The Guardian reports that as part of
David Cameron’s ongoing game of Kerplunk with all that makes British society worthwhile Our Great Nation’s clamour towards the return of economic prosperity, the BBC may be forced to strip BBC Four of everything costing more than 17p. This is mainly due to the six-year freeze on the licence fee, itself hampered by the World Service now being funded from the that fee, instead of general taxation.
As you might expect, the Twitterati which we’d like to think we’re a part of (but which we very clearly aren’t) got their hashtags in a huge twist over this, and with good reason considering BBC Four is pretty much the last stronghold of Reithian values within the BBC. By which we mean his “giving the people what they don’t yet realise they want” ethos, rather than that whole “I like the cut of that Hitler chap’s jib” thing.
When we were tiny, we’d often gaze in bewildered wonder at the highbrow documentaries on Egypt, canals or bronze that BrokenTV’s Dad would sit through on a Sunday evening, wondering if we’d ever be clever enough to appreciate such works as The Ascent of Man, Civilisation or Life On Earth. Despite the fact we’re probably not that clever – the monocle we wear to social events really isn’t fooling anyone – the closest British television has to that now is on BBC Four. That’s not to say modern-day BBC Two isn’t without merit, we’re as enthralled by James May building an actual house out of Lego as anyone, but BBC Four is so damn good at times, it’s almost as if it’s cheating. The other channels spend a fortune trying out hundreds of formats in order to find that right blend for the whole family, while BBC Four give an hour to a documentary on the Black Power Salute in the 1968 Mexico Olympics, and we’re captivated. And if it weren’t for BBC Four, we’d have had to Google the Olympic year where Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ made their historic gesture.
From what we’ve read, the most likely casualties from Mark Thompson’s knowledge cull will be BBC Four’s drama and comedy output. We can’t help but feel that would be the beginning of the end for the channel. Without the additional viewers brought to the channel by the likes of The Thick Of It, QI (series A actually premiered on the channel), Fantabulosa!, Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story, Micro Men, Hattie, Lennon Naked, Newswipe, Screenwipe, On Expenses, Canoe Man, Thatcher: The Long Road To Finchley, The Road to Coronation Street or the forthcoming Holy Flying Circus, would other programmes on the channel have been brought to the attention of nearly as many viewers? And with the remaining programmes less likely to attract the same viewing figures they currently achieve, how long before the channel is dismissed as an irrelevance by the BBC-hating press, and calls begin for it to be closed completely?
Programmes such as The Curse of Steptoe attracted around 1.6 million viewers, a figure likely to be much higher than that attracted by the forthcoming series of Celebrity Big Brother on Channel 5 – surely that’s something to be protected at all costs? Yes, some of the bigger shows could supposedly debut on BBC Two, but in the modern-day hypercompetitive TV market there’s no room for risk. Could the 21st century model BBC Two really have taken a chance on The Thick Of It being given three pilot episodes? On broadcasting the latest version of The Quatermass Experiment, the first live made-for-television drama to be shown on the BBC in twenty years? On giving Charlie Brooker thirty minutes a week to tear the television industry a new SCART socket? Or even to try out programming that didn’t quite work, such as Robert Newman’s long-awaited return to TV comedy, with The History Of The World Backwards?
We’ve long held the (possibly misguided) notion that BBC Four is the very last outpost of British television where the right people can happily be given a budget and a timeslot, and be told “go off and make something” without being followed by a swarm of middle-managers who prod the talent with sticks while hissing “can we skew younger?”, “can we get Mickey Flanagan in here somewhere, I owe his agent a favour”, or “this play about Shakespeare is all very worthy, but I don’t like Shakespeare. Can it all be about him being shit?” It’s the BBC of the Radiophonic Workshop, of a thirteen-part series being made because of something Barry Took said in the BBC bar, of half-hour sitcoms lasting for thirty-four minutes because that’s how long it needs to be – or as close to that bygone Beeb as it can be in the era of credit-squeezing and logo usage guideline documents.
In short, if BBC Four were a person, it’d be Alessandro Del Piero taking part in an under-12s football match, and it’s time for him to have his bootlaces tied together to give everyone else a chance.
So, what are the alternatives to clipping BBC Four’s wings? People on Twitter seem to have come up with a few ideas, though they don’t really hold up to much scrutiny.
“JUST CLOSE BBC THREE INSTEAD! I DON’T LIKE IT, SO I’M HAPPY FOR IT TO CLOSE.”
A popular opinion, but one we’d have to disagree with. Yes, it’s full of shows called JAMES CORDEN’S WELL GOOD FUCK OFF I’M GINGER AND WAHEY LADS SHAGGING EH SHOW or whatever, and despite making huge amounts of original content most people only watch EastEnders repeats and Family Guy, but there is an audience for it.
One of the reasons we stopped liking Harry Hill quite as much is down to a recent interview on Five Live, he was asked why TV Burp had stopped poking fun at BBC Three’s Freaky Eaters. His reply was along the lines of “it’s awful, that’s why. And I’m paying for it!” Well, sorry to break this to you Harry. The people who watch BBC Three pay their licence fee, too. They’re paying for the things they like, you’re paying for the things you like. Oddly, considering “young people are always moaning, they don’t know how lucky they are!”, we never really hear fans of Spendaholics or Being Human complaining about their licence fee funding coverage of The Chelsea Flower Show or Countryfile, but whenever the Beeb send a team off to Glasto to capture around sixty hours of entertainment for less than the price of two hours drama, it’s as if the ghost of Sir Hugh Greene is personally sneaking into the houses of Daily Mail readers and rifling through their handbags.
“SACK CHRIS MOYLES! THAT’LL PAY FOR A DOZEN BBC FOURSES.”
Much as we dislike Radio One’s self-satisfied money vacuum, millions of people do like him. And his contract is reportedly due to end soon, anyway. Hey, if you wanted Chris Moyles off the radio, you should have watched the eighteen different attempts to make him a TV star in numbers larger than piss-all. By the time he realised he wasn’t suited to it, Nick Grimshaw or someone would be sitting in his DJ chair.
“WAH WAH WAH THE BBC LICENCE FEE IS BAD AND WRONG ANYWAY WHY SHOULD I HAVE TO PAY MONEY TO HAVE COMMUNISM LITERALLY INJECTED INTO MY EYES EVERY NIGHT?”
That’s you that is, you absolute flapping gibbons. As we’ve said before, for the first time in history you CAN legally watch telly without a TV licence. Buy a plasma or LCD screen that doesn’t have a digital tuner built-in. Connect a PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 or computer to it, and use online services to watch catch-up content from a variety of UK television providers* on it. Hey presto, you don’t own a device capable of receiving a ‘live’ television signal, so you don’t need a TV licence. AND what’s more, the includes anything the BBC have put on iPlayer – if you’re not watching it go out live, you don’t have to pay a penny, and it’s all legal. Us licence fee payers are the ones paying for your entertainment now. And guess what – we don’t resent you for it. Not a bit. Enjoy. Be entertained. We’re not selfish, entitled dicks, you see.
(*Oh, unless you’re including Sky in that. You’ll have to pay BSkyB a fucking fortune to watch their catch-up service online. But hey, enjoy those repeats of To The Manor Born on UK Gold.)
“ONLY IN BRITAIN, EH? WHY SHOULD WE HAVE TO PAY FOR ETC ETC ETC.”
Sigh. It might surprise some people to learn that the BBC isn’t the only state-funded broadcaster in the world. Albania, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Macedonia, Malta, Montenegro, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Israel, Japan, Korea, Pakistan, Ghana, Mauritius, Namibia, South Africa and Brazil ALL have broadcasters funded by licence fees. Do you hear many people saying “say what you like about Slovenia, their nature documentaries are the best in the world”? NO.
Meanwhile, in Australia, the Flemish region of Belgium, Cyprus, Gibraltar, Hungary, India, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal and Singapore state-funded broadcasters are paid for from general taxation. Too poor to own a telly in India? Tough, you’re still paying for the programmes.
OKAY, SMARTY BOLLOCKS – WHAT ARE YOU PROPOSING?
Well, the opposite of what the “waaaah stealth tax! Stealth tax!” whingers who probably cried that bit more as a baby because mummy’s breast milk didn’t taste like Twining's tea want. In what is supposed to be a democracy, and where people complain that you’re not allowed to have the choice of paying the television licence fee or not, we’re saying: we should have the choice to pay more for our licence fee if we want to. We’re told that the licence fee has been frozen for six years to ‘help’ us all in this tough economic climate. Fine, but why shouldn’t we have the option of paying more to help keep the BBC the way we like it?
The licence fee as it stands is £145.50 per household per year, with that price frozen solid until 2016. Why not just make that the minimum mandatory licence fee? Watch a lot of BBC shows? Love BBC Radio? Is the BBC website your homepage? Well, why not decide to pay the corporation a total of £165.50 per year? You won’t get anything special for that extra donation. You won’t be more likely to have your flailing arm picked out of the audience on Question Time to grill the Shadow Energy Secretary. You won’t be more likely to have your missive read out on Points Of View. You won’t get to guest host Have I Got News For You. You’ll be doing it because you believe in rewarding someone for the good job they do. After all, what could be more British than that? Sure, there’ll be stuff put out there in the name of the BBC that you personally don’t like, hundreds upon hundreds of hours of it, but that’s because the BBC is for everyone, and everyone deserves the best BBC they can get.
Don’t want to pay an extra penny? Like to mutter into your cocoa about how “they’ll” probably replace Songs Of Praise with “Lee Nelson’s Well God Show” the second your back is turned? Well, then don’t. Pay your minimum, carry on kidding yourself that having a strong BBC doesn’t help other broadcasters do the good things they do – would ITV still keep letting John Pilger make shows such as the powerful The War You Don’t See if they weren’t playing catch-up with the Beeb, for instance?
It needn’t stop there. How about the licence fee reminder letters including a form that allows you to allocate your extra contribution to the areas you’d most like to see receive it?
We’ll pay more than our fair share if and where we can, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll keep BBC Four, and the rest of the BBC, every bit as good as it is now.