Essays: Authority and control |
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Authority and control

THIS WEEK policy must come before programmes, confound it. As a general principle one would rather get on with assessing the output than make grand theoretical gestures: specific criticism is the only way to keep up standards, and anyway nothing cheapens faster than a readiness to stand up and be counted. It seems timely, however, to go on record with one’s best estimate of the situation which has recently arisen at the control level of television, where the gritty has never been nittier.

The BBC has been under continuous assault for several years and from three directions: from the far Left, which calls the corporation a tool of the Right; from the Right, which is convinced that Television Centre is manned by apparatchiks of the Left; and from the Government of the day, which is more or less — but always — incapable of tolerating an independent truth-telling body. These three converging vectors of attack constitute amply sufficient evidence that the BBC is on the whole continuing with its indispensable task of providing an objective account of facts, thereby inducing salutary unease in dunces of all stamps.

What inadequacies the BBC has recently been showing — for example, its often feeble reporting of Northern Ireland — spring largely from a laxity with this principle rather than adherence to it. I think the BBC should continue to defend both its integrity and its unity, regarding any demands that it be broken up as specific attacks on the desirability of a fair, disinterested analysis of events. Control must at no time be even fleetingly invested in the phantom of opinion-sampling — and on this point the notion of ‘access’ needs especially careful scrutiny. In these matters, as in most others, there is no public mind to consult — the public mind is too various. Controllers should be proud to enjoy — and be seen to enjoy enjoying — the privilege of fulfilling an authoritative office. Can-carriers should come on strong.

The IBA as at present constituted seems able to exercise its authority in no way except arbitrarily: which is to say, its authority looks to be nothing but caprice. Immediate reconstitution is plainly required. Whatever the reasons for taking off the edition of ‘World in Action’ devoted to Poulson, the IBA must not be seen to be the enemy of the very type of programming which it exists to befriend. The IBA’s initial step was as self-defeating as the subsequent step by the ACTT, who cleverly protested against the blacking out of one edition of the programme by blacking out the

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-tution of the IBA must be carefully separated from the routine requirements that authority be abandoned altogether. What is needed, surely, is more authority, not less: and as with the BBC, what is needed for more authority is the confident and impartial enjoyment of decisiveness. Dreamers who want accountability without authority are probably too deeply asleep ever to be woken up. People who want authority without responsibility to the truth are, however, very much awake already, and from them the IBA is not seen to be sufficiently independent. Indeed its middle initial at present stands for what ITV does in between programme changes and blackouts. If morale among the productive personnel is not to start slipping towards the drugged automatism of ORTF or (and here the heart quails) RAI-TV, quick action must be taken.

A swift general point about BBC-TV and ITV as a totality. Anybody who works regularly in the media is well aware that the surest sign of his doing a good Job is a sudden upsurge in the number and variety of people trying to stop him doing it. Terminal paranoia can be staved off only by well-placed trust in controllers incorruptibly dedicated to protecting creative forces from political ones. Such control can be exercised only from the apex of a fair-sized heap. That the unholy alliance of nut Left and fanatic Right should ask in the first instance for the broadcasting authorities to he broken up is consequently based on a sound assessment of the conditions which make their independence possible. The Left, incidentally, are the ones in the more expensive clothes.

Normal transmission is now resumed in a compressed form. The Play for Today (BBC-1) was Willis Hall’s Song at Twilight, starring the subtly accomplished Colin Blakely as a hopeless football manager nearing the end of a long slide down the divisions. Unfortunately, Blakely’s subtlety was not much called on, and his chief accomplishment was to shout almost continuously. Asked to generate Norman Wisdom-type embarrassment in large amounts, he wasn’t too believable as someone who’d ever been Up There, so his being Down Here was robbed of interest. The odour of the Little Man being patronised was piquant in the nostrils.

Detail, though, was often good. Clarke of Leeds appeared in person under the titles, hammering about a dozen goals into the home net. ‘Now that we’re out of the Cup we’ll be able to consolidate our position in the League,’ said one of the directors. That a Fourth Division administrator should talk exclusively in clichés picked up from watching First Division administrators on telly was all too believable. Blakely’s devastated team squatted around the tub in a ghastly stillness, like Ingres odalisques.

An excellent Country Matters (Granada), with Jane Lapotaire as Orianda in ‘The Black Dog.’ Apart from the interest of the individual plots — and the excitement of encountering a talent as disturbing as Miss Lapotaire’s almost every week — there is the additional satisfaction of watching the series build into a visual elegy for a vanishing England.

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Alistair Cooke’s America (BBC-2) ended on a questioning note which held attention, and even aroused admiration, but left all one’s original reservations intact: Time-Life means No Guts, and that’s flat. War and Peace (BBC-2) ended as well, on a dying fall of Dickensian cosiness pierced occasionally by the crystalline lyricism of Angela Down, who throughout the series represented the spirit of romantic Russia on what was otherwise an all-British occasion, with two veg. A funny Love Story (ATV), featuring the disgracefully gifted Angharad Rees falling youngly in love with smoothly middle-aged Anton Rodgers, his voice reeking with savoir trende. Gwen Watford, as her mother, loved him too. Allusive, glancing, candy-centred stuff — but a glistening surface. See my unpublished thesis, ‘The Influence of Eric Rohmer on the Modern British TV series.’

Rodnina and her new pilot Zaitsev got the all time big score in the European Figure Skating, which the fan could see once by watching BBC, and the maniac could see twice by watching ITV as well. Prominent among the maniacs, I stayed loyal all evening. Blagov and the bewitching Tchernyaeva look to be the best new bet for eloquent understatement since the Protopopovs, but meanwhile the rocket-assisted Rodnina melts the rink.

The Observer, 11th February 1973