As some of you have probably realised, BBC reform is on the breeze again. The telltale signs are all there. The main ones, of course, are that it’s a day of the week, and water is wet. Government poking at the BBC – or threatening to poke at the BBC – is hardly even a news story any more. The question comes again and again: Why Do We Need the BBC? It’s just something that happens, like the sun rising in the morning. The other indicator is a steady stream of TV personalities proclaiming far and wide that the BBC is a vital service, and a pillar of the nation. I’m honestly not sure how much good this does. Given that most of the lads and lasses in question receive a sizable income from the BBC (or at least a lot of exposure), then it’s not a huge leap to question their objectivity.
Now, I’ve never so much as taken a penny from the BBC (although don’t be shy, producers – I’ve some stories that would make for enthralling fantasy serials on a drama budget). I’ve no vested interest, no axe to grind, and I’m going to share my thoughts on the BBC. Should anyone pay attention? That’s not up to me. But I’m going to say my piece anyway.
Let’s get the high signal-to-noise ratio stuff out of the way first. Yes, the BBC’s funded by a poll tax on the majority of the nation, often whether or not they choose to watch the BBC’s TV output. Yes, senior people – in management and creative branches alike – are paid sums that might as well be Monopoly money for all the bearing they have on real life. Yes, the news reporting side is under constant fire for bias (although as both right- and left- wings of the political spectrum are equally appalled, I’m inclined to ignore this one). These questions, and others too numerous to discuss here, are big questions, and I’m not going to pretend I have answers or solutions. I’m sure there are solutions, but I’m not going to discuss them either. People defend the News service all the time. They defend about the educational benefits. Dammit Jim, I’m a writer, not a politico. I’m not doing that. I don’t want to talk about the serious, ‘important’ stuff.
I want to talk about inspiration.
I have always loved storytelling. I have always loved stories. Two institutions fuelled this love, and my schools cannot be counted amongst them. The first of these institutions was the community library (itself under constant and more vicious cost cutting fire than the BBC will ever know) a few streets away from where I’m writing this. The second was the BBC.
But here’s the thing. I’ve always known how important the library was. It took me a little while to recognise just how important the BBC had been. Like a lot of people, I saw the vast swathes of programming I didn’t value, the time and money wasted on things I didn’t find important. And then, one day, I tried something different. I looked back and totted up all the programmes – all the stories – the BBC had brought me over the years. All the bits and pieces that had slipped into my mental map of life. The quotes that were part of my family’s internal language, or that I sometimes found myself typing on autopilot because they were so familiar they felt like my own words. It was a hell of a list. These were all part of me, in one way or another. Without them, I’d be a different person, and a very different writer – if I was even a writer at all.
This was something of a humbling thought, spared from being terrifying only by dint of the fact that no one had made me watch any of it – I’d sought everything out for myself. And when it comes right down to it, this remains the single greatest strength of the BBC. It’s one that, in my experience, remains unmatched by any other broadcaster. Pratfalls mix with cerebral witticism, soap operas with period drama, thrillers with docudramas.
You can make the argument that the hundreds of extant commercial channels create as much (or more) varied content between them. But here’s the thing: every single commercial channel is also trying to sell you something – the clue’s in the name – even if exactly what exactly’s being sold differs from channel to channel. The BBC’s entertainment output is so vast, and so varied, that only the most ardent of the tinfoil hat brigade could believe they’re in the business of social conditioning. The BBC isn’t trying to sell you products, it’s not trying to mould you into a consumer – it makes no attempt to push a particular political philosophy. It’s just there, an immense and delicious buffet of entertainment. Sure, a lot of it might taste a bit funny to you. Other dishes might turn to ash in your mouth. That’s okay – those bits aren’t for you. They’re for someone else.
Case in point, I loathe Sherlock. I’m conflicted about modern Doctor Who. I’ve never valued Eastenders, and likely never will. Soap operas generally make my eyes itch, and sports quizzes make me want to scream.
A few years ago, I sat in the front row as musical comedian, and sometime Zaphod Beeblebrox, Mitch Benn, performed I’m Proud of the BBC. For those not familiar with it, the song’s essentially a great long list of BBC programmes Mitch loved. I didn’t get it at the time. I quibbled with the list, rather than engaging with the sentiment. Of course my list was different to his. Almost everyone has a different list, but almost everyone has one.
Even now, when I watch zero live broadcast TV, the BBC’s archive output still commands much of my time. And not just re-watching old favourites either, but content that’s new to me even though it’s old to many others. House of Cards. I Claudius. The Thick of It. I either missed the initial broadcasts of these (and many others) or was too young – I’ve only discovered them in recent years. Each, in its way, has inspired me the same way my younger self was inspired by classic Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, Rentaghost, Life on Earth, Yes Minister, Red Dwarf, Blackadder, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and so on, and so on. Right now, I’m enjoying Netflix’s House of Cards. Aha! you say. That’s not BBC. And you’re right, it’s not. But without the 1990 BBC series of the same name, Kevin Spacey’s Machiavellian Foghorn Leghorn persona (and if that’s not a mental image for the ages, I don’t know what is) would likely never have come to pass. I reckon you’ll find that’s worth thinkin’ on.
All of this makes me wonder which of today’s programmes will provide tomorrow’s inspiration – how many other imaginations they’ll spark into telling the next great stories. That’s something the BBC does better than anyone else, and that’s why we still need it.