Strictly Come Dancing might not be shown on Saturday nights anymore! This has been the big story for our more excitable journals. It’s given them the excuse to publish yet more photographs of Georgia May Foote. The government has denied seeking to become the nation’s scheduler, but the way BBC sets out its programmes seems to be an issue.

Aggressive scheduling, complain the commercial rivals. But what’s wrong with a bit of competition? If The X Factor is losing viewers to Strictly then maybe there’s a problem with Simon Cowell’s clapped-out karaoke show. .

What does Cowell want? What does ITV think should happen on other nights when there’s a supposed “clash” of programmes? For the BBC to move theirs so they get a free run? I thought Cowell, and this government, would have been in favour of competition. It should, after all, drive up quality.

Critics of the BBC argue it should be making distinctive programmes which don’t just chase ratings. Well, it’s never ignored Saturday nights and no one complained when wee Ronnie Corbett, Parky vs Ali and Mike “And this is me” Yarwood absolutely defined them.

If “distinctive” is important then surely ITV’s distinctiveness, or lack of it, should come under scrutiny. If a performer breaks through on the BBC then ITV will often nick him or her, offering more money. What is distinctive about Dancing On Ice, ITV’s answer to Strictly, other than the fact there’s a very good chance the competitors will cut their heads open?

Can you tell I grew up in the era when ITV was deemed “common”? Can’t help that – blame the old man. I don’t love everything the BBC produces and thought the acclaim which greeted The Night Manager was over-the-top. But it was a grown-up show and a commercial success as well as a critical one, and the same could be said for the supposedly unfilmable War and Peace. In this box-ticking age, the BBC seemed to satisfy just about everyone with these dramas.

The excitable journals were orgasmic (“Phwoar and Peace!”). Support is still strong for Auntie. Mind you, I preferred it when you could watch a programme about Jock Stein one night and a Muriel Spark profile the next.