Saturday 10 October 2015

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

It was National Poetry Day on Thursday 8th October and my Twitter feed filled up quickly with a wide variety of contributions. There were examples of slam poetry and sonnets, or whatever you could cram into 140 characters. There were also several links to websites and blogs that convinced me that poetry was never dead as some doomsayers keep on claiming; it was simply taking a breather.

It also showed me that culture comes in different guises and shapes. A message that our current culture secretary, John Whittingdale, ought to heed. This is the person whose job is to decide upon the future of our British Broadcasting Corporation. He is the government minister in charge of a panel that will work on the renewal of the BBC’s royal charter. The problem here is that Mr Whittingdale has very fixed ideas about our publicly-funded broadcaster.

One of the criticisms hurled at the Beeb is that it has become a ratings-chasing machine in the last few years. It is not true, in my opinion. The BBC has to compete in a commercial market with money from the public purse. In order to justify this spending it has to be seen to cater to all tastes and that is hard to do. That is exactly what programmes such as Strictly Come Dancing and the Great British Bake-Off offer. I might not be a fan of either, especially the former, but when I hear of millions of people tuning in on a weeknight to watch three people compete for the top prize in a cake-baking competition, my Cuban-made, London-moulded heart skips a beat with excitement.

At the centre of this discussion is the very visible pachyderm in the lounge: culture and our definition(s) of it. Sometimes it seems to me that we cannot agree on the brow position and whether it should be really high or very low. For centuries it was the elite, both political and social who decided what was considered culture and was not. But the last sixty-odd years have democratised culture somewhat. Radio, television, pop and rock and roll, the VCR and then the DVD, the internet, the Walkman and then the smartphone have levelled the playing field. Youth tribes are not as sharply divided as they were forty years ago. The person who listens to classical music is also likely to listen to A Tribe Called Quest. Even our Chancellor, George Osborne, wants to get in on the act, declaring a hitherto-hidden love for the music of NWA.

NWA: waxing lyrical for the pleasure of her Majesty's Chancellor

Because of this diversification it is futile to ask the BBC to be more “highbrow” when it comes to culture. “Auntie” is already highbrow enough but even this very definition of “highbrow” contradicts the nature of a broadcaster whose licence fee is paid by most members of British society, from a librarian to a Tesco shelf-stacker. What if the latter likes Puccini and the former Akram Khan? Should they both not be served equally?

It is clear to me that what is at stake in the BBC’s royal charter renewal is not its role in British life but on what side of the political spectrum the corporation is. The Beeb has always been seen as too left-wing even if it gave Cameron and co. an easy ride in the lead-up to the general election. Its independence is a thorn on the side for those in government who would like to see it working, Murdoch-style, for the Tories. I have my own gripes with the BBC: too much money is wasted on “consultants” and “middle-managers” (or "bureaucrats" as I prefer to call them), it lacks a dedicated arts channel like Sky Arts and exposure to its daytime television programming might make a very ill person want to get back to work the next day even if they are on a full-body cast and have spent the night before retching their guts out. However, despite these petty grievances, every month I pay my licence fee with pleasure, knowing that there are not that many broadcasters that boast shows such as Have I Got News for You, Jools Holland and Never Mind the Buzzcocks and countless well-researched and expertly-presented nature and travel documentaries.

On National Poetry Day it was BBC Radio Four Twitter feed that gave me some of the better laughs. The biggest winner, I imagine, was culture, neither highbrow nor lowbrow, but rich.

© 2015

Next Post: “Living in a Multilingual World”, to be published on Wednesday 14th October at 6pm (GMT)


  1. Acute observations!



  2. Have to take the good with the bad, getting well researched stuff to watch is always a good thing. As is seeing much as many different forms fly

  3. I enjoy poetry and imagine we have a National Poetry Day here in the States, although I don't know when it is.

  4. Our Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) faces similar challenges. And is also seen as left wing.
    Culture is such a rich and diverse thing. I am happy (very) that it is no longer soley the domain of the elite.

  5. As for poetry, I miss the hendecasyllabic verse of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and even the sestinas have become shadows of their former selves, but I am archaic myself in many ways, so I should not complain too loudly.

    As for public broadcasting, my exposure to the BBC has largely been a bit of comedy and a greater amount of detective shows which usually are a decade or two old before they are rebroadcast in the United States, so I really have no thoughts there. In terms of America, political correctness and way, way left programming is ruining the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), I think. I once was a donor to PBS systems in three states, but no longer give to any. This is partly because PBS is changing and partly because I am changing.

  6. And it's not just television that is up for scrutiny - they also have the knives out for Radio. I always begin my day with the Today Programme - it has its flaws, but they do their very best to question both sides of every argument. Then there are the devotees of Six Music who seem to be fighting their corner.

    Plus the world broadcasting - I've watched BBC World in many a strange hotel, and it's given me the link I've needed to the wider world. The World Service, on radio, is an English-speaking link for everyone living overseas. Heaven help us all if we have to rely on CNN or Fox News when we're away. (Although - to be fair - if you can get Al Jazeera in English it's wonderful!)

  7. It is very difficult to cater to everyone's tastes, even with as many channels as the BBC has. i watch very little TV but I really value the BBC's nature programmes and their coverage of the Wimbledon tennis tournament.

  8. I like the way your present your arguments or otherwise.

    I am a devotee of BBC simply because it meets my requirements (especially in radio) whereas others don't. I would hate to lose it. About poetry, I wasn't aware that there had been a lapse in that particular art... but if it's making a come-back then I'm pleased.

  9. Another thoughtful essay. I enjoy what we see of BBC over here and hope it never becomes Murdock-like.

  10. So true - culture should serve all and enrichen us.

  11. Hi ACIL - I do hate the dumbing down that seems to have infiltrated the media ... and (2) somehow 'mum' and 'dad' aren't correct in radio, tv, newspaper context - other than in a personal chat situation we'd have with our parents, our children, our close friends ... after those two things - I'd add in making us have short attention spans - which then don't give us sufficient information, or just influence in one way or the other ...

    I really am not happy that we have one question ... which doesn't reflect the 'whole' of the subject being asked about ... Cheers Hilary

    1. What I should add ... we live in too much of a Nanny State ... we really need to think for ourselves, we should want to understand ... and be prepared to look on the other side of the argument ... cheers Hilary

  12. wow - culture is a big theme - and i love that it is something changing and alive - there was a time when the elite dictated what culture is - now even streetkids do - and that is way cool
    and yeah - poetry is def. not dead - and i think it will survive through all ages

  13. We get BBC and is great. Keeps us in the loop without all the commercialization.

  14. The Public Broadcasting System in the States shows many British programs. And the right-wingers here are always after PBS, primarily because they don't broadcast Republican talking points and give equal time to rapture loons and "intelligent" design. I like you viewpoints on the BBC and I hope the Beeb survives and thrives.

  15. Hey Cubano--I have to say that the BBC always seems much more "browed" or separately browed than U.S. media--which seems to have set its unibrow at a very low bar. I am not a tv watcher--don't have one--but my children just made me watch the bake-off show--I can't imagine actually watching regularly, but it seemed pretty gentle. Thanks for the column--always interesting. K.

  16. I guess it must be difficult for the BBC to cater for everyone's tastes. Speaking personally, I watch a lot of BBC programmes...especially the recent series of "The Great British Bake Off". I hadn't seen any previous series, but was totally hooked on this one...I have even been inspired to try some of the contestants' recipes!
    And then, of course, there are series like "Dr. Who", "Casualty", and F1 coverage. I simply couldn't imagine life without any of these!
    I say...long live the BBC!!
    Many thanks for another really interesting post.:)

    Have a great week.:))

  17. It's odd that a love of the arts ever became considered to be a snobbish pursuit. My father and his family were born in Scotland, and there, it was once considered the norm for men to be able to recite poetry... especially the works of Robert Burns. My grandfather was far from being an elite, but he sure loved poetry, and could recite it beautifully. Especially after a pint or two of beer.



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