15 SEPTEMBER 1961, Page 15

_Television and Radio

Silver-Plated Anniversary

By PETER FORSTER SOME Sundays ago, the BBC record programme, Family Favourites, fea- tured a song called 'My radio and walks slowly to and fro. . . . To keep this dame from getting sore I clap my hands and holler more. . . I Make a pass and get in dutch, I can look but 1 can't touch. . . . The boys that live across the Court stay up for her routine. They even tip the janitor to keep the windows clean. . . . I'm rilarried to a strip-tease dancer.' The woman disc-jockey said what an amusing record it was. Last week a lay preacher in a BBC Home Ser- vice Programme made a joke about one fly say- ing to another, in words from Isaiah, 'Woe is me 1,;11. I am undone.' The Assistant Head of West l'egion Programmes thereupon 'wrote to him s,aYing he had gone beyond the bounds of good 4aste, and warned him to be more careful in 'mitre And in those two incidents, ladies and gentle- ttleo, you have the BBC, whose Television Ser- viCe is 25 years old this month. The trouble with the Corporation is partly Nanisational. When Reith came down from Skioai and gave the BBC its corporate character, IS aim, as the world knows, was to evangelise, and any idea that he was involved in show biz 11,1ust have seemed anathema to his creed. But °le BBC has long since become the biggest single eniPioyer in the whole show biz world. On its staff it employs about 11,000 people--and .cite above an example of extreme vulgarity MI the one hand, against silly prudishness on the other, it is, of course, only fair to note that 7411 so vast an output there will inevitably be aP8es of taste and judgment. The significance °I such examples is that they point to the deeper Ilialaise of the BBC. It would be easy for somebody to cut out the 5P-tease song; the danger is that the producer jvho orders the cut is likely to end up by regard- I' himself as an arbiter of taste and judge of i‘hat is fit for our eyes and ears. If at this point is objected that I seem to be trying to have .s 6 both ways, I can only retort that this is Precisely the case against the BBC: that it is °either tasteless enough nor tasteful enough, 'leither venal enough nor worthy enough, ,neither petty enough nor grand enough, but that ;111 essentials it is like the legendary mugwump the old joke, which sits on the fence with Ics mug on one side and its wump on the other. ' You want a further example, 1 can name you Producers who would refuse to allow that last comparison to be spoken on the air, and others who would be delighted to include it Thus the common charge against the BBC of hypocrisy is neither refuted by pointing to mem- bers of the staff who are manifestly sincere and public-spirited, nor proved by pointing to those others who would insist on the substitution of 'sports car' for *Jaguar, because the latter would be commercial, and then give the number of a gramophone record they had just played. Again, this is simply evidence of the deep dichotomy in the BBC mentality. At the same time, how can the BBC ever expect us to respect its protes- tations of public-spirit and disdain for ITV, when it puts out stuff like the Tab Hunter Show and other formula Americana quite as atrocious as anything on ITV? Or offers free-plug excerpts to ailing West End shows?

To be fair, it must be allowed that the BBC has every right to enter the big popular market —Westerns, for example, are a valid taste for brows of all heights, and we cannot complain if the BBC matches ITV gun for gun. The true complaint is partly a matter of programme plan- ning, that the BBC seems almost to have gone over to the ITV principle of keeping the serious work to early or late times, often seeming to bung in an old feature film at a peak hour (as on Sundays) in the hope of getting high ratings. Partly, too, it is a matter of the quality of the imports selected--and this, one might add, is not to be sidestepped by pleading that the BBC can only select from what is available, because when the BBC decided to enter the world market in TV films in its own right it chose to make The Third Man series. It is all part of the basic fact that the BBC has lost its way between the evangelism and show biz; too often they are professionals at the former game, conditioned by long training, but amateurs and newcomers to the latter.

For this takes us a stage further. In my ex- perience, the actual quality—intellectual and technical—of most producers in television and sound is far from high. It may be that as time goes on, university entrants (who, I suspect, are now being attracted by TV journalism rather than Fleet Street) will raise standards, but in the meantime there are too many old tired hack- hands hanging on for pensions. And they have done the Corporation some service—the sad, bad, wrong thing is that these poor-quality producers give the BBC its particular flavour, because these are the people who will always play safe and pious: it is easier by far to profess evangelism than to understand entertainment. These are the women who do protest too much because they know too little; these are the men who pitch their tone high because they cannot pitch it mighty.

Since blanket condemnations may seem cowardly, and since it might be unfair to par- ticularise small people, let roe report a brief meeting with Sir Gerald Beadle, former Director of BBC TV, which surely epitomises much of this argument. At a party to celebrate his retire- ment, 1 asked Sir Gerald what he thought of the Daily Express campaign to promote colour tele- vision. It was, you might think, a question to provoke various responses—that the campaign was magnificent, or ill-informed, or ill-conceived, and so forth. Sir Gerald's reply was: 'Oh, we're not connected with the campaign, you know.' Colour TV might have been a Pilate programme.

And when I later asked for his views on the Third Channel, I was told: 'People are always asking me about a Third Channel, and my reply is that there is no Third Channel. You see, it's rather like going into a railway station and ask- ing when the train goes, when there's actuall no train at the platform.' And this was the man who saw Cecil McGivern go.

And certainly the BBC's future is partly a question of personalities—as it was, supremely, in Reith's reign. Indeed, part of the problem now is that because of the long-established hierarchy of power in the upper reaches of the Corpora- tion the representatives of TV can be counter- balanced by reverend, grey and impotent seniors from older branches of BBC broadcasting and technical activities who still think sound radio the major activity, rather as ,old Air Force officers might cherish a• deep affection for the biplane, out of date but still able to take the air with safety.

There is also the vast, vexed question—which, alas, it would probably be libellous to discuss in detail--of the way in which administrators consider it their right to interfere with ,pro- grammes, and people in Programme Contracts Department control programmes. The activities of this latter sharp-talking lot are again a fair example of the dichotomy—they make no true stand on either principle or practice. If you argue about a proposed fee, you can very likely

'How was that for Audience Participationr get more—which obviously suggests that you have been sold short in the first place: alterna- tively, you may well be bullied by some dulcet drill of a voice at the- far end into accepting a Poor fee, because, if you do not, she has to warn you that you may well not be used in future.

To this extent it may be much to the good that in Kenneth Adam television has an ener- getic and forceful Director, with long experience of journalism, publicity and public relations, which will enable him to put the case for tele- vision to its best advantage in the council chamber.

The practical future of BBC TV probably depends on the axis of power recently formed between Stuart Hood and Donald Baverstock. Mr. Hood, Controller of Programmes, is the dark outsider—terrific war record and radio back- ground which tends to put him in the position of a stylish master of the veleta who must now learn to rock 'n' roll. Obviously the danger is that he will imagine independence of mind to be a right to countermand one in ten of Mr. Baverstock's decisions. In the same wrong way, the marvellously dynamic, entirely televisual Assistant Controller Mr. Baverstock might become a BBC politician. Recently I heard him say that he saw somebody else's point of view : an ominous sign in somebody so little fitted to perform this dangerous exercise, because the whole strength of that dynamo is in being self-propelled, self-sufficient, sure. I am told that there is a group of older men and women to whom BBC now stands for Beware Baverstock Club : it is the best sign for years, because it means he might win. I am also told that from the beginning of October the Hood- Baverstock axis will really begin to exert an in- fluence—in which case I shall watch with great interest to see if I must still avoid Tab Hunter, Ask Anne, Crunch and Des, Our Mr. Ambler, Top Town, the Sunday film, Bonehead, Bronco and Cerddorfa Genedlaethol leuenctid Cymru.

Does all this add up to an implicit acceptance of Mr. Norman Collins's thesis that the BBC Should be content, in effect, to settle for a non- Profit-making minority role in the TV Spectacu- lar? Not altogether—if only because in practical terms the BBC is by now far too heavily com- mitted to the rat race for ratings. The reminder Which seems to me necessary is that the BBC must enter that race on its own terms, not on the ITV's. It is too late in the day to worry about Whether Reith was wrong : the fact is that he set his seal upon an organisation as definitively as Lord Beaverbrook upon his, and today it is as pointless to say that the BBC'would do well to reconsider its morality as it would be to send pro-Nkrumah letters to the Daily Express with any hope of changing its policy. The point is that strength of a cause has nothing to do with Its popularity—indeed, the very success of the Express is probably due in part to the fact that It is so unwavering. The BBC is on the road to disaster if it equates Right with Ratings. Their Right may not be mine or yours, but its Rightness has nothing to do with how many people believe m it; nor with protestations of Righteousness.

The essential element in television is vision— few have it, few care about it, as ITV proves. We need to call an Old World into being to redress the balance of the New.

There is much of a different kind to be said for the BBC, and I do not propose to say it now, because too many people have said it too often elsewhere: the grand job done in the war and the effect of our dispassionate cultural bulletins to Albania have nothing to do with the future of television now, which is what we should all be most concerned about. Reith may not have been impeccably right, but he was im- portant and his ideas were to be taken into account, and he gave the BBC a bias which it will not change by lurching its cargo over to the other side. Better to be regarded with exas- perated admiration, than with affectionate con- tempt.