Books: Even As We Speak — Bring Back the Overqualified |
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Bring Back the Overqualified

A speech to the Royal Television Society

It’s a bit more than forty years now since I was first in this hall, which has always struck me as a holy place: not just because of its ecclesiastical appearance, but because of the spirit that pervades it. I was first here as a guest, the year before I came up to Cambridge myself as an undergraduate in another college. My host was a fellow-Australian who was proud of being here at King’s but had already learned the educated Englishman’s trick, still a distinguishing mark in those days, of underplaying any emotion that might redound to his credit. We were sitting there at one of the benches to take lunch. A few aged dons were shuffling in to have lunch served to them up here at the high table. When you’re that young anyone old looks very old, but none of the older men looked as old as one man. He couldn’t even be said to be shuffling. It took him about ten minutes to get from one end of the hall to the other. I had plenty of time to study his appearance. He looked a bit like a photograph I had once seen of E. M. Forster. ‘Who’s that?’ I asked my friend, who finished chewing and swallowing before he answered with calculated casualness: ‘It’s E. M. Forster.’

So I went back to my London bedsit and watched television for a whole year. I liked what I saw. It was entertaining and informative, and often both at the same time, this latter trick being worked by the presence on screen of people who knew what they were talking about and had the knack of putting the explanation in as they went along. While the young John Birt was still stacking his cross-referenced copies of Eagle in chronological order, television was already one big Mission to Explain. Twenty-five years later, Rupert Murdoch, the all-time most bizarre McTaggart lecturer despite stiff competition, would make his famous accusation about an irresponsible élite giving the public what they thought it needed instead of what it wanted. If the same accusation had been made in those days, its fatuousness would have been self-evident. Whoever the élite were, they weren’t irresponsible. They vied with each other in service to the nation. The BBC hierarchs were outdone only by their ITV opposite numbers in the vocation to enlighten the people. Lord Bernstein, Sir Denis Forman — they were grandees of the Great and Good. Sir Lew, later Lord, Grade, far from being a cost-calculating cynic, was already well embarked on the philanthropic course which would eventually lead him to spend more on the production values of Franco Zeffirelli’s New Testament than on raising the Titanic; Noele Gordon in Crossroads had a smaller costume budget than Robert Powell on the cross, and the biblical cast list teemed with knights of the realm playing bit parts. Below their tea towels, their faces blazed with the light of dedication.

But that was then, and this is now, and what worries me about television now is that gradually but inexorably the screen is emptying itself of the contribution that once came from the kind of people I can only call the overqualified. Their contribution was especially conspicuous in documentary features, the field of television in which I myself have been most active, so I suppose I’ve had personal reasons for concern, and you must allow for my bias if I emphasize the point too much. But I can remember vividly that when I first came to this country I would switch on the black and white TV set to enjoy features written and presented by people like René Cutforth: people who could talk well about the present because they had some background in the past, and about the past because they were marinated in history; who could write to pictures in a compressed yet clear manner without traducing the complexity of events; and who could make a programme snap along like a good essay. You would switch on the set not just because of the subject, but because it was them treating it. Features like that were more common than not.

Thirty years later, they are less common than not. The typical feature now is written by a producer or an attendant pundit and narrated in voice-over by an actor. Whole channels sound like what an Equity AGM would sound like if actors ever went to one. As a member of Equity myself I am glad to see the actors get the work, but the results tend to lack personality in the strict sense of the word. The actors try hard — they try all too hard — but what they intone sounds as if a committee wrote it, and the general effect is of a long commercial. One of the consequences is that the viewer is helpless to attribute not only praise, but blame. Earlier this year I saw a BBC 2 programme about the Holocaust in which the actor delivering the voice-over mispronounced the word Auschwitz more than forty times. If he had been a presenter in vision we could have blamed him. As it was, there was nowhere to place the blame except on the production team, and, by extension, on the controller and the whole of the BBC. Nor did the producer have the excuse that Jeremy Isaacs had when Lord Olivier misread every second line in the script of The World at War. The actor voicing the BBC 2 feature was not very eminent and could have been easily set right. The feeling that the overqualified are giving way to the barely competent is hard to avoid. On the whole the BBC did reasonably well over the VE and VJ Day period, but it was notable how the programme about the Burma campaign, presented by Charles Wheeler, stood out. It was because of Charles Wheeler. His presence gave the programme authority. He had the qualifications because he was overqualified. Having seen the places and read the books, he not only knew what was involved, he knew how to say it, in clear language tactfully contrived to sound simple; and how to deliver it in a way that drew no attention to himself except admiration for his dedicated artistry. It isn’t his fault that he looked like a member of a dying breed.

So whose fault is it? It isn’t really anybody’s. It’s an historical tendency. There used to be dozens of these people on the screen and now there are hardly any. They haven’t been bumped off. One or two of them have been edged off, but most of them seem to have just died off, with the passing of time. What alarms me is that they haven’t been replaced: not, at any rate, with people of their type. There are superficial reasons that can be adduced for this. One of them I would call the Ford Cortina fallacy: the idea that if a subject is sufficiently fascinating it can present itself, with no single narrator. But few subjects are that fascinating in themselves: as the original proponents of the presenterless, multiple-interview, flashily edited documentary feature have no doubt been painfully discovering since they became channel controllers, even for a killer whale people are more likely to switch on when it looks as if it wants to eat Sir David Attenborough. There has to be a human face there. Bob Peck’s sepulchral voice is not enough, except if the subject is the evolution of the funeral parlour through the ages.

Another superficial reason is the Mission to Explain: a good and necessary idea, it got diverted into the news department, where there is less room for it, and away from documentary features, its proper province. Thus the impeccably overqualified John Simpson gets a few minutes to report from the battlefield and has to fufil his mission to explain in the Spectator. On screen he seems mainly to have a mission to get shot at.

But the deep reason, I believe, is a lingering nervousness about whether an élite is justified in delivering enlightenment to the public. It’s hard to believe, at this distance, how persistently the left wing, when it existed, used to attack the broadcasting élite for its paternalism. An élite was held to be a very bad thing for a society to suffer from, and the more paternalistic it was, the more manipulative it was felt to be. What else was the Establishment but a tool of Late Capitalism? This line of thought attained the status of religious belief in the 1960s, when the youth movement turned the universities into broadcasting stations of their own. Right here in King’s, on the other side of that door at the end of the hall, in a room which is now the student bar, a Free University was set up in permanent revolutionary session. Though it had all the appearance and noise level of a Trotskyite crèche, it was taken seriously by those present. I myself attended several of its soirées and made a stirring speech against the evils of in loco parentis. But as one of the older dons remarked at the time, the parents were’t as loco as they looked. Several of the more radical undergraduates — the ones who had reduced their daily intake of food to a single bowl of rice in order to proclaim their solidarity with Chairman Mao’s struggle for world freedom — condemned the Machiavellian cynicism of King’s in having provided the Free University with a room and tea-making facilities. They called this an act of repressive tolerance.

It was. On the whole, and in all its institutions, repressive tolerance was the way the Establishment neutralized attacks from the left. The unspoken assumption was that there was a solidarity between the ruling élite and its critics, the more promising of whom, it was correctly anticipated, would one day join its ranks. There was a large measure of tacit agreement that the ruling élites were as permeable as they needed to be and that there was enough social mobility to ensure that talent would rise. That it would want to rise was supposed to be guaranteed by an educational system that imparted knowlege not for utilitarian ends but as an absolute good. The broadcasting system was meant to play a large part in this process and largely did. Attacks mounted from the left thus found themselves short of ammunition, and had to make up for it by shouting slogans. Although the broadcasters exhausted themselves keeping a cool head in the hubbub, accusations that they were too much in thrall to the market answered themselves. What nobody expected, until Mrs Thatcher came to power, was the accusation that the broadcasters were too little in thrall to the market.

I don’t think that the camel’s back was broken, but perhaps its heart was. Vilified from two directions, the older generation of mandarins lost some of their confidence, and the younger generation started off without it. There was a loss of belief, and especially in the area I am talking about tonight. The left wing’s simplistic loathing of paternalism, and the right wing’s disingenuous advocacy of the sovereign people, combined to produce a lasting, toxic residue: a fear of putting anyone on the screen for long who might look or sound as if he or she (especially she, sadly enough) has been blessed — whether by background, education or the hand of God — with an air of authority not shared by the viewers at home. One result was this fading away of the old soldiers. Another was their partial replacement by these disembodied voices. And perhaps the most disturbing result of all, visible in all too many fields of television now, has been the gradual but seemingly unstoppable emergence of fresh faces with nothing to say for themselves. I’m not here to mock them: not just because I don’t want them to mock me back for my own faults, but because I’m sure most of them are nice, honest people. I don’t belong to the school of thought that says Terry Christian was invented by the X-Files special effects department. He looks to me like a brave young man struggling deperately against odds. What I question is the notion that television personalities chosen to be unthreatening present no threat.

If so seductive but wrong-headed a notion is to be countered, the first thing to say is that this isn’t the way the viewers at home feel. It’s the way the broadcasters feel on their behalf. We already know that whichever party can make education educational again will probably win the next election. We should also already know, but have been slow to catch on, that a television screen populated exlusively by specialized media creatures who have studied nothing seriously in their lives except how to read an autocue is going to leave the whole system looking poverty-stricken, however lavish the graphics. The viewers give their loyalty to people who impress them, not to ciphers. The evidence is already in. In the case of game shows, an area which is as close to a pure market as television offers, the viewers won’t switch on just for the game. They want to see the person who runs it, and it has to be a person who looks and sounds like something more than just an automaton invented for the screen. At the moment the person most people switch on is Michael Barrymore. Better than the format he fronts, he’s a naturally bright, gifted and elegant man, with a real personality rather than a manufactured one, and with a life beyond the screen — rather more life beyond the screen, it turns out, than we at first thought, although I doubt if revelations of his personal complexity will make him less popular. In America, where the daily press is not so virulent as ours but the television executives are more timid, he might have been destroyed: but that’s America’s problem, like their network television system as a whole.

American network TV is a very dangerous analogy to draw upon when discussing the British equivalent. It was on the American analogy, I suspect, that the BBC began making its ill-advised prophecies about the necessary shrinkage of the audience share for the four main channels vis-à-vis cable and satellite. But the reason why the US network audience was ripe to shrivel was that nobody with an IQ in three figures could bear to watch. The commercials were so close together that any alternative arrangement was bound to find favour. For British television executives to make a prophecy on the basis of the American experience merely risked the prophecy’s fulfilling itself without ever having validated the analogy. The only part of the analogy that really might come true concerns the American network anchor men. As the audience for each network shrank, the anchor men’s salaries expanded, because the difference they made became more decisive. The remaining audience for CBS news switched on because Dan Rather was anchoring it, with the result that a man with a tenth the qualifications of Jon Snow ended up earning a hundred times the money. It got to the point where Rather’s salary increased at double the rate of the audience’s decline, just as long as he kept the share. Earlier this year, no doubt more by luck than judgement, I myself was fronting a prime-time show that kept an audience share of never less that 40 per cent for the entire run. If somebody told me that I could have a bigger pay cheque every time the audience grew smaller, just as long as I kept the share, my first response would be ‘Where do I sign?’ But I would like to think that my second response would be desperation. We’re in this for more than the money, aren’t we?

Well, aren’t we? Of course we are. Even the faceless moguls who won the franchises turn out to have faces after all, and they want to be able to shave in the morning with their eyes open. We want to go on having a broacasting system worth working a long day for, and we want to restore it where it has lapsed. In this one area I have picked on — the supply, or lack of it, of overqualifed screen personnel — I believe the lapse now amounts to a real crisis. Other areas will repair themselves, in the light of experience. Some lapses came from a good impulse. The justifiable idea that regional accents were insufficiently represented on the air waves led to the unjustifiable and damaging conclusion that there was no such thing as standard English. But there is, and the clearest proof lies in how well it is spoken by members of precisely those minorites who might legitimately complain of discrimination if they chose. When all the women on television speak like Zeinab Badawi, and all the men like Trevor McDonald, we’ll be all right again: and there’s an end to that discussion. But this more fundamental matter, about the failure in recruitment of authoritative figures to the screen, can only be tackled when we realize that the class war is over, and put it behind us. The public already has. The public knows that it is better to be Richard Branson than the Marquess of Blandford. The public doesn’t need our pitiable tabloid newspapers to tell them that. So why can’t we grasp it? Is it because we are still haunted by this guilty embarrassment about belonging to an élite? But the people who run television are necessarily an élite, and that is a bad thing only to the extent that the élite perpetuates itself as an oligarchy.

Left-wing ideology died in the West because it was already dead in the East, and right-wing ideology, after its brief period of respectability under Mrs Thatcher, is already a rump. Social engineering of either kind has reacquired the status it should never have lost, that of a fantasy. If the fantasy lingers, it is because liberty so inconsiderately refuses to produce perfectly fair results. But a society, and a free society least of all, can’t be homogenized in pursuit of absolute justice. Such a course must always lead to greater inequalities than ever, when the last, self-seeking élite retreats to an enclave, there to rule by decree or cower within its walls. Society can’t be regimented in any lasting way, not even by Hitler or Josef Stalin. Nor can it be atomized in any profitable way, not even for Bill Gates. Society can only be bound together, in its common humanity. In that continuing task, the broadcasting system, and especially television, has a responsibility. There is no escaping from it: not into personal wealth, desirable though that might be; not into management systems, scientific though they might sound; and never into the idle supposition that the majority audience consists entirely of minorities each of which can be appealed to if its needs are identified. The final minority is the individual, and he or she is a person like us. If we sometimes don’t know what we want or need until we are shown it, how can the audience? What individuals want and what they need are two terms neither of which can be entirely resolved in terms of the other. So the broadcasting élite is stuck with its dilemma, and the dilemma is the job. We can never be certain, and yet we must act with certitude. Finally we have to do what we feel like and hope they like it. The charge of irresponsibility will always be hard to dodge. That’s the responsibility, and we might as well call it a privilege. After all, even if we’re leading a life of sacrifice, it doesn’t look that way tonight.

(King’s College, Cambridge, 15 September, 1995)