“Why is the BBC so Miserable?”

Robin Carmody on the Radio Times’ letters page

First published July 2000

One of the most striking features of the Radio Times throughout its existence has been the letters page (it was always much more trivial and inconsequential in the TV Times) – not least for the way it frequently incarnates opinions which would now be considered almost universally unacceptable, but which were held by huge sections of British society, and were seen as the norm, at the time of their writing.

In its otherworldliness, nothing can equal the letter sent to RT in 1927 which wondered why he could hear the voice of the then Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) coming out of the radio, when the prince was nowhere in the area – “I live on a hill!” he protested, wondering whether this could explain his bafflement. In our period under discussion, Tom Ewing’s description of RT letters as “essentially the wives of Telegraph letters, and far less worrying”, would often seem accurate (at least for the first half of the phrase – some letters are more disturbing than anything that was published in The Telegraph during the Max Hastings era, at least), but some letters did express concerned liberal views:

The kind of jokes that should not be told?
“Michael Parkinson’s Saturday night chat show becomes ever more self-indulgent, and it reached a peak on 15 January (BBC1). Bernard Manning was rightly reproved by Esther Rantzen for his racialist and insulting humour, but far from supporting her, Michael Parkinson and Magnus Magnusson sadly chose to defend the offender. Surely they must realise that to excuse jokes that undoubtedly upset racial or religious minorities on the grounds that they get a laugh is as morally indefensible as a suggestion that to break the law is acceptable because it is enjoyable. On the subject of Mr Manning’s proud boast that he has never failed to make people laugh I must point out he died the death in this house.”
(5 – 11 February 1977)

But more typical are letters like this, which absolutely perfects the short, curt, clipped, militaristic tone we associate with those one-line Telegraph letters (“SIR – It is time for another Countryside March”):

The unanswered question
“Why is the BBC so miserable? Is there any reason for it?”
(February 1980)

Some letters aren’t actually objectionable, just utterly fogeyish and dismissive of anything new:

“In just about 50 years of radio and latterly TV listening and watching, this [The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy] strikes me as the most fatuous, inane, childish, pointless, codswallopping drivel. For goodness sake, let us have creative artists writing for radio and not schoolboys. It is not even remotely funny.”
(February 1980)

Quite frequently, personal nostalgia becomes so great that any alternative views of the past are despised:

Edwardian enjoyment
“I read Benny Green’s article on Tommy Steele’s TV presentation (Radio Times, 8 April). I am in my 74th year and have no television, and I do not know who Benny Green is. But I suspect he knows little about the Edwardian era or Music Hall. True there was poverty (I knew plenty of it), bad sanitation, and what have you. That is why we went to the theatre and the Music Hall, to escape from everyday life. We really enjoyed ourselves wholeheartedly, unlike most of the modern generation who seem to take everything far too seriously, even their pleasures. But when Benny Green describes that decade as ‘a great hypocritical fraud, a confidence trick and a disgrace to civilisation’, he makes me hot under the collar. Of course the Edwardian working classes could sing happy, boisterous songs – and they did with gusto. To describe it as spurious shows how little Mr Green knows about it. I am willing to stick my neck out and say, along with thousands of my own age group, ‘Thank God I was alive in the much-maligned Edwardian era’. As for Tommy Steele, I admire this young man immensely. He has such a zest for life, such a clean and wholesome approach to his work, that it is like a breath of pure fresh air in an otherwise so sick world.”
(1 – 7 May, 1971)

Sometimes passionate support is expressed for minorities within the UK:

“The Celtic peoples of Cornwall had their own culture, church, kings and language for thousands of years. Today the Cornish race maintains strong links with its Irish, Welsh and Breton cousins through social, musical and sporting activities such as the Pan-Celtic festivals, and we send delegates to each other’s Gorseths (annual gatherings of the bards). At these gatherings we each speak in our own native Celtic tongues. Close ties are felt between us Celtic peoples, whereas the English over the border are still regarded as Anglo-Saxon infiltrators. We are proud of our Celtic roots here, and resent being omitted.”
(11 – 17 July 1987)

But, all too often, it descends into this kind of thing:

Fair play
“I should like to protest about the anti-British programme, named for some reason Choices. This was billed as a discussion programme. I understand this to mean that anyone can put their point of view. Not so; we had an anti-police MP, a pro-black white man, and the presenter, who should be impartial, gave a stupid grin whenever anything bad was said about the British. No native British person was invited to speak …”
(8 – 14 August 1987)

And this:

British way of life
“Why was such an interesting and informative programme spoilt by the remark made at the end by the narrator on the lines of ‘a way must be found to stop people being racist’? Surely the statement should have been ‘a way must be found to stop non-British minorities destroying the British way of life.’ This is a view which I am sure the vast majority of Britons would support if these opinions were not either ignored or ridiculed and they were given a reasonable opportunity to be aired.”
(25 – 31 January 1986)

And I won’t even start on this, from the TV Times’ letters page:

Question of faith
“There must have been thousands of elderly, sick and disabled viewers who regularly watch ITV’s Morning Worship on Sundays and were bitterly disappointed to see a Hindi service recently. This is a Christian country (so-called) and the Queen is Defender of the Faith. To we Christians, this is not acceptable.”
(18 – 24 June 1988)

But, of course, any letters page, in virtually any publication, is by definition the mouthpiece for the most extreme, irrational, absurd and one-sided opinions, simply because of the mentality of most journalists, which judges letters by how striking and instantly readable they are rather than by how articulate and rational they are. To say “EastEnders was great last night” or “Tony Blair’s last speech was so accurate and sensible” or “The new Director General has the best possible blueprint for the future of the BBC” just isn’t memorable enough to get a letter published.

That said, some right-wing newspapers – most obviously the Daily Telegraph – clearly prioritise the letters which fit most easily with that day’s editorials and their general agenda, and in the past the RT may have been guilty of this at times. But RT was more likely to deliberately balance letters from one extreme with letters from the other, so you sometimes get the impression from its letters page that the majority of its readers were either British nationalists or extreme liberal left-wingers. That is quite obviously distorted – but what letters page isn’t? And it has to be said (and I’m not proud to say this, far from it) that today’s letters page, while it rarely reaches the objectionable level it frequently did in past days, is nowhere near as readable as it was then, many correspondences seeming like bland expressions of appreciation and little else.