1 September 2001

Television in the UK has always been intensely metropolitan in its basis – the main reason why the regional structure of ITV was such a revelation when it began was that it broke down the London-centric official culture of the old BBC. But while the “London culture” has changed inexorably since the 1950s – most obviously through the rise of multiculturalism and the fading of all echoes of imperial power – it still holds a considerable pull over UK broadcasting, in all its forms. It is safe to dismiss the claims of a tiny fringe that BBC Radio One’s playlist is a conspiracy on behalf of multiculturalism as extreme right-wing lunacy, but there are other much more serious and convincing arguments.

While the BBC in London imposes a fixed style upon all its regional news programmes – a style I very much like, and which has improved the look of Spotlight in the south-west immeasurably – but which could easily be seen as detracting from local distinctiveness, it is prepared to deviate from this style massively for its new BBC LDN news service. It seems the BBC recognises the differences between London and “the provinces” but is less prepared to acknowledge the differences between the various “provincial” areas of the UK.

Admittedly, the BBC’s regional service for London was once practically non-existent, showing financial news or Tom and Jerry cartoons while the rest of the UK had the lunchtime and teatime regional bulletins, but the recent hype over BBC LDN has maybe – just maybe – gone too far the other way.

On 19th October 2000, the Thursday night regional opt-out on BBC-2 was given over to a strand of programmes entitled “Think of England”, in which a different programme was shown in all the English regions pondering what it now means to be English and to “belong” to a particular area. I can’t comment on the other regions’ contributions, but BBC South West’s offering was atrocious, going around one particular village in Devon asking people how they defined themselves and what living there meant for them. It worked at an unbelievably simplistic level, seemingly based around the principle of “ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer”, with villagers providing self-definitions that almost sounded like they had been scripted for them, as used to happen when BBC Radio went out into “the field” in the 1930s. Concluding with a piece of music and sequence of images that resembled an advert for The People’s Friend, it seemed like a particularly tacky commercial offering, based around attractive images and pat one-line statements, and certainly did nothing for the BBC’s reputation as an organisation that understands life in the whole of Britain as it is lived today.

On a similar theme, it’s worth remembering the period in the 1970s when the BBC’s regional opt-outs for the North of England seemed to feature an alarming amount of traditional folk music with groups like The Spinners, The Houghton Weavers, and The Fivepenny Piece. While this culture could still provide hit singles at the time – the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band’s “Floral Dance” and Brian and Michael’s “Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs” come instantly to mind – to base so many regional programmes around it seems like a pretty narrow and backward picture, even for that era, compared with the diversity of Northern life reflected in Granada and Yorkshire’s regional output.

Multi-channel television, for all its multifarious shortcomings, at least offers a record of the ephemera of the last few decades that just didn’t exist previously. Twenty years ago, any television footage of Britain in the early 1960s was quite a rare event on television, and one which enthusiasts would look forward to, but in October this year Sky Digital subscribers could see, on one fairly typical day, a picture of the early 1980s in London (“Minder” on Granada Plus), Liverpool (“The Boys From The Blackstuff” on UK Drama) and the north of Scotland (the first series of “Treasure Hunt” on Challenge TV).

Frequently this provides fascinating moments, such as the speech patterns that London children were assumed to have back in 1980 in the second series of “Minder”: admittedly, they were probably actors from stage schools, most likely from middle-class backgrounds, but it would be absolutely unthinkable now for the traditional “wideboy” cockney accents they affected to be presented as the sound of London youth. These days they would probably put on the new hybridised accent associated with the UK Garage and hip-hop scenes, and it was a fascinating insight into how growing racial integration in London has revolutionised the speech patterns among its youth over the last twenty-odd years.

Likewise, to hear the jokes about Oldham Athletic Football Club on a 1979 episode of “The Comedians” on Granada Plus, the titular stand-up acts being mostly Northern working-class men with generally Neanderthal attitudes towards women and ethnic minorities, kick-starts an intriguing set of thought processes relating to the apparent refusal to accept and encourage multiculturalism among the local authorities, which has been said to have contributed to the riots in that town earlier this year.

Used lazily and indulgently, the unprecedented insight into attitudes of the recent past that digital television provides us is just another opportunity for ignorant sniggering. Used properly, it is a fascinating account of how television has seen the world, and comparisons between its worldview and your own, especially when you compare and contrast TV’s picture of a particular place and time that you yourself experienced with how it seemed to you.

No doubt there are a great many viewers – especially, perhaps, in London and the counties surrounding it – who see the regional stereotyping to which television descends in its less intelligent and informed moments as nothing to worry about, and maybe even just a reflection of what they assume to be “the truth”. But there are those of us who feel that the attitude that some television people take to “the provinces” borders on abuse of power, and those who see things this way have a duty to study these aspects of TV with an extremely critical eye.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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