Most of us probably have inklings about how we might spend our extreme old age, with a worst and best scenario. My good one was seeing myself in a nice room in a kindly care-home, listening to my radio, enjoying the ancient drama, readings and comedy on BBC Radio 4 Extra, created before the Corporation went Woke. Pretty much what I do now, in the evening, early mornings and sometimes the middle of the night when I also add in the BBC World Service.
It often provides frank news reports uninhibited by ‘cultural sensitivities’. Today I woke up at 6am to a crime drama from 1958, complete with BBC ‘trigger warning’ because an unenlightened policeman of those distant times used the word, ‘loony’. Most features on 4 Extra carry such warnings and it’s interesting to try to fathom out what exactly was offensive. But my vision of carrying this on into old age has just evaporated. The BBC envisages a future with hardly any radio at all. Our sets are about to join the cathode ray and cassette recorders in land-fill, replaced by on-line services.
This is their response to Culture Secretary Nadine Dorrie’s January proclamation that BBC funding will be cut for the next two years and the licence fee, three quarters of its funding, abolished in 2027. I hoped the mandatory fee would be replaced by a subscription service for radio. I no longer watch BBC TV much. Instead, it seems radio itself that is to go. Radio 3 and the World Service will remain as regular stations but cut back, and 3 will have to show an ‘increasing commitment to diversity.’
To save money, or possibly hoping to make it, they are shedding their archives, mostly enjoyed by older people, which cost very little to broadcast; BBC 4 which replaced ‘BBC Knowledge’ an educational, cultural channel is also to go. In 2020 it stopped making programs and was designated the BBC’s ‘rich archive,’ which it was, until now. They are also ditching their CBBC TV service for children aged six to twelve which has a high reputation. This they say is because most children are streaming Disney and YouTube instead. Challenging that cultural shift is not seen as important and there is obviously no concern about losing the last TV for children using English rather than US usage.
BBC radio and TV arts programs have been integral to our culture for so long, that these changes will profoundly affect the way we think and speak. What is coming will be chiefly visual but bland and homogenised, fitting into a globalised commercial culture when no one (that is chiefly us) takes pride in national characteristics, humour is unmarketable, no one bothers with ‘high culture’ as it’s not inclusive enough, language is simple and above all, inoffensive. The BBC as a brand will largely disappear – except as a news service along with many others. I feel a genuine sense of grief about this. The corporation was born in 1922, the same year as my mother and was the background to her life, and mine. As a child I listened avidly to the Home Service but there was plenty of children’s TV too.
I remember the first episode of Dr Who, 23rd November, 1963, I was aged seven, the day after the Kennedy assassination. I know where I was on both occasions, watching the BBC. In primary school Top of the Pops was the light of my life. Throughout childhood I enjoyed their Sunday tea-time adaptations of classic novels often Dickens but a wide range of work including Les Misérables in 1967, the darkest thing I’d ever seen. They didn’t bother about traumatising children in those days. As a teenager BBC drama introduced me to the works of Ibsen and Sartre, amazing how my secondary modern school class mates and I used to happily watch them, and the contemporary cutting-edge single plays. There was a brilliant series of Shakespeare histories, all made in the studio without any great expense, and at Christmas, Gilbert and Sullivan, ballet and modern opera.
I first realised the fundamental change in the way the BBC saw its public service remit in 1994 when they had a go at adapting Middlemarch, the great 1871 novel by George Eliot. No longer studio based it looked like a lavish advert for the National Trust. The heroine, of the lower gentry in Tipton, west Midlands, appeared be living in a sparkling Palladian mansion. One of the sub-plots concerns a very plain girl being turned down for marriage. That reflected Eliot’s own bitter experiences, considered un-marriageable because of her looks. The BBC cast attractive actress Rachel Power in the role. They no longer had the guts to respect a great text or by then were too mercenary to do it. We were into meretricious Hollywood casting. They did the same in 1997 in The Woman in White, casting the beautiful Tara Fitzgerald as the overlooked plain sister. It was the end for generations of great British character actors; no more ugly faces on screen, audiences were to be entertained safely not challenged by authenticity.
After that I switched entirely to radio drama where they maintained some respect for the actual text. The quality gets better the further back you go, hence the popularity of BBC4 extra. The glimpses I’ve had of their recent TV output suggests that even classic scripts have to reflect the BLM movement; black ladies in poke bonnets and crinolines and all scripts must be adapted to suit modern sensibilities even if it means abandoning the original work. No writing is considered worthy in itself or of its time, only as a chance to spread the word about current multiculturalism and inclusivity and if possible, the evils of the British empire.
The archive channels were the last remnant of unique BBC drama and comedy, broadcast at very low cost, hardly any presenters, not even a twitter site, but soon they will be eradicated along with their audiences. But shucks, like who cares? Strictly will still be there and the expected new audience of eighteen to thirty-five years olds will find themselves better served. An £80m budget for ‘youth services’ has been set aside for them. Some of us are lucky enough to be aging in parallel to this cultural decline and luckily will never get to the final episode to find out how this thing ends. Sometimes it’s better not to know.