A reply to charges of trivia in BBC-tv programmes 

2 September 2022 tbs.pm/75825

Huw Wheldon, Managing Director, Television, replies to charges of trivia in BBC-tv programmes. The article appeared in The Sunday Times on 8 November 1970.



Cover of "In the Public Interest"

From “In the Public Interest: a six-part explanation of BBC policy” published in January 1971

IT seems at the moment voguish to say that ‘the concept of public service broadcasting is no longer self-evident’ in the BBC; and that BBC Television in particular puts on poor programmes. It was suggested in an article in The Sunday Times last week that not long ago ‘the provisional truth of the journalist’ gave the BBC, and its Television Service in particular, a sense of purpose. Now it seems that I, among others, have suborned that high purpose by substituting for it ‘the search for excellence’ with dreadful results.

Let me roundly declare myself. I believe the BBC is in a position to concentrate its full attention on making programmes as well as possible; that this situation is rooted in the licence foundation; that we are allowed to court excellence; and that this is a singular privilege and in some ways not to be found in any other television service I have seen. If this is so, then why are our programmes apparently so awful, particularly on BBC-1?

The first answer is they are not. The statement is one of those fashionable absolutes, easily acceptable if only that they relieve busy people of the trouble of having to examine the evidence.

During the last four weeks there have been major documentaries on our Economy, on the Regional Theatre Movement, on a possible cancer cure, on the extraordinary Himalayan adventure of 1924, and on the history and future of Covent Garden. There was a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (not very well handled for television, unfortunately), and a well-made special programme about the Canadian crisis. During the same four weeks there has been a full-scale production of Terence Rattigan’s Ross; a play, The Long Distance Piano Player, by an indisputably interesting Scottish playwright called Alan Sharp; a brilliant production by Alan Bridges of Ingmar Bergman’s play, The Lie. I missed John Osborne’s play, The Right Prospectus and wish I hadn’t, and have not yet seen Angels are so Few by Dennis Potter. There have been the new productions of the Aldwych Farces and the serialisation of Zola’s Nana. And before someone says loftily that no doubt these programmes were on a minor channel when no one could watch, let me add that all of them were on BBC-1 and at peak hours. (The two Covent Garden programmes were at 10.20 p.m. Is this peak? Perhaps this is ghetto.) And while I am on BBC-1, let me add the Fijians running rings round the Barbarians and Cassius Clay and Match of the Day. Let me also add Dad’s Army and Monty Python and Up Pompeii! and Morecambe and Wise and Steptoe and Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. I challenge anybody to call them potboilers. They are simply not thus dismissible but good programmes made for good purposes by good people doing their best and doing it well.

I could go on. It is an invidious business, and I hate mentioning programmes without naming their makers, but add Children’s Programmes; add afternoons and interviews with Albert Speer and Charles Forte, and William Buckley and Richard Crossman. Add Muggeridge’s The Question Why, including the one from Ottawa; and we still have not mentioned Panorama or Softly, Softly or 24 Hours or Sportsnight with Coleman or any BBC-2 programmes at all.

Huw Wheldon

Generalisations by people who do not watch are not helpful. A Master of a Cambridge College said last week, ‘The public laps up the punk that it is offered because it is seldom offered anything less.’ Let him look for a change. He could try BBC-2 while he is at it with its Sartre serial and Kirov Ballet and Music from King’s and the Danton biography and Charles I and The Mind of Man and the French evening and Janacek’s opera and Europa and Chronicle and The Money Programme and The World About Us and the others. Good programmes, nearly every one of them, and some excellent.

Why then is there so much peevishness? Partly, of course, it is because we also make bad programmes. I can mention two or three programmes running at the moment of which I and those concerned are not proud. There will always be failures. The point is they were not cynically made. They were supposed to be good and are not. We committed ourselves and we were wrong. Good programmes are hard to make.

It is also partly no doubt because we live in a world of wars and rumours of wars, of dispute and discord, of suspicion, of belief and unbelief; and one man’s programme meat is another man’s programme poison. This is particularly so in Current Affairs programmes (with its huge output) and frequently so in plays. It is easy to broadcast when the nation is united. The nation divided puts the BBC on a rack.

What then is our public service attitude? It is to let the different voices speak for themselves. Everybody has his panacea. Be more Christian, less Christian, more entertaining, less entertaining, more Left, more Right. There is no united voice, only voices, as we grope our painful and absorbing way forward into new forms of belief and behaviour. So that our job is to let the voices sing their songs, tell their stories, and strive for excellence. It is also surprising how frequently excellence transcends division. Reservations apart, how many actively dislike Tortelier’s Master Classes or Dad’s Army or Civilisation?

The job of public service television is to find and nourish those creative and wayward and surprising talents that go into making programmes. It involves failures. It involves taking chances into the unknown with a view to having a future. It is programmes that make policy and not policy that makes programmes (Baverstock’s phrase, not mine; just as ‘In the name of what is this programme being made?’ is mine and I would thank Mr Peacock not actually to plagiarise me while ticking me off).

I am suggesting that the present structure of the BBC allows it to go for excellence; that it achieves fine programmes more frequently than variously motivated people allow; and that, like everybody else, we make mistakes.

I go further. The BBC has always believed that you cannot do a full-scale public service job on one channel. You can please a lot of people on one channel only at the cost of displeasing many others. To cover the widest spectrum of possibilities in so far as the men and women making programmes are capable, you need two channels. To reach the great majorities and the great minorities, and they are equally important, you need two channels. A full two-channel operation, planned together, truly complementary, with real programme junctions, non-boxing on the one if there is boxing on the other, has been a crucial development. This, through the wisdom and strength of our predecessors, we have achieved. Again in this, this country leads the world, and why shouldn’t I say so? And to those who say that BBC-2 is only a sideshow, I remind them that there are now 27 million people who can watch BBC-2 programmes, who have the antennae and so on. The network does not yet cover the whole country but is, at that, already available to 85 per cent of the population. Not a sideshow.

One remembers Hilaire Belloc’s great response to a poor review of a book. ‘My dear Gerald, there are some people who, if they saw Our Lord walking on the water, would say, “There you are! Always walking on the water!”’

I don’t know about tonight’s programmes. There is Christopher Morahan’s production of Uncle Vanya on BBC-1; The World About Us, a film about Stokowski, a new comedy series and the Sartre serial on BBC-2. They don’t seem to me to be exactly slush or trivia or a mindless grab for the ratings.




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