British presenter, performer and screenwriter Bruce Forsyth (1928 - 2017), UK, 21 September 1978. Picture Credit: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

I miss the old BBC

The BBC has lost its way and things have to change

Artillery Row

The iconic glass-fronted structure of BBC Television Centre loomed over the streets around it. I was young, and whilst my friends were all at University, I was a fledgling comedy writer, working on a number of sitcoms. I had a pass, and when my programmes were in production, I could sweep in, through the lobby, past the green tea bar and the lifts, and across the communal area in the centre of the “doughnut”, where staff huddled with their cappuccinos and cigarettes, and the morning sun glinted off the bronzed buttocks of Helios, the sculpture of the Greek God which stood, sentinel-like, over proceedings. There were famous people about, but they were largely ignored. The only one I really recall was Bruce Forsyth, syrup glued firmly in place, nodding and making his trademark chin noise at everybody who smiled at him.

The BBC has become detached from the people who fund it

I was not interested in famous people – unless they were of the Su Pollard or Christopher Biggins variety. I was interested in writers whose work I loved, and in the television history, which seemed to crackle through the building, but was, as I got to know the place better, merely a shimmer by this stage: curtains fluttering in the breeze of ghosts since departed. Still, shooting in TC 8 thrilled me. This was the studio where they made Dad’s Army and Are You Being Served? and Morecambe and Wise and all the classic comedy I’d grown up adoring. I maintain there is no greater thrill than 300 people laughing at your jokes.

My relationship with the BBC is a complex one. It’s cropped up throughout my life, in various forms – some positive, some very negative. I’ve had some good times, and done some stupid things: getting drunk with an actor on a Sunday, going in, and attempting to steal a full-size working Dalek prop, only to be unable to get it out the gate. The next morning I bumped into a very senior Exec, trundling it back to the sixth floor: “Nothing to do with you, Tim?”. No, of course not! Chastened, I may have reflexively called him sir.  

I’ve also witnessed, and experienced some truly terrible behaviour, which went way beyond even the silliest youthful hi-jinks, and involved people in positions of responsibility on productions who really should have known better. I quite recently wrote a comedy-drama for Radio 4; all writers – indeed, anyone in the media – will brush across the BBC at some point. Its immense size makes that unavoidable. 

The Corporation’s current troubles were a long time coming. They are not a surprise, but they were avoidable. “What has the BBC ever done for us?” tweeted the presenter Adil Ray, along with a pro-Licence Fee video from 1986. Other blue-ticks have been tweeting lists of programmes to tug at the heartstrings: Only Fools and Horses, Blackadder, Fawlty Towers, Steptoe and Son. These were and are much loved shows. But they’re also decades old, from a genre – the studio audience sitcom – which the BBC has largely abandoned. Perhaps the problem, in comedy at least, is best evidenced by a conversation a very established and successful writer friend of mine recently had with a commissioning Exec: “Our focus at the moment,” they were told, “is not viewing figures.”

The truth is that the BBC has become detached from the people who fund it, and whom it is there to serve. Reviewers have always prized work which the public aren’t interested in, and vice versa. The Guardian may be the newspaper most bought by the BBC, but it is also the rag least reflective of the average punter’s views. Five stars in it is meaningless: indeed, I would go further and say it’s an almost cast iron guarantee the programme will be a flop. 

Why are there so few people working at the Beeb with alternative views?

Nearly all the comedy that breaks through with the public gets excoriated in the press. Viewers in Basingstoke or Widnes or Glasgow don’t read it, and don’t care. One of the shows I worked on, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, used to get absolutely hammered in the broadsheets, series after series – but it was still the most popular sitcom on BBC Three by far, winning millions of dedicated viewers from underserved working-class demographics, and is currently doing great business on iPlayer. People want relatability and warmth and comfort from their comedy. Everything from The Likely Lads to Birds of a Feather was popular for similar reasons.

Much of the problem is cultural: the make-up of the BBC has changed. The staff are now overwhelmingly graduates, with graduate views, which seem to be constantly disseminated across their programming. Every drama, every comedy seems to pulsate with an attitude not shared by the vast majority. Diversity, in terms of the colour, sexuality and gender, of the BBC’s programme makers has never been broader; the diversity of their opinions and attitudes has never been more limited. When I read about yet another drama that will challenge Britain’s attitude to Empire, or race, or sexuality, I internally despair. I am simply not interested. This is a great country, full of good, tolerant people: it doesn’t require these constant bourgeois critiques. Just entertain me, for God’s sake. 

One option for the BBC would be to make a sharp move back to populism, and putting aggressive steps in place to start representing everyone again. We are constantly regaled with presenters, actors, writers and producers expressing soft-left, pro-Remain opinions; why are there so few people working at the Beeb with alternative views? Historically, there were plenty of Conservative writers, actors and comedians – where have they all gone? (Of course, they didn’t always produce work with “a message”; indeed, those on the centre-right are often more squeamish about leaden messages, preferring to focus on good stories and escapism.) It would be possible to correct this issue if the BBC wanted. Just as it went out of its way to rebalance the gender make-up of its panel shows, a concerted attempt at cultural correction would be both genuinely in line with its commitments to inclusivity and possible to deliver swiftly. 

The alternative is to accept that the current funding settlement is over, and move to a subscription model. If the corporation as it is now is still the beloved national treasure its eye wateringly well-remunerated ‘stars’ suggest, getting the public to sign up should not be a problem. Whatever happens, the situation we have now cannot go on. 

I say all this as a critical friend, with a degree of sadness about where we are. But people with far heftier track records than mine have been trying to get the message through for some years that the BBC was losing its way. The organisation is at a crossroads and, whichever path it chooses, it must change.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover