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Hideously bad TV

The BBC's latest bout of white, middle-class self-flagellation won't do anything for quality.

Dolan Cummings

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In the BBC’s annual report, published this week, governors have again raised the issue of the corporation’s alleged bias towards ‘white, middle class suburbia’, suggesting that BBC1 in particular is failing to cater for other constituencies (1). It is a familiar claim, or rather cringe, as it generally comes from within rather than without.

BBC bosses have been falling over themselves in recent years to shake off the corporation’s establishment image by embarking on a rigorous programme of self-flagellation while constantly emphasising the importance of diversity and multiculturalism. In 2001, then director general Greg Dyke famously endorsed the claim that the corporation is ‘hideously white’, and two years later, then chairman Gavyn Davies dismissed claims that the BBC was ‘dumbing down’ by insisting the charge came from ‘southern, white, middle-class, middle aged and well-educated’ viewers who unfairly dominated the BBC’s agenda.

Current chairman Michael Grade responded defensively to the latest cringe from the governors by arguing there is a place for sitcoms set in middle-class suburbia, while conceding that the BBC needs to reach out to other constituencies.

Taken together, the implication of the last two points is that people who complain about dumbing down also enjoy sitcoms set in suburbia. This seems unlikely, given the dire quality of such programmes. In fact, it could be argued that the only people who watch BBC sitcoms are those who are too fat and lazy to lift the remote control and change the channel, just the sort of people who are ridiculed on Little Britain, in fact. That was the programme cited by current director general Mark Thompson, as evidence that the BBC has moved on from Terry and June (the iconic white suburban sitcom of the 1980s).

Little Britain now holds the place occupied for several years by the wildlife series Big Blue, as the programme mentioned by BBC people every time someone from the outside questions the quality of BBC output. The critically acclaimed series, shown on BBC3 and then BBC2 rather than BBC1, is a sketch show featuring various grotesque caricatures such as the celebrated Vicky Pollard, a jabbering ‘chav’ schoolgirl. And of course, the uneducated, Pringles-guzzling couch potatoes I suggested watch mainstream BBC1 comedy are just another such caricature. But it is precisely the fact that suburban sitcoms don’t appeal to any sort of elite that gives moral authority to such mediocrity.

It often seems that the BBC has fallen for its own satire, and is making programmes for imaginary constituencies, whether these are ‘ethnic communities’ who demand recognition (a bit like Little Britain’s Dafydd, who insists on being acknowledged as ‘the only gay in the village’), or the unsophisticated square-eyed masses, who don’t want anything too challenging. An unhealthy dynamic exists between audiences who expect little from television and thus put up with rubbish, and programmers who reason that if people watch it they must like it, and anyway (the ultimate in unacknowledged patricianism) ‘it’s only telly’.

What the BBC’s periodic cringing signifies is a deeper problem facing public service broadcasting at a time when the idea of a coherent public is hard to sustain. The old-fashioned BBC ideal – rarely realised – was to shape an audience by producing top-quality programmes that would transcend the particularities of class (and later ethnicity). As the Gavyn Davies quotation above suggests, this has come to be seen as elitist. Mass appeal is instead taken to mean the lowest common denominator: bland, inoffensive sitcoms that numb the mind.

The people who run the BBC are still overwhelming white, hideously or otherwise, and middle class by definition. If what they produced were brilliant, would that matter? Too much of it isn’t: no wonder they cringe when they turn on a BBC1 sitcom.

(1) BBC1 too focused on white suburbia, say governors, Guardian, 12 July 2005

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