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Forget The BBC TV Licence - What About the Detector Vans?

10/03/2014 14:54 GMT | Updated 10/05/2014 10:59 BST

As an institution, the BBC is not very popular. Over the last decade it has been involved in so many scandals that it's difficult to know where to start. The announcement that the government is looking to decriminalise non-payment of the TV licence fee is not such a big surprise. The government have been talking about it for so long, and it would be such a popular move, that it's very likely to go through.

The TV licence has always been a major issue for the BBC. After all, as the broadcasting expert David Elstein notes: "The BBC is the only organisation allowed to convert a civil debt into a criminal conviction." And the TV licence hits those at the bottom the hardest. More women than men are prosecuted for TV licence avoidance. They make up two thirds of the defendants and unemployed or low-paid women suffer the most. This being the case, and with the general election fast approaching, now is the perfect time for any government to get on the side of the Great British People.

But I prefer to leave the full dissection of this issue to others and focus on what really matters - TV detector vans!

I'm old enough to remember the fear and trembling associated with the dreaded TV detector van. I used to be obsessed with them - I remember her pointing out likely looking vans in the street! As a kid I viewed them with the same horror as I did the bogey man or the monster hiding under the bed: if you're a bad person the TV detector van will come and get you. Not that I've ever evaded the licence fee you understand and neither did my parents!

But the TV adverts of the time were enough to strike fear into any honest heart. This one below from, ironically, 1984 was clearly the inspiration for the famous 1987 AIDS awareness ad. And they both took their cue from the cold-war fear of nuclear bombs. Anyone nearing or over 40 can probably recall the way middle-class fathers seriously considered rushing out into the garden to dig a nuclear bomb shelter - as though that would have helped!

Video: BBC Detector Vans (1984)

This ad gives you some idea of the kind of fear the BBC wanted to produce. It shows just how serious they were about scaring the payment out of people. If they could have used real people instead of TV aerials in the ad; men and women shrivelling and turning to dust, they would have done. It was that important to them. The BBC has the right to state the truth - that it is a criminal offence to evade the licence. But was it really necessary to depict the consequences in such an outrageously doom-laden way? The AIDS awareness campaign - a greatly more significant and dangerous issue - obviously thought the detector-van advert was effective, hence their creation of this iconic ad:

Video:AIDS Public Information Film (1987)

Both ads clearly took their inspiration not only from the cold-war fears of the 1970s but also from the early Public Information Films. Aimed at pre-teen children and shown during their peak afternoon-viewing times, these days most of these ads would come with a 15 certificate at the very least. This one is particularly chilling - generations of adults now fear the sight of open water because of this film:

Video:The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water (1973)

One of the ironies of Public Information Films is that one of the very scariest of all uses Jimmy Saville - a famous BBC employee. It's worth viewing again today because I think Jimmy Saville's face close up in the camera, combined with the way he uses the word 'ladies', is infinitely more frightening than the young woman being catapulted through the car windscreen. Sad how the world has changed:

Video:Clunk Click (Even on the shortest trip) (C. 1971)

So what of the future of the detector van if the non-payment of the TV licence becomes a civil rather than a criminal offence?

Well, many believe that TV detector vans are in fact a myth. They don't exist. There are no surveillance vans roaming the streets with sophisticated equipment and burley blokes hidden in the back. If that is true then this BBC creation was just a scare tactic. All the adverts were based on a false premise. Dr Who transported into real life. That idea would have been shocking in 1984. But now, in 2014, we've all woken up to the fact that Auntie is not quite the benign, benevolent institution we once thought. Nowadays, the BBC's reputation is so tarnished that you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who would be surprised if TV detector vans were just a massive lie after all.