Friday, February 11, 2011

Good old Auntie

Last week I watched Winston Churchill's funeral. The first part of it at least (the coverage is four hours long.) It opens with a slow, sweeping panoramic shot of London in the January murk, the sombreness of the dirty old city exaggerated almost by the black and white coverage. Over the pictures a sonorous, serious voice points out some of the landmarks before it reaches the Houses of Parliament where the funeral procession began.

The next day I listened to several accounts of Titanic survivors, talking about their amazing experiences, crackling, grainy yet all the more powerful because we are hearing their voices, not those of an actor, or the words printed on a page, among them Charles Lightoller, the most senior surviving officer of the tragedy, whose voice, recorded in 1936, has a remarkable timbre I would never have guessed at from the endless reams of dry evidence he gave to various inquiries after the disaster.

Both of these, and many, many more besides, feature on the BBC archives website, a treasure trove of radio and television going back more than eight decades. A man can waste a lot of time which he should have spent working trawling through the site (and this man has). There's still much I want to get through, including a series of interviews with some Hollywood greats: Gary Cooper, Groucho Marx, Erroll Flynn and Rita Hayworth and many more. Then there's all the interviews with writers: Orwell, Woolf, Somerset Maugham etc.

Sometimes people in the UK take the BBC for granted. A state-funded TV channel that dedicates itself to produce decent programming rather than hoovering up advertising money. It often doesn't produce decent programming, and much of its dramatic output these days is poor, but it at least tries, and along with its subsidiary channels, produces some television of real quality. Next time you're in the UK, turn on BBC4, particularly on a weekend evening, and you'll see what I mean.

A commercial channel would not not have taken its archive and put it online for free. The Beeb are no angels, but they still believe in serving the public rather than trying rip them off and take them for fools. They may often be pilloried for it, but they will agonise over a programme that might offend some sections of the general public. Their rival broadcasters seem to decide on their programming on what will offend people and making sure it damn well does.

With one eye on the events in Egypt (covered in its usual even-handed way by the BBC), I was wondering what might drive the British out on to the streets en masse. I think one of them might be the abolition of the BBC. There are a few out there, usually on the right, who would dearly love to scrap it, who see it as some vast socialist monolith perpetuating left wing bias. The newspapers of Rupert Murdoch  have long since waged a sniping war against the BBC and its values. Rupert owns a satellite TV station. If the BBC were to disappear, then it would allow him and his hectoring news channel and  and brain-dead programming more scope to cheapen our society. With the Tories in power, under the auspices of austerity, there have already been cuts to the BBC's budget, ones it can probably absorb, but there is the fear that it's the thin end of the wedge. I doubt even David Cameron and his cronies are dumb enough to take on the BBC on behalf of their pal Rupert, though. As I say, I genuinely think it's one cause that could unite people of all ages, of all classes in the UK. We all use the BBC and most of us love it.

Yes, it's flawed. It is bogged down in bureaucracy. It is guilty of trying to ape US dramas and some comedies which are done so much better over there than here, and has started lavishing ludicrous money on performers who aren't worth half of what they get. But go anywhere in the world and you'll meet people who respect and admire the BBC and wish they had something similar in their own countries. The positives far outweigh any negatives.

So, I sincerely hope, 46 years after it was originally shown, someone is using the BBC archives site to watch the funerals of Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher, and marvelling at the old footage of London.


Dan - Friday


  1. Dan,
    I loved this post.
    I worked, before moving on, for two American television networks and one of my greatest friends just retired from the business after more than forty years. We have often talked about the veneration in which the BBC is held. And I often listened to it to get the news on crackly short-wave radio receivers in many remote spots on the globe.
    I had no idea this archive existed.
    Thanks for telling me.

  2. We listened to the BBC on a crackling shortwave radio in South Africa too.

    In the States the Republicans are trying to get rid of National Public Radio - the best quality programming around. Sigh.

  3. Ohhhhh, aaarggghhhhhhh and other expressions of resentment and frustration. NOT A SINGLE INTERVIEW I wanted to watch was "available in my area." I clicked on at least 20 interviews, everyone from Howard Hawks to Somerset Maugham, but no go.

    I feel so deprived.

  4. Lovely post Dan! We listen to BBC news here everyday on the old radio. There's also the British Pathe archives totally addictive w/stuff like this

  5. We have a similar entity here in the U.S., of course, namely public broadcasting (PBS and NPR and their affiliates). But they're under attack once again by people wanting to silence any voices and viewpoints that aren't in agreement with their own. If you care about seeing public broadcasting continue in the States, then check out this site:

  6. Thanks all. Shame about NPR Stan - TV and radio proves the idea that the 'market' is a solution is rubbish. I'm sure the Republicans see it as harbor of leftist thinking and sedition, the fools.

    Leighton - cheers. I think the BBC is held in high regard by those who have worked for other networks because it values its staff and doesn't assume its audience are imbeciles. You also know it is impartial. I know some would say there is a left-wing bias, but its debatable. It simply doesn't dance the tune of its paymaster quite so much as others, which makes it feel more left-wing. It also reports adverse news about the BBC i.e itself. How many media organisations do that?

    Hope it works for you, which bring me onto Tim. I was led to believe the radio clips were open to people from other regions. I should have added a disclaimer that some people overseas might not be able to watch some of the video. Sorry! But there should still be much to listen to (I hope).

    There is a way around it but I'm far too much of a techie fool to fathom it out.

    bv - thanks for the link. I will check it out. A more than worthy cause.