Friday, 30 December 2016

What the BBC is good at - and what it should do more of

Strictly Come Dancing 2016
Over recent weeks, I've found myself watching what I think of as my wife's programmes, i.e. Strictly Come Dancing,  The Choir: Gareth's Best in Britain, Masterchef: The Professionals and The Great British Bake-Off. These are shows I would not normally seek out, and, were I on my own, I'd probably switch over (or off). But because this is an equal opportunities household, my wife gets to choose what we watch at least as often as I do.

Here, I have a confession to make: I thoroughly enjoyed all of these shows, even though I don't dance, can barely cook, have never baked anything in my life, and have never sung in a choir (not with my voice) - and have hardly any natural interest in any of these activities. I used to decry all forms of "reality" television - but now I think the genre may largely be what justifies the BBC's continued existence. Why? Well, for a number of reasons. For a start, watching Strictly and Bake-Off  brings back a sense of community: there are sufficient millions watching - and watching at the same time - to make them feel like national activities. Hardly anybody watches the same programmes as anybody else these days of digital disintermediation and on-demand viewing, but Strictly attracts the largest audience on British TV, and the series that's just ended was the most successful in the show's 12-year history.

So what? I hear you ask - I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, The X-Factor and Britain's Got Talent boast large audiences, and they've got nothing to do with the BBC. True - but there's something rather unpleasant and "theatre of cruelty" about these shows. Just like Big Brother before it,  I'm a Celebrity seems to be all about psychodrama and humiliation and the viewers ganging up to bully their least favourite contestant by defenestrating them: these shows' very ethos screams commercial TV (for the same reason, The Apprentice and Dragon's Den should have been on ITV or Channel Four).

At least three of the four BBC shows I've been watching seem to be about enabling ordinary people (and many of the "celebrities" appear to be remarkably ordinary people - in a good way) to discover talents they didn't know they possessed or to develop vestigial talents to levels they didn't think possible. Yes, it's all very goody-two-shoes and jolly-hockey-sticks and sentimental and it could all be horribly patronising - but, while contestants fail and get sent home, there's no exploitation of that terrible showbiz  hunger to "make it", to "hang on to your dream". Some people who are keen on baking discover that they're really incredibly good at it; schoolkids, the wives of servicemen, firefighters discover that they can make a wonderful, exhilarating sound by singing together - and make everyone cry by doing so; a bald wee Scottish cookery lecturer with five kids impresses the owner of the world's top-rated restaurant with his food and proves he's an absolutely superb, extraordinarily inventive cook; soap opera actors and sports presenters learn to dance so well that it's impossible to tell them apart from the professionals they're dancing with.

This celebration of human potential seems wholly innocent and wholly good. You don't need to win these competitions in order to derive some benefit from  participating: everyone who appears on Strictly learns something along the way, no matter how early their exit (unlike, say, Big Brother or I'm a Celebrity,  where an early departure just means viewers think you're a bigger arsehole than the other arseholes on the show). And while the chefs have to put up with Greg Wallace bellowing matily at them, and the dancers have to suffer Bruno Tonioli's personality, and the bakers have to pretend that Mel and Sue aren't spectacularly irritating - there's no actual, genuine harm in any of these people. Imagine having to be "judged" by the likes of Simon Cowell or (for God's sake) Piers Morgan!

One thing all these BBC reality shows have in common is that, unlike so much of the corporation's output, they are utterly and totally apolitical. Even a political obsessive like me can't find a hint of social engineering anywhere in the mix - and I suspect that (with the exception of Mel and Sue) the judges probably all vote Tory. What a relief that, instead of listening to lectures on how racist and selfish and uncompassionate we all are, we're instead listening to lectures on how to present a decent-looking plate of food or how to dance the tango.

Now, I'm not claiming that a handful of series which foster a sense of community and celebrate the human spirit justify a poll tax currently yielding a whopping £3.7Bn annually, or that the whole system doesn't needs to be overhauled so that conservatives don't find themselves paying £145.50 a year in order to fund an endless stream of left-liberal propaganda. But, while I'm sure most of us would prefer a straightforward BBC subscription service, the chances of that happening any time soon are remote (thanks to the sopping wetness of the Tories). In the meantime, I'd like to see it cut back severely on its news and current affairs offering, because the people in charge seem unwilling or incapable of producing politically impartial programmes; get rid of all those truly abysmal left-wing activists masquerading as comics; stop producing historical drama which views Britain's history as a depressing tale of economic suffering and exploitation; eschew programmes which, by treating so many of us as if we were members of one victimhood tribe or another, foster a sense of separateness, resentment, grievance and entitlement -  and instead concentrate on the sort of programmes which celebrate this country's history, traditions, and culture, and the humour, talents, enthusiasms, strengths and eccentricities of its indigenous peoples (and latecomers like me).

I know this celebratory approach won't suit the small minority of thrusting young utopian "citizen of the world" urban lefties with liberal arts degrees who want the BBC to be all edgy and self-questioning and sceptical and cynical and multicultural and who feel their role is to shock the audience out of its bovine complacency. Well, sod 'em. I don't see why the rest of us should be forced to pay a licence fee in order to enable these self-regarding SJWs to feel good about themselves. I don't want the BBC to indulge in a non-stop orgy of British self-congratulation or an endless diet of reality TV - I just want it to draw breath, think seriously about the things which make this such a great country (hint: it really isn't the NHS) and then to set about helping to celebrate and preserve those things before they're lost forever. I have one or two ideas (as if anyone cares), which I'll set out at a later date.

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