Monday, November 08, 2010

Not my favourite Auntie at the moment

I like Charlie Brooker. He makes me laugh. I met him for the first time just over a year ago at a party for Viz magazine's 30th birthday (see my write up here). He drank my allocation of wine as I was on antibiotics or a diet or possibly both and couldn't drink it myself. Oh no, I remember. I was taking part in 'No alcohol November' for charity. That was it. Anyway, Charlie was the beneficiary and he was charming and funny and not nearly as screwed up and demonstrative as you'd think. His TV shows always make me laugh out loud but it's his facility for savage review that floats my boat. His words are like a supersoaker water pistol squirting lemon juice into the eyes of his targets. And, more often than not, his targets are very deserving.

My current 'toilet book' (short self-contained chapters, nice soft paper) is his latest compilation of reviews and critiques, The Hell of it all. As every entry is dated, it's reading a diary of spleen. Squatting for a read earlier today I was struck by this paragraph from the 29th December 2007 entry entitled To Do List. It talks about the pointlessness of New Year's Resolutions that we all know we'll break within a week and then asks television broadcasters to set a few of their own including fewer talent shows (they didn't listen), to stop squashing the end credits of programmes and shouting all over them (they still didn't listen), and to exploit the (then) ongoing US writer's strike to develop and create good British TV shows (Oh, what's the point). But then we get this little gem:

'Promote quality programmes: Contrary to popular belief, the networks DO make quality programmes. They just don't tell anyone about them. It's like they're embarrassed. Do you really need a break bumper every five seconds reminding you that The X Factor exists? No. Besides, crap sells itself. Rechannelling those insane marketing budgets into enthusiastically promoting the pearls among the slop might raise viewing figures, and perhaps more importantly, improve TV's reputation. Even if no one watches, at least they know you tried.'

Isn't that the truth? It's hard for me to relate this to ITV as there's barely anything I ever want to watch on their channels. SKY, whatever other faults it may have, is not backwards in coming forward and advertising its wares. Major sporting events and homegrown shows like An idiot abroad and A league of their own are almost annoyingly over-promoted prior to every transmitted episode (An idiot abroad even had a half hour teaser trailer show devoted to it). Even the bought-in imports like House, Fringe, Bones and Modern Family get plenty of bigging up before the shows begin their runs. SKY cannot be said to hide its laurels. Channel 4 and Five similarly do tend to trail their better shows. But what about the BBC?

How many of you knew that David Attenborough's extraordinary new series First Life started on BBC2 last Friday? Sorry, you missed it. And it's the great man's final series too. How many of you missed an episode of the new QI series because you'd set your planners for the Saturday XL edition which, without warning, the BBC stopped broadcasting a fortnight ago leaving us with only the neutered and less funny 8.30pm Friday edition? How many of you missed the fact that Horizon had returned? And what the hell was going on with Dave Gorman's Genius show? No trails. No promotion. Stuck in a 10pm slot on a Monday night ... and then the final episode shown on Sunday - the day before it should have been shown - and at 11pm! No warning. No nothing. Many of my friends missed it as the result (although they have since caught the repeats or watched it on YouTube). All of these shows are tried and trusted audience pleasers. They're smart, well made, often educational and very entertaining. So why have they been treated so badly?

It's a marked difference from the way that some other shows are treated. Strictly come dancing gets endless trails and promos and a spin-off show that dissects what we've already seen. The same happens whenever Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber promotes another of his stage shows by building a 'let's find a new Nancy/Joseph/Dorothy' reality show around auditions. Eastenders gets trailed despite the fact that it'll be Londoners shouting at each other whatever episode you watch (I challenge you. Randomly change channel to BBC1 during any episode of Eastenders and I bet you there'll be someone shouting at someone else). I can't bear soaps or reality shows generally but they have a place in the schedules because a lot of other people do like them. All I would argue is that all good quality shows should get the same treatment.

Can you imagine Eastenders being taken off the air for cricket or snooker? It happens all the time to the sorts of shows I like to watch. And don't tell me it's all about viewing figures. Firstly, the BBC doesn't have to bow to those pressures quite so much as they have the licence fee and a corporation mission statement established 80 years ago by John Reith to 'educate, inform and entertain'. Secondly, programmes like QI are enormously popular (and meet Reith's criteria in full) and pull in excellent figures. So why then were half of last year's XL editions never shown and why were they pulled off air this year to make way for documentaries about, and gigs by, ageing rockers Elton John, Robert Plant and Neil Diamond? Aren't they more suited to BBC4? Or why not move QIXL to BBC3 or BBC4 and show this as original content rather than yet more repeats of Merlin, Doctor Who and Eastenders? Much as we all love those shows, they're already endlessly circling on Dave (part-owned by the BBC) and GOLD. Surely original and hugely popular programmes should get first dibs?

And while we're on the subject of repeats, where was the 40th anniversary celebration of The Goodies this week? A half hour documentary by Ross Noble on Radio 4 last Saturday, that's where. Arguably one of the BBC's most popular comedy shows ever and hugely influential ... and yet not a single episode to be seen across all four BBC channels. It's a disgrace. I can only assume it's because the bright young things in smart suits at Broadcasting House were all born in the 1980s and have no fond memories of Kitten Kong, giant Dougals, Ecky Thump and the Funky Gibbon. The Goodies was treated deplorably with the arrival of so-called 'alternative comedy' and ended up in the unfashionable bin with Benny Hill and others. It saddens me that there's a whole generation of young men and women out there who have never seen the show.
There's no doubt the BBC is faced with a tough few years ahead. There are threats to funding and to the corporation's unique position of not having to rely on advertising and sponsorship. Mitch Benn is currently thundering up the charts with his rallying cry of 'Proud of the BBC'. I'm proud enough to have bought the T shirt and there I am wearing it at a quiz I hosted at the Frontline Club last week. It's a time when Auntie should be calling in the faithful to bolster defences and support her to the death. But that means all of us, not just the people who like soaps and reality shows.

Dear BBC - Give your quality shows decent billing; at least as much as the populist shows which, as Charlie Brooker so rightly said, don't need billing at all. Put them on at sensible times. Trail them and be proud to boast about them. And don't take them off the air just because you can't find a slot for other programmes you want to show. You have four channels to play with; surely some repeats could be dropped if needed?

I am proud of the BBC but I'm finding it harder and harder to wear my T shirt with pride.

1 comment:

Winifred said...

I agree with all those suggestions you made. You're right only BBC One gets the endless trailers of the same programmes.

We don't do SKY, won't support the evil empire so we watch a lot of the BBC channels & ITV3, some Five USA but not a lot of ITV1, only the drama such as Foyle's War & Downton Abbey. Shame they cut back on their detective dramas they need a replacement for Frost!

It's shameful about the Goodies. Heard them interviewed this afternoon on Radio 2 Steve Wright's show and had a good laugh. Apparently they can't make any more programmes due to Health & Safety regs. Can't get insurance even to ride a bike nowadays. Crazy isn't it. We'll just have to maek do with the DVDs. Ah those were the days!