I love the BBC.
I will gladly fight anybody who calls for its dismantling or questions its pedigree. I will gasp at a Doctor Who slur, rebuff a Blue Peter insult and smack down a Monty Python dismissal (although, equally, there's nothing more annoying than a Monty Python enthusiast attempting to recreate their delicate magic). I have a lot of faith in the BBC and its guiding principle - to inform, educate and entertain. When you consider that basically every other broadcaster in the country exists only to profit, grow and profit more and grow more - it's a pretty wonderful thing the BBC is striving for.
As much as I love it, it's hard to ignore that it is in a rather strange phase of existence. Our lovely Tory government's choice to freeze the TV licence hits the institution with increasing brutality each year. It would be an easy gambit for any politician to win votes by calling for the scrapping of the licence but once we lose the BBC, we've lost something we'll never regain. Public minded aspirational television. It's my love for the Beeb which makes me wonder about even writing this particular post as I prefer to rally against shit things rather than kick a good thing while it's down.
So, I want to make it very clear that this is not in any way a rallying cry against the BBC, merely against some of the choices its executive level have been making.
Now, it has to be said there have been some spectacularly strange choices made in the management of the organization recently. The choice to sell the iconic Television Centre building and move a considerable proportion of operations to Salford still baffles me. I personally don't see a nation's publicly-funded television service being mainly in that nation's capital as a bad thing at all. At the risk of incurring wrath, I'd say the vast majority of anything politically and culturally important happens, or is at least processed, in London. But these are not the things at the forefront of my mind right now. The thing I've been taking issue with lately is the BBC's bizarre course of re-branding exercises.
To my mind, it started with Masterchef. A show that my family would all sit and watch together on a Sunday afternoon. Now, I have to say that I actually really enjoy what it became, more on the grounds of audacity than quality. I take great amusement at a bald 'ingredients expert' barking at housewives and an Australian pouter who can't say the word 'brilliant' constantly using the word 'brilliant'. I love the very concept of 'cooking doesn't get tougher than this' because... well... cooking was never supposed to. It's cooking! I could never have predicted a cookery show which uses the soundtrack from The Terminator as its underscore and I drool over the prospect of a similarly militarily aggressive show about embroidery or gardening.
As I say, I really do enjoy watching Masterchef now for it's sheer hyperbole and drama but there's also a part of me which says "I kind of miss that thing where three bored suburbanites calmly cook a three course meal of great pretension whilst Loyd Grossman slithers about between them. Why does this have to be a do-or-die life-changing journey for the contestants?" Isn't there room for both of these shows? Why couldn't the Masterchef reboot have just been a different show? Why couldn't they have existed side-by-side? They could have found a far more suitable name for the new derivation - Uberchef, Chefpatch Deathmatch, RARRRRRRRRRRRRRR GRRRRRR HNNNNNN COOKING, YOU BASTARD!, the possibilities are literally limitless.
It all ties into this insidious need for something creatively successful to become a brand. Remakes/reboots and sequels are both the scourge and commercial lifeblood of cinema right now - to the point where the posters around London currently for the film Journey 2 make me suspicious if this might be the world's first sequel which doesn't actually follow a previous film. I've certainly never heard of a film called Journey starring The Rock. I understand why the film industry does this... but why the BBC? They can only show so many programmes a day and are probably the best established platform in the world for innovative new television. As an audience, we're open to new concepts without old titles.
A couple of weeks ago, I was shocked and delighted to find out that one of my favourite ever TV shows was to return to the BBC. I had never understood why they cancelled Room 101, it was the simplest, most effective format and couldn't have been expensive to produce as it consisted merely of a host and one guest in a small studio discussing the things that guest would like to consign to the eponymous room created by George Orwell where one is subjected to their worst nightmares.
In the context of this series, Room 101 became a fictional warehouse where people could send, if successfully justified, the things that most annoyed them, to be locked away forever. The show was pitched as a comedy but on reflection it presents itself as one of the greatest concepts for a chat show ever. Rather than appearing to plug their latest book/film/show/tour or rattle out well-rehearsed celebrity anecdotes, the guests here were stealthily encouraged to reveal things about their lives and personalities that wouldn't surface publicly in any other forum. These manifested in gloriously tetchy stories or sublime rants. First host Nick Hancock and then Paul Merton were the perfect sardonic sounding-boards for such vitriol and frustration and to keep it all light-hearted. The concept of what a person hates is a truly unique angle to get an insight into them. And it worked so well on the full spectrum of emotion.
Bill Bailey's tear-inducingly hilarious deconstruction of Chris De Burgh's "terrible, monumental smugness". Boris Johnson's constantly illuminating appearance included an absolutely bizarre issue with boiled eggs (he had no problem with scrambled eggs or omelettes). Julian Clary rather emotionally and convincingly tried to reject the cruelty of the short lifespan of dogs as he discussed his ailing sidekick Fanny the Wonderdog and how she was probably just hanging on for his sake. As one might expect, Stephen Fry's entire episode is an erudite dismissal of all things unnecessary including an intelligent and scathing attack on New Age spiritualism and its rejection of science.
Some of these shows are downright definitive. The John Peel, Linda Smith and Spike Milligan episodes stand as wonderful tributes and epitaphs to their unique personalities and genius.
The rebrand sees Frank Skinner in a panel-show format where three celebrity guests get to nominate items, on a selected theme, for the room. Don't get me wrong, it's a lot of fun and under any other title, I'd enjoy it but not cherish it as I did the original. The exact notion of constraining the guests to a theme (animals, celebrities, etc) along with having three of them in half an hour, denies us the chance to really get to know them in a meaningful way.
Top of my hatelist in this category, however, has to be Film 2012, which is the world's worst example of if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it ignorance. This is a format which has worked since Barry Norman first 'And Why Not'-ed in 1972. A man in a chair tells you about the week's film releases with a strong critical view, interspersed with interviews (conducted by him) and the occasional short feature on some aspect of the film industry. When Norman found pastures new, he was replaced, excellently, by Jonathan Ross but the format remained the same. Some BBC exec clearly didn't understand the concept that it was this perfection of format which had ensured it's longevity and missed the most patently obvious replacement for the needlessly-disgraced Ross, which was to retain the format and chair and sit stalwart film-critic/personality Mark Kermode in it. I wasn't even much of a fan of Kermode before reading his book last year (I felt he'd built a career purely on having seen The Exorcist and telling us that ad nauseum, I rather like him now, though) but it was even obvious to me.
Instead, the BBC rebranded in the worst way imaginable. They bought in Claudia Winkleman. A strange creature whose schtick seems to be appearing as some kind of cultural everyman in shows in which she proclaims or displays great ignorance about the subject at hand whilst someone smarter but less tangibly attractive explains things at her. In Film 2012, she offers facile observations about a film (including how she compares physically to the leading lady, that kind of thing) whilst a dull pasty-faced print-based film critic tries to sound a bit more clued-up in her direction.
A range of other film critics of varying degrees of competence and comfort of being filmed offer short sharp perfunctory features on filmy subjects for no apparent reason. Most ludicrous of all is that the show is broadcast live. Comprised mainly of filmed interviews, pre-recorded features and film clips, the only live section is the reviews themselves which seem to be punctuated by fluffs and excuses that it is, after all, very late. I'm not sure what audience this show is intended for. Norman and Ross had an understanding with their audience - firstly that the audience were not idiots but just there to get a concise, intelligent appraisal of the week's releases and to enjoy some illuminating complementary reports. This new version seems geared to people who have a vague passing interest in film, little knowledge of its history and a desperately short attention span.
Again, I'm sure there was room for a show like this: Film For Dummies, Filmz R Gr8, Winklemess Live. But why kill something that worked SO well for its name alone?
So, just to be sure, I do love the BBC, but the things I shall be consigning to Room 101 are:
- The de-centralisation of the BBC
- People who do Monty Python impersonations
- The needless rebranding of television shows
- Claudia Fucking Winkleman.
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