I wrote recently in the Independent that the high level of self-satisfaction within the BBC at the quality of its output was not exactly borne out by what we see on our screens every evening. I concluded:
“Away from the discussions about salaries, relocation and pensions, the BBC needs to remember that its public remit is not always to please the majority. From within the great bureaucracy of the corporation, it is time for individual talent – creative, radical, provocative, bloody-minded – to be given its head.”
The next day, rather impressively, the BBC’s Head of Drama Ben Stephenson responded to me in an email. Pointing out the range of drama broadcast and under commission at the BBC, he wrote,
“We believe in putting the most exciting, most experimental directors and writers at the heart of our dramas on BBC1 and 2 rather than tucking them away for only small audiences to watch.”
I wonder. Do we really get a sense of the new, the different, when watching plays and serials on the BBC? Slick, yes. Professional, of course. But experimental? Hardly.
And by the way, what is wrong with small audiences? With four channels and public money at the corporation’s disposal, there should be room for daring, edgy, individualistic output – the kind of thing which will make middle England and Daily Mail columnists splutter about outrages to taste, scandalous waste of license-payers’ money, and so on.
Stephen Fry was surely right when he said recently that a climate of fear now has the BBC in its grip, and that the result is bland programming.
“You can’t really go wrong saying no to an idea – and for a creative institution, that’s death.”
The problem is that the BBC is in pleasing mode. It is worried about the public perception of the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand farrago, of the pay of executives and performers, of the level of the license fee. It will do anything to avoid offending the political and media establishments.
The result is programming by committee, an emphasis on the mainstream, a kneejerk dismissal of small audiences.
Those audiences are important. They deserve more challenging, brave, often flawed programmes than they are getting today from the sleek, corporate, comfortable BBC.