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Auntie is caught up in a drama of her own making

INTERIOR:

courtroom. A middle-aged gent stands in the dock, his jaw set in defiance, as a court official reads out a charge of non-payment of the licence fee. How do you plead, the accused is asked. "Not guilty, sir, by reason of the Broadchurch defence."

"The Broadchurch defence?" asks the judge in his best Lady Bracknell tones.

"Yes, my lord," replies the defendant, matching the judge's Bracknell and raising him a Dreyfus. "Until that BBC lot make a drama worthy of £145.50 a year, as ITV does for nothing, they are not getting a penny from me."

Cue outbreak of cheering as cloth caps and small children are thrown in the air in the spirit of a great British rebellion.

Sad to say there will not be anything as exciting as this when the BBC allows the filming of some meetings between its executive board and the BBC Trust as part of a series of reforms announced this week.

Given the corporation's track record on openness, a record that makes the old Soviet Empire look positively Wikileakian, the best one might expect from these bashes, to be broadcast on the trust's website, is a row of heads nodding in polite agreement.

The trust review comes at the end of what is another annus horribilis (copyright HM The Queen and Maria Miller, Culture Secretary) for the BBC. First there was the Savile scandal, when the BBC lost the biggest story on its own doorstep through managerial cowardice and systemic incompetence.

Then came the Digital Media Initiative debacle in which a whizz-bang initiative to create a new archiving system resulted in close to £100 million going down the plughole. This was followed by the Great British Pay Off, when departing executives were handed huge amounts of dough to ease their passage out the door.

The BBC has not had its troubles to seek, largely because its troubles are all of its own making. It is in this context that this week's review was published. This was the first step, said the new-ish director-general Tony Hall, in making the BBC "simpler and better run".

It will need to be a very big step indeed if the BBC is to turn public opinion around in the run-up to the renewal of its charter in 2017. The review, of course, has as much an eye on that as it does on the year gone by.

Auntie must be seen to be getting her act together if she is to continue to occupy her privileged position in British broadcasting. And if that means more performance reviews and cameras in meetings, then so be it.

Whether the review will begin to solve what ails Auntie rather depends on your assessment of the patient. It is too late to do anything about Savile now, other than prepare for the possibility of making large payouts to his victims. The pay-off money has gone, never to return, ditto the DMI cash. As for the corporation's other problems, where does one start?

In the interests of fairness, it is traditional to pause here, pop on some Elgar, and remind ourselves of what fantastic value the BBC is. A mere 39p a day for everything from Today to Strictly. An organisation respected around the world. Skilful, committed staff, most of whom earn only a fraction of what the "talent" takes home.

You know the script; it is wheeled out often enough. It is all true to some degree (having once worked for the corporation I would say that, wouldn't I). But the BBC has been resting on its laurels so long and so hard it has fallen into a coma about how it is perceived by the public. The affection is still there, but the unquestioning love of old has gone. Some determined wooing is required.

In stressing that the BBC must do better in current affairs and drama, the review has pointed to the perfect places to start. These are the areas in which the BBC was once a world-class player. In news and current affairs it still is, though even here problems exist. To give one recent example, the corporation sent 120 staff to cover the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. ITV flew out nine people.

As usual, there were so many BBC reporters with so little reporting to do that they resorted to interviewing each other. When going to a major event it has now become part of any non-BBC reporter's assignment to count the number of BBC staff present. How many BBC staff does it take to change a lightbulb? No idea: management are still in the forward planning meeting. It used to be a joke; now, given the squeeze on household incomes and the penalties for not paying the licence fee, it is not so funny.

Particularly when one considers that if you cannot or will not pay the fines, the courts can and sometimes will impose a jail sentence (as happened to 107 people between January 2011 and March 2013).

My, what big teeth cuddly old Auntie has when she has a mind to bear them. Peak-time drama is the prime area where the BBC has to start producing results fast. As shown by the recent furore over Doctor Who and his possible obliteration from the television schedules of an independent Scotland, a lot of drama surrounds BBC drama.

Yet it need not be so. Look around the rest of broadcasting, here and in the US, and a golden age in television drama has begun. Film directors, weary of risk-averse studios and raising the mega-bucks required for movie production, are queuing round the block for a chance to make long form drama. From Boardwalk Empire to Breaking Bad, television is now a career destination rather than a place to wait till the movies call.

It can take a long time to make a movie. Television drama can be done on a quicker turnaround, but it still requires planning, the ability to look 10 paces ahead and see what will catch the viewers' attention a year from now.

The BBC, as the recent The White Queen showed, is still too caught up in the skirts of costume drama to take many punts on more daring fare. There are pockets of innovation where one can see talented new directors and writers coming through - River City, for example, is bubbling away very nicely - but it is not enough to challenge the likes of Sky Atlantic, HBO or Channel 4.

The BBC might argue it is not in a position to take more risks because the moment it does, and fails, the BBC bashing intensifies. With politicians to the left and right of it only too ready to attack the corporation for perceived bias or alleged uselessness, the corporation could be forgiven for playing safe from here to the charter renewal, particularly in Scotland where yet more uncertainty looms should Scotland become independent.

Yet as this week's review hints in an oh so civilised, very BBC way, something has to give, attitudes must change. The BBC cannot carry on with business as usual; that way creative bankruptcy, or worse, lies.

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