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.