The BBC. Brilliant British Creativity.
by NICK EVANS
There are three questions we should ask ourselves today.
Question One. What does 40p a day buy you? Half a bottle of water? Half of an edition of the Daily Mail? A third of your daily subscription to Sky? Or everything you get from BBC TV, the BBC Website and BBC Radio in full?
Question Two. Imagine a world without ‘Sherlock’. Or ‘Wolf Hall’. Or ‘The Night Manager’. Or ‘I, Claudius’. Or ‘Only Fools and Horses’, or ‘Call the Midwife’ or ‘Last Tango in Halifax’ or ‘Doctor Who’ or ‘Gavin and Stacey’ …. or even ‘Eastenders’ if that’s your thing. I’m also asking you to take out ‘Inspector George Gently’. I’m also going to take other actor heavy productions like ‘W1A’, ‘Ripper Street’, ‘Peaky Blinders’, ‘New Tricks’, ‘Casualty’ and ‘Doctors’ away. Of course you are going to lose ‘Great British Bake off’ into the bargain. As well as ‘Match of the Day’, ‘Strictly’, ‘The Today Programme’, ‘Newsnight’, ‘Countryfile’ and ‘The Apprentice’. Oh yes, and everything that the mercurial Sir David Attenborough has ever done…
Question Three. What do we stand for as actors, directors, choreographers, production staff? It’s a pretty huge question, and one which would produce a myriad of responses if you cared to ask the question of a hundred friends who work in this industry. Many positive words would probably feature in the responses; ‘creativity’, ‘collaboration’, ‘artistic’, ‘quality’. And so they should. But if we really believe in those wonderful ideals, then we must be prepared to become less selfish and get out and fight for the organisations that embody those ideals. Because the fight is needed now, and specifically, in defence of the BBC.
To me, the four pillars of our nationhood traditionally have been the Post Office, the NHS, the National Rail Services and the BBC. It is a ‘no-brainer’ that when these sit within the State Control, they are run in the interests of the people of the Country, who are the de facto owners of them. As soon as these great institutions are broken down, diluted, and allowed to fall into private, business, hands – well, however they are run, at some stage the words ‘shareholders’ and ‘profit’ are going to supplant the kind of words we as artists cherish so much. We should feel strongly enough to do something to prevent that in the cultural industries….
Oh, I get it! There is nothing ‘sexy’ about saying you are in the vanguard of the fight for the BBC. By definition it’s a 93-year-old institution, and in the age of younger, ‘hotter’ platforms like YouTube and Netflix, admitting you love the Beeb can sound akin to saying you have a crush on your Great Aunt. Then there’s the issue that we as creative types we have become inherently selfish; we have lost the capacity to think of others first, of the wider picture, of the things that are not directly in front of us. There should be no shame in that. We work in an industry that isolates us, often bruises us, and relies upon us developing a sense of self, and self-determination, that can sometimes take our eye off the bigger picture.
I would argue the moment has come to throw off that ‘individual focus’ and join together in defence of our greatest cultural asset; the BBC.
The reason the BBC has survived, and evolved into its tenth decade, is that it has walked – fairly successfully – a tightrope between popular entertainment and the ideals of ‘creativity’ and ‘artistic endeavour’ through four generations. At its heart, indeed in its mission statement, the BBC is designed to ‘inform, educate and entertain’. Goodness knows, we need as much ‘entertainment’, and indeed ‘information’, in the current complicated world we inhabit.
But current Government Policy poses two, very significant threats to the BBC. All the noises coming from John Whittingdale, the current Culture Secretary, suggest a significant cut to funding (not least as the BBC picks up the subsidising of free Licence fees for the elderly), and Government ambitions to remove the independence of the BBC by coveting greater involvement in selection of the BBC Board of Governors.
Let’s bring this back to basics. Less funding for the BBC means less programming, less jobs for creative people, and a lessening in the diversity of programmes, both in terms of regional representation and the kind of stories being told. Put simply, the BBC represents the biggest single investment into our acting industry (albeit through the licence fee rather than government subsidy), and an engine for the creation of story-telling and acting opportunity that is the envy of the world.
If you want to look at it selfishly, unless we defend the BBC there will be less jobs for us to fill. If you want to look at it unselfishly, we are better when we protect the organisations that have an instinct for original storytelling, creative diversity and artistic originality. Either way, the BBC needs you to make your artistic, creative voice heard, and in no uncertain terms.
The argument for the defence goes a little like this. Even in this age of multi-platform television and social media, the BBC is still capable of producing television that ‘brings us together’. The recent Sunday night drama ‘The Night Manager’ is what would be termed ‘water-cooler’ television; that is, we talk about it with our colleagues as we gather around the kettle or water dispenser in our offices. The scale and complexity of it may not have been commissioned anywhere else within the UK. Secondly, in times of national interest, be it an Olympics, General Election or major news story – well we turn to the Beeb. Maybe because its in our DNA to trust the Corporation, passed down from Grandparents and parents through royal deaths, international terrorist events and World Cups and Grand Slams. But more pertinently because the funding formula – that licence fee that allows the BBC to plan without concern for advertisers and popularity – predicates a network of sports and news reporters that is the envy of every organisation in the world. Put simply, because of the guaranteed, constant nature of the licence fee, the BBC takes risks and produces a range of work that no other organisation on the planet can manage. And at a cost to you (and everyone in your household combined) of under 40p a day.
I understand the ammunition for the prosecution too. They complain that this creates an unfair playing field, that it does not serve the ‘free market’. (I would ask, “fair for who?”, the viewer or shareholders of private companies?) Some critics attack the impartiality of BBC News, despite it being a network relied on by people as far afield as China and Africa. Again I think the defence is fairly easy – the Tories accuse the BBC of being too Left Wing, where the left of the Labour Party and some Corbynites consider it too far to the right. Which implies it is sort of doing its job – hacking off the politicians on both sides with equal aplomb.
Finally, there has rightly been consternation about the scale of problems that have arisen post Operation Yewtree, and an understanding of how Jimmy Saville, Stuart Hall, and Rolf Harris were able to get away with their crimes. Of course the scale of their crimes was scarcely believable. But points could equally be made about Saville’s proximity to the Conservative Party and NHS who failed to control his behaviour. But it is interesting that in both the case of Saville, and the investigation into Dr David Kelly and WMD/Iraq, the BBC showed true accountability, with senior managers resigning as far up as the Director-General (in both cases). Compare that to the ‘market equivalent’ and the scandal of News International and Rupert Murdoch, where some of the managers suspended over the scandal of phone-tapping, have found their way back into the organisation just 3 years later. The difference is simple – with the BBC we were able to hold them accountable, with News International, we were unable to impose standards in the way we may have liked.
But why us? Why should we, as creatives, be in the vanguard of the ‘army’ standing up for this unique and brilliant organisation? Well…. when the heavy industries of the UK fell under threat in the 1980’s, the miners and the steelworkers had to act to explain to the wider public about the importance of those industries to our society. We are seeing a process at the moment, where Junior Doctors and Nurses are taking direct action to defend both their own position and the wider well-being of the NHS. All of which is about carrying the argument about what happens on a day-to-day basis to the wider users – in that case the patients. The BBC flourishes because of its writers, technicians, designers and actors. As a result, we are the people best placed to explain to viewers just how vital the BBC is as a heart of our cultural life.
Finally. Imagine a world without Eric Morecambe, The Two Ronnies, David Brent, David Attenborough, Basil Fawlty, Jools Holland, Mary Berry, Del Boy, Les Dawson, Monty Python, Victoria Wood, Bruce Forsyth, QI, Have I Got News For You, French and Saunders, Tony Hancock or Edina and Patsy. Awfully dull, isn’t it….?
Over to you.
NICK EVANS is a Director who works professionally and in Youth Arts. All opinions in this Blog are his own and not those of any organisation he has worked with/for.