BBC2: 6pm – 6am

By Robin Carmody

First published April 2000

Star Trek – The Next Generation and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are two of those secrets possessed by many but permanently denied me, it seems. The popularity of the ‘Trekwill probably always baffle me, its uber-American sentimentality getting in the way of what it presumably aims to achieve, and Buffy - well, it’s trash. But I wonder whether it knows it is trash, because trashiness can be a source of pride, and this kind of pseudo-gothic nonsense is precisely where it can be made so. Parts of it are absolutely hilarious and, if they had a sense of irony, they’d be wonderfully camp (the Hollywoodised recreations of “Galway, 1753″, “London, 1860″ and “Rumanian Woods, 1898″).

But I got the disturbing feeling that they mean it. As with so much mainstream American TV, you want to punch all those involved in this programme – a weekly 45-minute encapsulation of high-school schlock-horror for global consumption – for taking themselves so bloody seriously. You want to kick their straight faces in.

The South-West version of Close Up is an absolutely brilliant regional documentary, a genre infinitely preferable to the cheesiness of most regional news programmes. Covering Albert Bedane, an unacknowledged hero who has recently been recognised for his sheltering a Jewish woman and escaped prisoners of war during the German occupation of the Channel Islands from 1940 – 45, it reveals, for the first time, the full extent of the treatment of the Jews, who lost their businesses and their basic human rights on the Islands as much as anywhere else that was occupied. These images – Jewish ghettos in ’30s Germany, the grotesque “Jew Suss”, men dying at Auschwitz – never lose their power to chill. The further we get from the World War II, and the more removed it becomes from the familiar, popular, recent memory, the more starkly terrifying Nazism seems.

Crufts is perversely compelling, year after year, despite the ridiculous and faintly disturbing obsession of all those who surround it with the exact physical appearance of the dogs, while indifferent to their actual temperament and behaviour. There’s something enjoyably silly about it, though, and TV would be the poorer without the demented presence of erstwhile Blue Peterman Peter Purves (“The Fair City Golds from Perth against the Watford Bouncers, Watford from Watford, the Fair City Golds, as I’ve said, from up there in Scotland, long way to come … yes, the Scots came a long way to lose that one.”)

None of which, sadly, can be said for Top Gear, with its parade of smug, upper-class xenophobic professional idiots (even without Clarkson, nothing changes) hymning the Aggressive Normality of the Car Culture. The most obnoxious programme on TV, and the only one I literally can’t watch, at least not the first time.

I hate actually having to sympathise with Sir John Harvey-Jones, loathsome “success”-obsessed Thatcherite industrialist that he is … but the tragedy is that I have to. Troubleshooter – Back in Business, which returns Harvey-Jones to the businesses he first ordered to “change or die” in the late ’80s, effectively pushes up against each other two c/Conservative ideologies I despise equally – the pushy obsession with “achievement” of Harvey-Jones (essentially the Thatcherite Tory – and now New Labour – belief of the last 20 years) and the smug, bumbling, blimpish, institutionalised fear of change (the ’50s/early ’60s brand of Conservatism, typified by the Eden/Macmillan era) held by toy company boss Sidney Orchant and those in charge of sports car manufacturer Morgan Motors.

I despise the chummy, snobbish “old-boy network” mentality which Peter and Charles Morgan displayed in the 1989 interview, and the antiquated techniques they were still using to build cars. I applaud the changes they’ve made since. But there is surely someone better than smug, “yah”-spouting Harvey-Jones to encourage them to make those changes. Had the former ICI behemoth been taking on a company run on Old Labour principles, I’d have known which side to take, and it would have been firmly against Harvey-Jones. But in this case … a plague on both their houses!

“Is GM Safe?” is a typically excellent Horizon documentary on genetic engineering. Taut, sharp, to-the-point … Horizon is one of those programmes that the iconoclast in me is always tempted to criticise, but I stop myself in time. Its solidity and consistency are beyond question, and it remains mercifully immune from the flashiness, self-conscious modishness, and sometimes downright lies, which have afflicted most similar Channel 4 programmes (see George Monbiot’s brilliant article in The Guardian on Thursday 16 March for a sign of how low C4 have sunk).

Pass It On, part of the BBC’s Time Bank campaign, is another good moment, the type of 10-minute diversion BBC2 does so well, putting together people traditionally assumed to be opposed to each other (an organic farmer and a drag queen). Great observational TV, and a commercialised BBC would leave no room for gems like this.

Initially, I thought Newsnight would have the longest review of the day, acting as it does as a general metaphor for the condition of BBC2 at any particular time. It seems like the hub of the channel, the one fixed point, and definitely the centrepiece of its most advanced, analytical news and current affairs coverage, much as the Nine O’clock News (sorry, BBC News at Nine O’clock) is seen as the core of the BBC’s efforts to bring serious journalism to a mass audience. It has had some low points recently, notably the unbelievably Chris Morris-esque use of Oliver Twist intoning “Please Sir, I want some more … some more … some more” followed by Kirsty Wark declaiming “Is this what the National Health Service has been reduced to?”, which was pure, unadulterated Brass Eye. But this is a good programme. The reports from Kosovo nearly a year after the war started, Jeremy Paxman at his harsh best while interviewing Keith Vaz, the report on renewable energy use … on this evidence, the “core” of BBC2 is in good health. Paxman could even say “Peter, thank you” to a reporter and the obvious Day Today echo does not resonate. The Weather follows (presented, admittedly, by the scarily Sylvester Stewart-esque Daniel Corbett).

The humour of Bruiser is new to me, and it is the most startling “first time” for me since I initially saw The League of Gentlemen. While it’s not that good, it too veers over the edge into utter, faintly disturbing grotesquerie – a man screaming “I AM NOT A STALKER!” at the woman he was eyeing, police making sexual and violent attentions towards a young woman, the Alan Titchmarsh-obsessed TV producer with his psychotic fixation on “Love Golf” and “Hate Golf”, and the Motorhead T-shirt-wearing computer obsessive who seemed to take such pleasure in swear words that they became poetry in themselves (shades of Chris Morris’s seductive whisper of “My little wanky window”). The positive surprise of the day, for me. Rex the Runt, filling the 10 minutes before midnight, is gently and enjoyably deviant.

Midnight sees the political review Despatch Box, where Tory-turned-Labour MP Shaun Woodward effectively, and quite rightly, accuses his former party of racism and xenophobia, and Tory MP Gerald Howarth, like Redwood and Portillo earlier, shows the vicious face of old High Conservatism, advocating the complete repeal of all race relations legislation.

And then it was back to the BBC Learning Zone. The Open University’s Background Brief onteleportation is not particularly memorable, but What Have The Sixties Ever Done For Us? is an absolutely fantastic mélange of clips from the decade’s scientific advances and disasters, with original 60s BBC-TV “map of Britain” continuity, the presentation from the launch of Telstar and the first Europe-US satellite transmissions in 1962 (taking us right back to Top Cat - that loss of the “otherness” America had then, and its effect on the general decline of novelty in popular culture) and a near-perfect soundtrack (Beatles, Kinks, Monkees, you know the rest).The line-up of Open Science – the unpublicised Bytesize - Science, the space-oriented Final FrontierThe Science Of ClimateTropical Forest: The Conundrum of Co-existence, the unpublicised Keywords - Social ScienceManaging for Biodiversity - all continue on their merry way, all admirable but all, to me, tedious.

The exception, of course, is The Ascent of Man, Dr Jacob Bronowski’s peerless 1973 series which, on the evidence of this episode, The Music of the Spheres, fully deserves its “landmark” status. Sheldon Hondler’s Radiophonic music, the incredible historical sense, classic early computers … there’s no room for historical revisionism. Don’t even think about it.

The Teaching Today programme ITC: Higher Order IT Skills In Primary, shown under the banner Curriculum Development, I find slightly more interesting, but Japanese Language and People is fascinating for me, as someone long obsessed with that country. It catches both the traditional culture and values of Japan and the changes brought on by globalization (or “internationalisation” as it was referred to in 1991, when the programme was made), and it captures the thing I find most appealing about Japan – its easy, unashamed fusion of Ancient and Modern, the way you’ll see Fritz Lang glass-and-plastic futurism right next to a relic of the old Japan (compared to the way British planners seem obsessed with placing Poundbury-esque period kitsch next to the “real” thing, thus showing up its utter falsity).

It defines a particular historical moment (the perception of the future at the start of the ’90s, during that country’s economic boom when it seemed to be overtaking the US) and (yet again …) it was transcending its own time (only 9 years ago, and already the technology used to transmit BBC News from Tokyo is archaic), still used as a means of education.

Two fairly tedious Working With Local Government programmes - Computer Skills and the unpublicised The Key to IT: Health and Childcare - round off the 24 hours. The latter includes a middle-aged woman noting how once upon a time you used to only see “boffins” using computers, but now they’re everywhere and they’re so much easier to use – which forms a neat and telling comparison to one contribution to the original BFI 1988 Day, where someone records “I know nothing about computers, what a thing to confess in the 1980s.” In retrospect, this was not really a thing to feel you had to confess to at all – the vast majority of people then knew nothing about computers, and they don’t know that much more now; except at present they’re so much easier to use that it doesn’t matter that much (most people who are now on the internet could never use it were modern PCs and Macs still as complicated as they were in 1988, or even five years ago).


Time, Quality, Diversity… And Shauna Lowry

So what’s the conclusion on BBC2 after these 24 hours? Too much background TV, too much revivalism of dead formulae, to fill up ever-increasing airtime, but doesn’t that apply to all channels? And BBC2 suffers less from that syndrome than any of Britain’s other terrestrial channels. Too much Americanisation? Well, not necessarily (Daily Telegraph doom-merchants be damned) – only four fully American programmes, two cartoons at breakfast time and two in succession in the traditionally youth-oriented early evenings.

Too many co-productions (for my liking, anyway)? Yes, probably – the fact that there were five co-prods alongside the four US imports is definitely a sign of the times. Too little input from non-English-speaking countries (again, for my liking)? True – the French co-production in the lunchtime cartoon Romauld the Reindeer, lasting 10 minutes, was the sole contribution from any non-English-speaking country apart from the Japanese involvement in Japanese Language and People, which was not a co-production but did have a Japanese presenter and was filmed exclusively in that country.

Too much Shauna Lowry? God, yes (she was involved in Cats’ EyesAwash With Colour andCrufts, and then you have such oddities as Martin Waddell writing the story on Tweenies and then appearing on Awash With Colour). But, overall …

Think of how it could be. Imagine Horizon in the hands of modern-day Channel 4, and just think of how sensationalist and unreliable it would probably have become. Imagine Close-Up South West made by the Carlton-controlled Westcountry ITV region. Imagine Westminster Live,Newsnight or Despatch Box made by the now completely discredited ITN. And then think of how much quality and diversity there still is on BBC2.

The cultural changes in Britain in recent years – away from some supposed cultural “mainstream” towards a whole set of elective “cults” in a culture without a centre – suit BBC2 infinitely better than they suit BBC1, whose alleged “glory years” were based around a perception of national “sameness” which can never now be recreated (see Stuart Jeffries’ writing on this). 36 years after the launch of BBC2, when that (at the time) incredibly futuristic design and utopian trumpet fanfare ushered in the Harold Wilson era of television, so much has changed. The positive and negative changes around BBC2 are very akin to the positive and negative changes in British society as a whole.

But you get the feeling that that large part of the BBC’s soul that lies in Jane Root’s ultimate control is surviving into the new century remarkably well, possibly better than any other part of the BBC. Maybe BBC2′s time has come just when it might have gone. And, after 7 years of Birtian destructiveness, that is an achievement.

  <6am – 6pm