Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Time to Shrink the BBC

The strange phenomenon that is Nigella Express has also disturbed Jim Shelley. The show is an easy target because it's absurd, grotesque and, not to put to fine a point on it, bad. Somebody at the BBC thought it was a good idea to turn the poor woman into a slurping, slavering clown. Meanwhile, somebody else at the BBC thought it was a good idea to make James May look like an idiot. May made his TV name as the best informed of the Top Gear presenters - he's the one who knows that a certain Cadillac is really a Saab. He has a certain indefinable presence which is not that of the mere lad, but something more inward. He plainly cares about something, though it is not clear what. Ignoring all such nuances, the BBC gave him a show with Oz Clarke in which they drive around California in a big bus drinking wine. It makes no sense, it's desperately unfunny and Clarke and May plainly dislike each other. It doesn't even achieve the grotesque comedy of Nigella.  Such sloppy, ill-conceived shows - there have been many others - have begun to convince me that it is time to rethink my support of the BBC. This strange entity exists because of 'market failure' - a free broadcasting market would not result in certain standards being maintained so we agree to pay for a broadcaster with a special tax. But 'market failure' would only demand one TV channel and one radio station. So the BBC justifies its vast size by saying it exists not just to provide programmes that wouldn't otherwise exist but also to produce high quality versions of programme types that are available elsewhere - game, cooking, car shows, soap operas whatever. Clearly this second argument would place no logical limit on the size of the BBC. I have always gone along with this on the basis that, though the second leg of its justification is pretty wobbly, losing large parts of the BBC would, on the whole, make things worse. But the second leg depends on the BBC's ability consistently to make higher quality shows than the opposition. Increasingly, this isn't happening. Its schedules are heavy with dross. The second leg is buckling and, meanwhile, the corporation seems to be as enmired in phone-in and fakery scandals as everybody else. Is it time to cut the licence fee by 80 per cent and reduce the BBC to one TV channel - BBC2 - one radio station - an amalgam of Radios 3 and 4 - and, perhaps, a web presence? I am beginning to think so.


  1. Great line: "He plainly cares about something, though it is not clear what" - in my experience, such men care about deeply personal things such as homicide or frotting, and will sooner or later reveal this in public in the most disastrous & amusing way imaginable.

    i liked BBC2's SAS programmes back in 2003/4, they were good. There was a funny one about some ex-army types hunting Chris Ryan, enlivened by the loathing they all felt for the Royal Marine in their number. i watched keenly in the hope that they would frag his ass, Nam style.

  2. A pedant writes - If there was only one channel, surely it would be, by definition, BBC1, or ideally just BBC? Anyway both the series you cite as dross are on BBC2. BBC4's their best channel now - tho again it would have to be called BBC1, or BBC. Radio could be left more or less alone- it costs almost nothing compared to TV. The whole monstrous BBC edifice should certainly be cut down to size though.

  3. Good thought. I would go further. Even in terms of its much-vaunted technical expertise, much BBC drama is pretty crap compared with the incredibly slick camera work of, say, The Shield- to my mind the best cop show on TV (Channel 5). Formats like Question Time or News Review are well past their sell-by dates. The afternoon radio plays are predictable rubbish. Ditto, the incredible impertinence of the Moral Maze. Who cares what Ian Hargreaves thinks about anything. Since the BBC won't change its recruiting bias from the Left university, its time for Cameron's Tories to step forward with a bold plan, perhaps on the lines you suggest. Scale the whole thing down, and open the redundant digital channels, with, for example, 18 Doughty Street replacing BBC3, or Clive James replacing BBC4. Adults can make their own choices about what they want to watch.

  4. Nige, BBC 4 is, in part, the best channel because it's trying new things. The dross on the two main TV channels comes as a result of the 'me too culture' that is invading TV, radio and publishing. It's safer to copy than to innovate.

  5. Check out "Murder Unprompted" on Radio 4. It's fantastic and funny -- Bill Nighy (yeah, you know I dig him) as louche actor & accidental detective, Charles Paris in a play by Simon Brett. I'm lovin' BBC radio on which I've heard a number of excellent plays. Why can't the TV programs get up to that level?

  6. There are several other Charles Paris series too, Susan - Nighy (with his great radio voice) did lots of radio before he hit the big time. Robert Stephens (another great radio voice) also did loads of it, when he was too drunk for anything else.

  7. I would be more than happy to pay 115 quid a year for Late Junction alone. If that money covers everything else then what's your problem?

  8. Why not go back to how it all started. From the Charter:

    "The Public Purposes of the BBC are as follows—
    (a) sustaining citizenship and civil society;
    (b) promoting education and learning;
    (c) stimulating creativity and cultural excellence;
    (d) representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities;
    (e) bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK."

    In this light it doesn't matter whether the BBC runs one channel or a dozen. Imho, the test is whether programming matches these purposes. Right now, it's hard to say that quite a bit of the BBC's output comes anywhere near. These purposes do not include the word "entertainment", perhaps because it was originally taken that a well-made programme would be compelling on its own merits. Now, the great fear seems to be that anything without "entertainment" plastered all over it - to the point of ignoring a presenter's actualy expertise - is ratings death.

    The presenters you mention aren't exactly innocent. They said yes, not no or yes but, and they've been richly rewarded too.

  9. Late Junction the R3 programme? i love that show, now on too late for me to catch. It introduced me to Bonnie Prince Billy, Alasdair Roberts, Lambchop, among others.

    Also the two main hosts have very pleasing voices.