We Should Cherish Auntie
I can’t imagine my life without television. There, I’ve said it! And for some of you that statement will be the equivalent of my saying that I find Turkey Twizzlers nourishing. In our culture television is rated as low brow, a sort of opium of the masses; a wooden box in the corner of the room spouting mindless guff for intellectually challenged people. Well, I would beg to differ.
For me television and radio are my boon companions. Together these two broadcast media completely fulfil Lord Reith’s founding mission for the BBC to inform, educate and entertain.
And it is the BBC for which I have a particularly soft spot. One hundred years old this year and still going strong but increasingly under attack from all sides as the younger generation turns away from traditional forms of media towards You Tube and streaming services like Netflix, and as the Minister for Culture, Media and Sport declares that the BBC should no longer count on an obligatory licence fee as the source of its funding.
My earliest memory of the BBC is crystal clear. It is June 2nd 1953. I am five years old and our young queen is being crowned. With much fanfare and excitement my granny, who lived next door to us, has acquired a black and white TV set with a tiny 9” screen. Hers is not a large front room, but all of our family and several neighbours are gathered for the spectacle. Transfixed, we all watch as the crown is placed on her head and the words “Vivat, Vivat Regina” are belted out by the choir. The excitement and theatrical quality of the whole event are not lost on my five year old self. I fall in love with our beautiful queen and with this medium which can transport me in real time to Westminster Abbey. To this day both our Queen and the BBC at 96 and 100 years of age respectively, retain my profound respect and admiration.
Not long after this my family also acquired our own rented TV set (no-one actually bought televisions in those days). Now my young life was filled with Bill and Ben, the Flower Pot Men, and Andy Pandy who always seemed to be ‘waving goodbye.’ Then there was Blue Peter and Crackerjack and the adolescent joys of Doctor Kildare (how I swooned over Richard Chamberlain!) and Top of the Pops with the Beatles. I remember watching the BBC news with my mother when John F Kennedy was assassinated and the moon landings in 1969. Then it was marriage and motherhood and Z Cars and The Sweeney and Abigail’s Party and Morecombe and Wise with 20m plus viewers tuning in every Saturday night to laugh at their silliness.
The thing I remember most is the quality of the output. The BBC always had the best, most professional performers, teamed with the best writers for both drama and comedy. Memorable series adapted from books like ‘Brideshead Revisited’ and the original ‘Poldark’ were full of renowned stage actors, and thesps like Penelope Keth, Richard Briers and Felicity Kendall who showcased their acting talent and comic timing in sitcoms like ‘The Good Life’. I had a particular fondness for Wendy Craig in Carla Lane’s ‘Butterflies’ because this coincided with my own struggles in the 1970s to be a competent wife and mother. Rhea, Craig's character, was a terrible cook and I totally identified with her despair at having to provide daily meals for her hungry family and their despair at her terrible food. Eventually more women were allowed to be funny on our television screens which meant huge audiences for the peerless Victoria Wood and Julie Walters followed by French and Saunders and the wonderfully zany Absolutely Fabulous.
Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley as Eddie and Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous
The BBC was also brave enough to take on the establishment starting in the 60s with ‘That Was the Week That Was’. This was part of a satirical movement which included Private Eye magazine and the ‘Beyond the Fringe’ stage show. It was followed in the 70s and 80s by ‘Spitting Image’ with a masculine looking Margaret Thatcher portrayed as ‘the best man in her cabinet’ and a sketch about Reagan called ‘The President’s Brain is Missing’. The lampooning of politicians reached its apogee in ‘Yes Prime Minister’ and a sense of anti-authoritarian impertinence was noted at the BBC which has echoes of today’s complaints about the corporation being led by a leftie liberal elite. Sadly, I fear that few of these shows could be made now that the sword of Damocles is poised above the head of the BBC in the form of a threat to its funding by the very people its shows might be skewering.
Perhaps you are finding my reminiscences excessively nostalgic. Perhaps I could be accused of sentimentality by recalling the heyday of the BBC when it was at the height of its creative powers. Perhaps, after 100 years during which it has ‘informed, educated and entertained’ large audiences so brilliantly it should be allowed a gradual and gentle death by being deprived of the oxygen of reliable funding. However I feel that this would be a huge mistake. The BBC may now be just one voice in a cacophony of voices churning out content 24/7, but it remains the only one that is universally trusted worldwide. This reputation for being a reliable source for the truth emerged very powerfully during World War Two. By 1944 the BBC broadcast in 46 languages and at the end of the war it could count 20m listeners in Europe.
Lyse Doucet reporting from Kiev
Today the Corporation has a staff of twenty-two thousand who work in more than forty languages and run eight national TV channels, fifty-plus radio stations and the world’s most visited and more importantly, most trusted, English-language news website. During the Covid pandemic the majority of us relied on the BBC to help us to navigate our way through all that misinformation and disinformation, for me via BBC Radio 4’s programme ‘More of Less’ which made sense of (ie told the truth about) the official statistics. And on February 24th when Russian forces invaded Ukraine, 20m UK adults tuned into the BBC for information on the conflict. How reassuring it was to see Clive Myrie and Lyse Doucet in their navy blue flak jackets with ‘Press’ emblazoned on their chests reporting from Kiev to tell us the truth. In the last week of February, 200m people around the world turned to the BBC’s World Services digital news in languages other than English.
Life now is infinitely more complex than it was when I watched the Queen’s coronation in 1953. We have myriad choices when it comes to drama, film, humour, documentaries and any and every other form of entertainment that we might want. The BBC clearly has problems with its structure and management, all of which make it vulnerable to attack by those who would most benefit from its demise. I doubt that my children and certainly my grandchildren would mourn or particularly notice the disappearance of the very old fashioned sounding British Broadcasting Corporation. But I, for one, would be devastated.
This week I have used iPlayer to catch up on BBC One’s ‘‘The Split’, been moved by the adaptation of Kate Atkinson’s ‘Life After Life’ on BBC Two, watched an amazing documentary about the Russian opposition leader ‘Navalny’ also on BBC Two and laughed out loud at the comedians on ‘The Unbelievable Truth’ on BBC Radio 4. And of course I have watched the BBC News, safe in the knowledge that, unlike in Russia, I am being given a reasonable approximation of verifiable information about what is happening in the real world. Without the BBC I fear that not only would my life be considerably poorer in terms of high quality entertainment, but also millions of people worldwide would lose an important bastion of truth. And all because our current government dislikes the idea of public service broadcasting free from commercial interests, and also sees any form of scrutiny as impertinent. In a week when the richest person in the world has paid billions for Twitter we should cherish what we have before it’s too late.
Upcoming Event Information:
Upcoming Event Information:
Friday 13th May
Film Club - Mary Queen of Scots
Available on Amazon Prime
Watch the film before and join us for a discussion!
Day: Friday 13th May
Password (if needed): LOOKFAB