Charles Curran Revisited 

1 July 2007

Charles Curran, the BBC Director General from April 1969 to September 1977, has often been given an unfair press. Over the years he has been described as a reactionary, the man who destroyed Monty Python (seemingly the Python team were moved from an office in Television Centre into a shed during their last series and had their budget cut, so there is a grain of truth in this), the man who wrote letters to Mary Whitehouse about the amount of violence in Doctor Who and, most notoriously, as a tool of the establishment and having a bias towards the Conservatives.

Certainly, after the liberalisation of the Hugh Carleton-Greene years, there was bound to be a swing in the other direction, and perhaps Curran was reflecting the trend at the end of the sixties, when the Labour Home Secretary James Callaghan, whose party had been behind most of the liberalisation of the decade, declared, “The permissive society has gone far enough.” Curran was a man who was just right for the more cautious times ahead.

Charles Curran was born in 1921, and was the first BBC director general to have attended a grammar school. After Oxford and military service in the Second World War, Curran joined the BBC in its Talks department in 1947, worked in various positions in the Overseas Service and rose in 1967 to the position of Director of External Services, perhaps appropriate for him as he spoke French and German fluently. In April 1969 he was chosen to replace Hugh Carleton-Greene as Director General by BBC chairman, Lord Hill, who had a dislike of Greene and wanted a DG more in his own mould.

Curran inherited a BBC that had changed massively in the sixties, and in most cases for the better. At the start of the decade it was an incredibly stuffy organisation whose Television Service was boring and underfunded, and whose programmes rarely troubled the ratings Top Twenty, while BBC Radio, or Sound Broadcasting as it was called until 1967, was extremely out of touch with trends in popular culture such as rock and roll, and whose Light Programme was stuck in the forties and hated by younger listeners.

Greene had been desperate to reverse a situation at the BBC where ITV was taking 73 per cent of the audience and where, in the middle of the sixties, the Light Programme received a huge challenge from the pirate pop stations. The Corporation totally reinvented itself in the sixties: drama series such as Z Cars, where the police behaved in a proto-Sweeney fashion, were totally removed from the homely world of Dixon of Dock Green, the innovative and often controversial Wednesday Plays were light years ahead of the twee and quaint Sunday Plays that viewers recalled from the fifties, and uncontroversial entertainment shows like The Billy Cotton Band Show gave way to biting satire of the TW3 variety and controversial and extremely funny sitcoms like Till Death Us Do Part and Steptoe and Son, which attracted audiences of over 20 million viewers. The creation of BBC2 in 1964 was also highly acclaimed, as the BBC now had a station devoted to minority interests, and the station could take some of the more intellectual programming from BBC1, so the channel could compete more effectively with ITV. Changes at the BBC led Dennis Potter to comment about the Corporation in the sixties, “There were some nights you would only watch BBC Television as the programmes were so good.” By the mid-sixties the BBC had more or less caught up with ITV in the ratings, and the situation at the end of the fifties, where ITV was seen as the innovator and the BBC as staid and outdated, seemed to have been reversed as ITV, while still very good, was far less adventurous and exciting than the new-look BBC.

However, the modernisation that had taken place at BBC Television took longer to occur at BBC Radio. Until the pirate stations arrived in April 1964, the BBC Light Programme was the only radio station in Britain for pop music, and apart from Pick of the Pops and Saturday Club, played very little pop music at other times, relying on a schedule derided by Kenny Everett in his autobiography as “gardening, recipes and Rostropovitch’s Symphony in L.” When the pirate stations opened in 1964, Light Programme audience figures tumbled. “There was scarcely a radio in the South East that was tuned to the BBC”, recalled Everett of his days at pirate station Radio London, although this might be an exaggeration as the Light still attracted 20 million listeners a week; but it was not until the pirates were outlawed in the summer of 1967 that the BBC was persuaded to open a pop station, although the Corporation had been toying with the idea for a so-called Radio 247 since August 1966.

However, the opening of Radio 1 saw a dramatic change to BBC Radio presentation. Instead of announcers introducing records played by technicians and working from a script, Radio 1 used ex-pirate disc jockeys who sounded far more laid back, worked ‘self-op’, in which they drove their own desks, were unscripted and had far more freedom than they would have had at the Light Programme. “Auntie has lifted her skirt at last”, was how the Daily Express announced the launch of the new station. The successor to the Light Programme, Radio 2, while more genteel than Radio 1, also moved over to a disc jockey style of format that proved very successful.

Not everyone was welcoming of the changes at the BBC in the sixties. The launch of programmes such as Steptoe and Son and Till Death Us Do Part, the latter where bigot Alf Garnett ranted on about the state of the world and prefaced most of his outbursts with the word “bloody”, infuriated more sensitive viewers who could not come to terms with the way Auntie had changed since 1959. Leader of the moralists was Mary Whitehouse and her National Viewers and Listeners Association, which was to prove a permanent thorn in the side of Greene. Whitehouse declared of Greene,”If you were to ask me to name the one man who more than anybody else had been responsible for the moral collapse in this country,” she boomed, “I would name Greene.”

Also, in common with most other post-war Prime Ministers, Harold Wilson was paranoid about the BBC, believing it to be run by Conservatives and its journalism to be biased against him, while being more at home with ITV, which he probably believed was more sympathetic to him because it was more popular with Labour voters at the time. The replacement of the liberal reformer Roy Jenkins as Home Secretary in October 1967 by the more socially-conservative James Callaghan saw that the permissive society, which the BBC to an extent had become part of, was under attack. Wilson appointed the former Radio Doctor and Conservative Minister, Lord Hill, who was no lover of the Greene regime, as Chairman of the BBC in August 1968 in an attempt to destroy Greene. In April 1969 Greene resigned as DG and was replaced by the far more conservative( possibly big C as well) Charles Curran, head of external broadcasting, who believed the BBC should behave more cautiously and accomodate the views of people like Mary Whitehouse.

Curran took over the BBC at an exciting time for the Corporation, where the innovations of the Greene era still had plenty of mileage left and where morale was high.

The first major policy innovation was the Broadcasting in the Seventies report, published in July 1969, which was to tidy up the cluttered nature of the BBC’s radio networks since the reorganisation in September 1967 which had seen Radio 1 created. Radio 1, as it was devoted to pop music, was to see little change, but was to receive an extra two hours a day of airtime from April 1970.

However, the main changes were to occur with the cluttered and disjointed nature of programming on the BBC’s other three networks from April 1970. Radio sport was spread across three networks: Radio 2 broadcast weekday sport, Radio 3 broadcast Saturday afternoon sport under the Sports Session banner( a name inerited from the Third Programme era) and test matches, while Radio 4 continued to broadcast international rugby union, regional sport and Wimbledon finals. From April 6th 1970, except for Test Match Special on Radio 3, all sport was moved to Radio 2, as it had far better reception than Radio 3 on AM and the long running Sport on 2 began.

Other changes saw Radio 3, which continued with its pre-1967 strands of Sports Session, Network 3 and Third Porgramme, lose these seperate strands in favour of a unified image; classical music programmes that were still broadcast on Radio 4 were moved to Radio 3, which was relaunched as a station devoted to classical music, serious drama, intellectual debate and Open University broadcasts. Radio 2 also moved Woman’s Hour across to Radio 4 from April 1970 as the speech-based programme was seen as more suited to a speech station than a music channel. However, one change that was suspended until April 1973 was to move Radio 4’s schools broadcasts to FM-only, as it was felt at the time that many schools, which did not have FM radios, would lose out if the broadcasts were moved from AM.

Broadcasting in the Seventies established a template that would serve BBC Radio and its listeners very well for the next twenty years. Radio 1 was to remain the BBC’s principal pop and rock station, Radio 2 was to concentrate on light music, comedy, sport and musical features, Radio 3 became the principal network for classical music, Open University broadcasts, serious drama and programmes of an intellectual nature (leading the Sunday Times to call it “an intellectual’s sandpit”), while Radio 4 was devoted to speech programming and became the BBC’s news and information service.

BBC Television News, which broadcast from cramped and inadequate facilities at Alexandra Palace, eight miles from the Television Centre, was finally moved to spacious and purpose-built studios inside Television Centre in September 1969, in anticipation of the introduction of colour on BBC1, where most BBC news bulletins were broadcast. Alexandra Palace became the production centre for Open University broadcasts.

However, the biggest change occured when BBC1 introduced colour broadcasts on November 15th 1969. BBC2 had been broadcasting in colour for the previous two years, but the high cost of colour televisions and the fact that colour was not available on the populist BBC1 and ITV, whose colour broadcasts also started on November 15th, saw sales of colour televisions grow at a snail’s pace. The introduction of colour on BBC1 saw sales of colour televisions quadruple in the space of a year, and the boom in colour television sales in the early seventies also benefited the BBC’s income, as the higher cost of colour licences saw the BBC’s revenue rise significantly. Even for viewers who had black and white dual-standard televisions, the move to 625 lines UHF on BBC1, and indeed ITV, allowed for better picture quality. From a presentation point of view, the move to colour saw the introduction of what was in the present author’s opinion the best BBC1 ident of all time, the blue globe with “BBC1 Colour” underneath, even better when the “Colour” was changed to an italicised serif font in 1972.

Curran’s first twelve months were like ‘business as usual’, as the Corporation had remained innovative, and changes like the introduction of colour broadcasts on BBC1 showed that it was not prepared to fall behind ITV – even if Curran was not as progressive as Greene. However, the more conservative path the BBC was to take in the seventies began to emerge at the start of the decade, and in 1971 the Corporation would have a massive run-in with the Labour Party that would lead to allegations of right-wing bias for the rest of the decade.

Kenny Everett had little to be thankful for under the new regime, although he did not do himself any favours by referring to his employers as “pinstripe princes who know nothing about pop music” and “dull, dull, dull, the BBC is no place to be” in the press, and was under threat of dismissal if he did not keep his mouth shut. However, this maverick DJ, with his disregard for any kind of authority, had caught the disapproving eye of the new Managing Director of Radio, Ian Trethowan, and Curran, who both saw him as a dangerous loose cannon even if his radio shows attracted huge audiences.

Everett was finally caught out in July 1970 when he told ten million listeners that the only reason the wife of the new Transport Secretary passed her driving test was by bribing the driving examiner. This led to complaints from the House of Commons and Everett was fired, even if the joke was meant to be tongue in cheek. However, Everett was reinstated the following year, after a Bring Back Everett campaign, but his show was pre-recorded and effectively censored. An interesting parallel with the Kenny Everett furore was the way the Corporation treated remarks by fellow Radio 1 DJ Tony Blackburn four years later about striking miners, saying they should be thankful they lived in a free country and should go back to work. This led to complaints from the NUM, but rather than dismissing Blackburn for expressing overtly political opinions, he received a mild reprimand. It is probable that in the culture of Curran’s BBC, Everett’s joke about the wife of a Conservative minister was far more serious than Blackburn expressing his dislike of striking miners, which led again to accusations of bias at the Corporation.

Harold Wilson’s suspicions of bias at the BBC came to a head with the notorious Yesterday’s Men documentary broadcast in August 1971. After a balanced and fair documentary about Edward Heath’s first year in office, the Yesterday’s Men documentary was probably the most notorious political programme ever broadcast. Wilson was effectively pilloried during the programme which contained a satirical song by The Scaffold and sarcastic questioning from David Dimbleby about how much Wilson had profited from his memoirs, although after a shouting match in the studio Dimbleby’s question was removed from the transmitted programme. The BBC on its BBC Under Pressure microsite on refers to the way Labour politicians were treated as, “They were effectively tricked into taking part in a programme that would ridicule them.” Even the name of the programme was sarcastic, suggesting that Labour had become irrelevant and used a term Labour used to refer to the Tories in the sixties.

Wilson was understandably furious, and the BBC embarassed, at broadcasting a programme that appeared so hostile to the former Prime Minister. The BBC Under Pressure feature recalls of Yesterday’s Men, “Had Wilson and his front-benchers known, for example, that the programme would take as its title a soundbite from their own campaign against the Conservatives (they called the Tories “yesterday’s men”), they would not have agreed to take part. Later Huw Wheldon, Managing Director of BBC Television, conceded that it was like making a programme about doctors and calling it Quack Quack.” Wilson’s Press Secretary, Joe Haines, referred to the programme as “calculated, deliberate, continuous deceit”. Relations with Labour were to remain fraught, with Wilson almost boycotting the Corporation during his opposition years, and the Corporation took years to live down accusations of Conservative bias, while the sarcastic and derogatory programme badly tarnished the BBC’s image.

Not that Curran was immune to criticism from the Conservatives during his early years in office, although relations with Edward Heath were mostly good, and Heath was keen to appear on a broadcast celebrating the Corporation’s 50th anniversary in 1972.

The early seventies were a very traumatic time if you lived in Northern Ireland, or if you were a soldier serving over there. The Troubles had started in the summer of 1969 and sectarian violence was at its height in 1971-72 with terrorist violence occuring almost every day and the province almost on the verge of civil war.

BBC News had a duty to report the horrors occuring in Northern Ireland, but knew it had to be even-handed so as not to be seen as favouring one side over the other, although the Corporation had no truck with the IRA, Lord Hill referring to the Corporation as “between the British Army and the gunmen, the BBC is not, and cannot be, impartial’. However, the even-handed way the BBC tried to cover Northern Ireland events did lead to concerns from the government that it was not rigorous enough in condemning the IRA. The then-Postmaster General, Christopher Chataway, advised the BBC in 1971 of “the values and the objectives of the society they are there to serve”, by which he meant that they should take a less impartial line vis a vis terrorism in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland was to be the only significant run-in Curran’s BBC would have with the Conservative government, however. The BBC had announced in late 1971 that it was to hold a televised debate with people from all sides of the Northern Ireland political spectrum, including the controversial republican Bernadette Devlin, over the future of the province. Reginald Maudling, the Home Secretary, was not impressed and demanded a meeting with Charles Curran and Lord Hill to ask for the programme to be postponed or cancelled. There were also concerns that the programme could be dominated by extreme elements in the province as there was no representation from moderate Unionists. The BBC decided to postpone The Question of Ulster, but stated that they still wanted to broadcast it.

As news of the postponement broke, an anonymous document circulated within the BBC claiming that programme-makers were “meeting increasing pressure to hold back or censor news and current affairs items from Northern Ireland…. Pressure comes from Heads of departments in BBC Northern Ireland and England, who now openly act as censors”. However, the programme was saved by the willingness of Ulster Unionist MP at Westminster, Jack Maginnis, to appear, and the BBC pressed ahead with its intended transmission on 5th January. In an open letter to Lord Hill on the day of transmission, Maudling wrote, ‘I believe that this programme, in the form in which it has been devised, can do no good, and could do serious harm’.

Previously Robin Day had withdrawn because he considered the programme unbalanced: Ludovic Kennedy took his place as chairman. Lord Devlin, who appeared on condition that internment wasn’t discussed, headed the panel of inquiry, which included Lord Caradon and Sir John Foster. The Labour Opposition’s views were represented by a specially pre-recorded statement from Harold Wilson. In order to present Conservative Government and Unionist Government views, a pre-Christmas interview with Maudling, and an extract from a speech by the Northern Ireland prime minister was used. ‘Live’ contributions came from Bernadette Devlin, Gerry Fitt, Jack Maginnis, and Ian Paisley amongst others. Lord Caradon summed up by saying “We may have been dull, but I don’t think we have been dangerous” – a view generally shared by the press the next day. Milton Schulman wrote (Evening Standard, 6 Jan. 1972), “The idea that Lord Hill and Charles Curran and the present set of BBC governors would deliberately be parties to any telly event that might inadvertently inflame or exacerbate the unrest in Ulster is as ludicrous as the prospect of the Archbishop of Canterbury insisting that Anglican services be held in strip-tease clubs. Under its present hierarchy, the BBC has relentlessly pursued a cautious, timorous neutered approach to politics and current affairs.”

When subsequent talks between Maudling and the SDLP failed to take place, Maudling blamed the programme for having encouraged the SDLP to harden their attitudes. However, this incident was the only occasion the BBC would fall foul of the Conservatives, and as noted above, Heath was not interested in a witch-hunt against the Corporation and The Question of Ulster crisis soon died down. When pressed at the time about left- or right-wing bias at the BBC, Curran jokingly replied, “The BBC is biased in favour of parliamentary democracy.”

Despite a bruising five month period when the Corporation was under attack from both main parties, morale at the BBC remained high and viewers and listeners were mostly impressed with its output. September 1971 was to see the start of the legendary BBC1 Saturday night schedule that was to include such massive ratings hits as Doctor Who, The Generation Game, Parkinson and The Two Ronnies. For the next ten years the BBC was to regularly wipe the floor with ITV on Saturday nights and, until Michael Grade decided to mount a serious challenge to the BBC in the late seventies, ITV seemed to regularly wave the white flag. As Saturday was then the day when the biggest ratings could be achieved, winning the Saturday night ratings war, admittedly with not much opposition from ITV, was vital for the BBC as memories of the ratings slump of the late fifties were still fresh in many executives minds.

The residents of Birmingham also received their second-purpose built broadcasting complex under the Curran regime, although construction of Pebble Mill had started in 1967. Work had started on the ATV Centre in 1967 and, not to be outdone, the BBC decided that it would move from its cramped and aged facilities in the city centre to a purpose-built studio centre in leafy Edgbaston which would open in November 1971.

Although Curran was not responsible for the construction of Pebble Mill, he had very high ambitions for the site, as he wanted it to be more than just another regional studio centre. The decision was taken before the studios were opened that Pebble Mill, which was nearly the same size as Television Centre, was to take a leading role in the BBC. Pebble Mill, apart from being the headquarters of BBC Midlands and Radio Birmingham, was also to be the headquarters of English regional television: its five television studios were to be used for live shows with an audience (the long-running Pebble Mill magazine show was to start four months after the studios opened) and drama productions, while The Archers was to be broadcast from Pebble Mill, the studios would house the Midlands Radio Orchestra and contribute music programmes to Radios 2 and 3. Pebble Mill, until it closed in 2004, was to be the BBC’s second biggest television studio complex and the building became very familiar to viewers of daytime television in the seventies and eighties as it was used for the eponymous lunchtime show that broadcast from the centre.

For all the criticisms that he was a reactionary and illiberal, Curran did genuinely love the organisation he worked for, and wanted to promote it as much as possible. 1972 was the 50th anniversary of the BBC, and Curran decided that the Corporation should promote its golden anniversary as much as possible. A month of programmes took place celebrating the BBC’s 50th birthday. Ian Jones on the Off the Telly website wrote of Curran’s love of the BBC, “Alongside the obsession with convention and pedantry, however, came numerous instances of the devotion and zeal the man held for the Corporation: writing sleeve notes for an LP celebrating 50 years of the BBC in 1972 and turning up at the 1977 Eurovision Song Contest to present the winner’s trophy.” Curran also, wherever possible, promoted the BBC abroad and drove to export its programmes to Europe, no doubt helped by the fact he was a first-rate linguist.

1972 also saw Lord Hill, who tended to interfere too much in the running of the BBC and had been responsible for the resignation of Hugh Carleton-Greene in 1969, stand down as chairman. Although of a similar political and cultural outlook, Hill and Curran had never got on particularly well, Curran considering Hill as having too much power, and Curran was probably relieved when he stood down. Hill’s successor, the former Vice Chancellor of Edinburgh University Sir Michael Swann, was far more to Curran’s liking, as he took more of a back seat role in the running of the BBC.

As pointed out earlier, Curran was always very keen to improve the BBC’s services and was very interested in advances in technology. 1972 saw the introduction of Ceefax, the television-based information service that has continued to the present day. Although the service was very slow to take off due to the expense of buying a television with the Ceefax decoder installed, in its day the text-based news and information service was seen as being as revolutionary as the internet was 20 years later. Instead of waiting for a scheduled news bulletin, for example, viewers could now bring up the news in text at the press of a button.

1973 saw some changes to BBC Radio that were well overdue. BBC local radio, since its creation in 1967, had been something of a joke: most of the stations broadcast for a few hours a day on low-powered FM transmitters with minimal audiences, as the majority of radios in Britain were still AM-only; and the stations had an amateurish feel to them. Aware of this problem, Curran and his Director of Radio, Sir Ian Trethowan, moved local radio on to AM as well as FM, increased broadcasting hours, and improved the stations’ budgets. Also listeners in my home county of Cumbria have Curran to thank, as he chose Carlisle over Peterborough for the last BBC local radio station to be opened in the seventies.

At a national level, Radio 4 listeners in the morning no longer had to endure the delights of Singing Together and A Service for Schools as schools programmes were moved to FM only from April 1973. Listeners with stereophonic sound, from the autumn of 1973, could now take full benefit of this as stereo broadcasts were introduced on selected radio programmes, especially concerts of classical music on Radio 3.

However, despite all the advances in technology and the largely excellent range of programmes the BBC was broadcasting in the early seventies, it was clear that Curran was a conservative in many ways and the Corporation had a distinct middle class bias, epitomised by the near-ubiquitous use of BBC English by television announcers and on Radios 3 and 4. As I have pointed out in a previous article, Ian Trethowan did not like regional accents being used on BBC Radio. The head of children’s television, Norman Barnes, had a distinct bias towards middle class viewers and stated that “admirable characters should not be seen eating chocolate and chips”. With the exception of a few series such as Rocky O Rourke, which horrified middle class viewers with its portrayal of Liverpool council estate children with no respect for authority, the rest of the BBC’s childrens’ output at the time was solidly middle class and respectable. Blue Peter and The Secret Garden were more typical of BBC children’s programmes than the broad Scouse accents heard on Rocky O Rourke.

Curran was also wary of upsetting more sensitive viewers and listeners and falling foul of Mary Whitehouse. In 1973 BBC1 controller, Alasdair Milne, not normally a censorious person, bowed to pressure from his superiors and Mrs Whitehouse’s NVALA by cancelling the sitcom Casanova 73, about a middle aged promiscuous man, as it was seen to be in bad taste. Similarly, the dramatisation of Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle was postponed indefinitely when Milne and Curran found the scene with a devil man seducing a girl to be repugnant, in the words of Milne, and too controversial to be shown. Although there was not a blanket ban on punk rock – the music still found its way on to John Peel’s late night Radio 1 show – the music form was discouraged on daytime radio and almost never heard, and the most notorious punk band of them all, The Sex Pistols, were banned immediately from BBC Television after their “shut your mouth, you dirty f****r” outburst on ITV. Indeed, when the group released their notorious single God Save The Queen at the height of the Silver Jubilee, the BBC immediately banned it and there is possibly a grain of truth in the rumour that the Top 20 was fiddled so that the song did not top the charts during Jubilee Week.

The treatment of Radio 1 in the latter Curran years was nothing short of disgraceful in my opinion, especially as ILR had started to roll out in the major cities between 1973 and 1976. Unlike Radio 1, which was largely confined to AM and had very limited access to Radio 2’s FMs frequencies, ILR broadcast on FM as well AM from the start and, in another blow against Radio 1, which only broadcast for 12-14 hours a day, most of the stations broadcast for 24 hours a day. Surely when the first ILR stations appeared, Radio 1 should have been granted more access to the FM frequencies it shared with Radio 2, or had its broadcasting hours extended, but the BBC did nothing and in February 1975, in the first of a series of financial crises the BBC would face in the seventies as inflation rocketed, Radio 1 saw its broadcasting hours cut and its afternoon David Hamilton show shared with Radio 2, which did not please listeners to either station as it was seen as too pop for Radio 2 and too middle of the road for Radio 1 listeners.

Surely cutting broadcasting hours for the minority Radio 3, which also cost more to run than Radio 1, would have made more sense, but the stodgier elements in the Corporation made sure that a pop network was the first to suffer, while Radio 3 suffered little from the economy measures. However, as Radio 1 had a monopoly in the two thirds of the country that did not have ILR, it was a case of accept the changes or switch off, so the BBC knew it could get away with cutting back on its most popular station. As well as Radio 1 having to share its afternoon show with Radio 2, listeners to Radio 2 also lost two hours a day of night time broadcasting during the 1975 economies. It was not until November 1977 that the cuts were restored and until February 1979 that Radio 1 was freed from taking Radio 2 programmes between 7 and 10 pm to supposedly save money.

Perhaps the BBC would have been better employed in the recession and inflation of 1974-75 that bit into the BBC’s revenue, by not blowing £ 2 million, the equivalent to £ 12 million now, on what is generally regarded as one of the most badly-made, overlong flops in the history of television. This was Churchill’s People, 26 plays based on Winston Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples, and is what I would regard as Curran’s answer to The Cleopatras fiasco of the Milne years, only even worse.

Critics and viewers had high hopes for the series, as £ 2 million was a massive amount of money to be spent on a television series in the mid seventies and, as the programme was made in conjunction with the Media Corporation of America, you could have expected a lavish set of plays filmed on location that would have been repeated for years to come. Instead, what emerged was an extremely badly made, studio-bound set of plays that even with a well-known cast was, in the words of BBC executive Paul Fox, “more suited to schools television than a peak time drama series.” Alan Coren in The Times was more scathing and sarcastic about a series that was rapidly becoming an embarassment and a ratings disaster. “Last night, in this continuing saga of our island race,” he wrote, “we saw how King Alfred, having been beaten by the Danish invaders, sought refuge in an extremely small television studio. It was there, among the cardboard rocks and rubber grass of his beloved Shepherds Bush, that Alfred came face to face for the first time with the common people of Wessex. A terse, retarded folk, they eked out a poor living as character actors, pursuing their primitive belief that by slapping a bit of greasepaint on their cheeks and matting their wigs, they could pass for west Saxons of the ninth century.”

Curran was said to be badly rattled by the reception that Churchill’s People received, and there were rumours that it would be cancelled, but due to the cost, the BBC perservered with this hopeless series, believing that viewers would come round to it. They even scheduled it immediiately prior to Kojak to pull in more viewers, but ratings never reached more than 4 million, a disaster for a peak time programme in the seventies, and the drama is still widely considered to be one of the biggest flops in the BBC’s history and a blow to the Corporation’s reputation for making quality drama.

Not long after the Churchill’s People debacle, the BBC found itself in trouble with sections of the Conservative Party and the press, when it screened Days of Hope, a set of plays about the struggles of the working class in the First World War and the twenties, written by radical playwright Ken Loach. When one episode portrayed a pacifist being shot by a firing squad in the First World War, the Daily Telegraph referred to the series as “one long party political broadcast for the Communist Party” and, like the Monocled Mutineer 11 years later, there were calls to have the series taken off as it was inaccurate and biased. However, as the dramas were generally of a high standard and well received, the series continued. Nevertheless in the more conservative atmosphere of the Curran regime Days of Hope was never repeated as Curran was embarrassed at charges of left wing bias.

Curran was probably less than pleased in March 1974 when Harold Wilson, who still regarded the Corporation with contempt following Yesterday’s Men, returned to power. During his third and final term Wilson, who was increasingly relying on alcohol to keep himself going, became paranoid and a shadow of himself, and the release of the National Archives from 1975 suggests that Wilson, once noted for being a rational technocrat who boasted of the “white heat of technology”, was starting to dream up half-baked policies like nationalising salmon rivers to make them cheaper for amateur anglers( the scheme was scrapped as it would have cost too much) and then to nationalise all of Britain’s smaller breweries to protect them from the monopolists in the big breweries, which would have created another big brewery. Meanwhile the economy slipped into a morass of inflation and rising unemployment while Wilson dreamt up another policy that would never see the light of day. At the same time Wilson saw a massive conspiracy against him that included Bennites, MI5, Labour right wingers, hippies, the Conservatives and the BBC in an unlikely conspiracy that was out to undermine and destroy him.

Wilson did, for all he disliked the Corporation, realise that the BBC was not going to go away and he did have to appear on it reluctantly, say, when an election occured, although his appearances on the BBC were strictly limited. In 1975, according to National Archives released in 2005, Wilson met Sir Michael Swann at a dinner party and made his concerns about the Corporation known. Wilson, apart from his dislike of the perceived Conservatism of its Director General, told Swann, he was worried about “hippy influences” at the Corporation which to Wilson were just as big a problem as the hippies were also biased against his government. Swann, according to the National Archives, told Wilson that he thought that too many young producers approached every programme they did from the starting point of an attitude about the subject which could be summed up as: “you are a shit.” This attitude was “deplored” by senior figures such as Huw Wheldon, controller of BBC Television, according to Swann.

Wilson criticised the BBC for its “lavish spending” during his meeting with Swann and complained that the BBC had spent more on covering the 1974 Labour conference than other media organisations put together, although it was pointed out by Swann that the inflationary climate of the time had made the BBC cut back. Wilson also compared BBC presentation unfavourably with that of ITV: he probably did have a point, as ITV regional presentation was far more lavish and professional and, for all I suppose this did not enter Wilson’s conversation, the introduction of the sickly looking blue and yellow BBC1 globe with its stark Futura font in December 1974 was far less appealing than the previous version of the BBC1 globe, which looked far classier, but perhaps the new globe reflected the recessionary times in which it was created.

Also, with regards to relations with the Labour government, the Corporation did not dare to repeat the Yesterday’s Men fiasco of 1971 one year after Labour had been re-elected and tended to tread carefully as its charter was up for renewal. However, I would imagine the resignation of Harold Wilson in March 1976 would have been greeted with relief by Curran and Swann, as, although his successor, James Callaghan, was distrustful of right-wing tendencies in the Corporation, at least he had little of the paranoia of Harold Wilson and the Chancellor Denis Healey even agreed to appear in the Nationwide pantomime in 1976.

For all of the talk of right-wing, or sometimes left-wing bias, and financial crises, the BBC in the last years of the Curran Director Generalship generally had very high morale. Fair enough, the Corporation did not chase the lowest common denominator, and a programme like The Wheeltappers and Shunters Club (massively popular among Northern ITV viewers) would never have found favour with BBC executives. ITV formats such as serials and give-away game shows were typically absent, although there would have been uproar if the Corporation decided to spend licence-payers’ money on a rival to Sale of the Century, or more probably decided to replace the rosebowl the winner of Mastermind collected at the end of the series with a new car, but overall the Corporation’s mixture of intellectual and slightly more challenging than ITV’s popular programming was mostly good. The mid seventies was also regarded as the golden era for BBC comedy. Python might have died in 1974, but the following year John Cleese reappeared in what is often regarded as the greatest sitcom of all time, Fawlty Towers, and critics and viewers were generally impressed with comedies that are still remembered with affection now such as The Good Life and Porridge, and the Morecambe and Wise Christmas shows of the period attracted 28 million viewers.

Five years after Birmingham received a new broadcasting centre, and modernisation was carried out at BBC Glasgow, BBC Manchester received its replacement for studio facilities in Piccadilly when New Broadcasting House was opened in October 1976 on Oxford Road. Although not as lavish as facilities at Pebble Mill, the new studios were to play an important role as a Network Production Centre. BBC Manchester had traditionally specialised in entertainment: Top of the Pops was originally broadcast from Manchester; the production office for The Good Old Days and It’s A Knockout was based in the city; and the new studios continued with the tradition of entertainment programmes, but also gained an important role in the production of children’s and youth programmes. Also Radio Manchester and regional television moved into the new studios and music programmes for Radios 2 and 3 were occasionally broadcast from New Broadcasting House.

Charles Curran announced that he would be standing down as Director General from September 1977, with his replacement being Sir Ian Trethowan. For all he could be stuffy at times, and has been criticised for having a Conservative bias, which was never totally proven, Curran managed the BBC through its golden era. He was fortunate to have inherited a Corporation where morale and programming standards were high, and he left it with its reputation intact, if not even higher as he exported series like The Ascent of Man around the world and promoted the BBC wherever and to whoever he could. As I have pointed out in my previous article on Curran’s successor, in the fields of factual programming, sport, coverage of national events, period dramas and comedy the BBC’s reputation was very high internationally.

After he left the BBC, Curran became the Chairman of Visnews, but his health worsened greatly at the end of the seventies and he died of a massive heart attack on January 9th 1980. Although not a visionary in the mould of Hugh Carleton-Greene, Curran was still a very much respected broadcasting executive. His funeral at Westminster Cathedral was well attended and he was liked, if not loved, by the people he worked with. Perhaps his reputation as a reactionary is unfair as, for all he did not like some of the changes that occured in the sixties, he knew he could never turn the clock back to the Auntie era and had to compromise with the progressives in the Corporation. Even Curran was heard to joke in 1970, ” We’re all Marxists now,” which showed he was not the backward looking appeaser of Mary Whitehouse he has been portrayed as in some circles.

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1 response to this article

Angus Macdonald 30 July 2021 at 6:14 am

Thanks for this sympathetic and balanced overview of the man who oversaw the Beeb’s “golden years”.

My dad ran the BBC’s Far Eastern Relay Station in Malaysia in the mid-1970s, and I remember – as a nine or ten-year-old – a visit by Sir Charles Curran and his wife, a big deal for us at the time.

There was a very fancy dinner, of course, but it didn’t go with quite the decorum my mum had planned. Towards the end of the evening, the DG’s wife – in my memory a lively and cheerful red-head – got down on our sitting-room floor, cross-legged, to demonstrate yoga! Everyone had a great time, though, and my parents remembered the visit – and both the DG and his wife – with affection.

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