City Streets – The City of Holby and the Streets of ‘68
Why would this grumpy old geezer listen to BBC radio 4 – the only channel any radio in my house or car is tuned into? Indeed, is it not a contradiction that someone sufficiently computer savvy to listen on line, would choose the bastion of the establishment, the last great hope for those who love the English language and still feel their hackles rise when someone operationalises a noun?
The demographic is a fit – I am plumb in the middle of the mid fifties to mid sixties age range of the average listener and, as such, can remember the heyday of this media with its mores busting ‘Round the Horne’ and class challenging ‘Goons’ and the services mocking ‘Navy Lark’. The BBC may be an old flame and I still love the old girl but I am not blinded by the glare of nostalgia – I can see how her skirts are now ragged and her hair grey, the turquoise eye-shadow is too loud and the lipstick drear and smudged.
Two programmes this week seemed to me to offer two radically different explanations for my continuing espousal of a media which tries to foist the Common Agriculture Policy down our throats in the world’s longest running drama ‘The Archers’ and yet delivers the avant garde with ‘Afternoon Plays’ that mix drama and documentary with the same experimental verve that was once, but is long lost, on BBC TV.
I could, at this point, launch into an acrimonious rant about the ‘dumbing down’ of the BBC… I could, so I will!
Why is everything turning into mush? A decade ago if one was sad enough [as I am] to tune in on a Saturday night you could watch the halfway decent ‘Casualty’. Sure it did have people in relationships but the main thrust of the thing was the action and the consequences of trauma in a busy hospital department. Each series would end with an ever more over-the-top cliffhanger by toppling bus loads of our favourite characters into the canal or engulfing them in exploding oil tankers. This was acceptable as the medicine was accurate and the plot lines largely credible. The characters did fall in and out of love but it would take 12 episodes for an affair to get anywhere.
What do we have now?
The mythical setting of ‘Casualty’ is a city called Holby. Now there are at least three separate TV programmes set in this city and they share something with much of the pap currently being fed us. The action is merely the background to torrid and tawdry love affairs that wax and wane within a forty minute episode and rely on that standby of all bad dramatists; a seeming inability for anyone to be honest and occasionally actually talk meaningfully to one another. You lose count of the number of times someone says… “Jack, can we talk?” and when Jack cocks his ear “No, it doesn’t matter, I’ll tell you later”.
This has nothing in common with the establishment of character that one finds in the average novel let alone the classics. This is no ‘Northanger Abbey’ nor ‘Oliver Twist’. The politics are as shallow as the relationships and the drama as contrived as the dialogue. Indeed much of TV now relies on its characters changing personality every few weeks. Last week’s hero is this week’s villain and this weeks innocent becomes next week’s femme fatale. Increasingly drama seems to be a vehicle for starlets and whole series take a turn for the worse to indulge the proclivities of the people playing the parts. [Just like when ‘Star Trek’ or ‘Stargate’ episodes were written and directed by their leading characters] If you doubt this just watch ‘Torchwood’. This series looked as if it would be a halfway decent spin-off of ‘Dr Who’ with its leading character being the enigmatic ‘Captain Jack’. I can take the silly plots and over dramatic toting of alien technology being a sci fi bitch of many years standing, but the sexuality of the characters sees to reflect the proclivities of the central actor and script writers and not only adds nothing to the drama, it actually undermines any semblance of characterisation.
Here is a world where everyone is either a sad loser or bi-sexual. I have no problem with anyone doing anything to anyone else that they both enjoy. I am of a liberal bent and have marched beside members of the British Prostitute’s Collective and in Gay Pride out of solidarity for the right to be anything one damn well pleases, but I am also of a generation that finds it quite hard to watch two blokes snogging. It is literally true to say some of my best friends are gay… indeed I have very few friends and my second longest standing mate ‘came out’ to me 30 years ago feeling safe to do so although I was only the second straight person he felt able to tell. I say this to establish my credentials as politically correct so that it is plain that my next remark has no connection with homophobia… That the leading character of ‘Torchwood’ should snog every other character in the drama whether they be male, female or alien hermaphrodite does seem to me to be just a tad gratuitous. That every character straight or gay seems to be in love with him appears to me to say more about the schoolboy crushes of the scriptwriters or producers than it does about how to deal with a rift in time.
I grew up with ‘Play for Today’ and was moved and educated, enraged and enthused by “Cathy Come Home’, ‘The Vagrant’, ‘Blue Remembered Hills’, Potters classics and the teeth-grinding ‘Nuts in May’ and ‘Abigail’s Party’. Gritty stuff and madcap drama, politics and life in the raw… the era when the BBC motto of ‘Nation Shall Speak unto Nation’ and its remit to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ was truly realised.
Back to BBC Radio 4 and the sparks that ignited this particular flambeau of criticism. I listened to two very different programmes the other day. One was chatter between the talking heads of my generation, pontificating and reminiscing about the summer of ’68. Much of it focussed on the march on the American Embassy in May 1968 and the near riot when police horses charged the crowd. What was that all about? Opinions ranged from ‘we changed the world’ to ‘it was the childish act of naïve people’.
I cannot claim to have been on the streets in May 1968, but I was on the march in October and spent that Autumn ‘sitting in’ at my University, marching for freedom and carrying banners for that year and the next few and I’m here to say “of course we changed the world”. It was not about a few leaders following their revelations and pulling us sheep along with them, but about a total change of attitude and class structure, the re-arranging of all the seats at the political top table and every bench on every street corner. Hundreds of years of status quo were swept aside and that tide rolled on for a decade. The way in which we felt about, and resolved issues like, abortion, being gay, dealing with murderers, the age of voting, race and immigration, work and gender were put into the melting pot and stirred like never before or since. We should be proud of being there and being part of something one can only truly understand with hindsight. It was neither naïve nor revolutionary, it was not about great leaders or leaderless mobs but about the outward expression of real change. I personally think that after the backlash of Regan and Thatcher we have barely regained the ground and only the freeing of Nelson Mandela stands out in that tradition.
What was the other programme? It was another BBC institution… ‘Dessert Island Discs’. Who was taking their 8 records one book and a luxury into exile? It was none other than Tariq Ali – the red-raincoated student radical who was there on the streets of 1968 London standing as tall as Daniel Cohen-Bendit in Europe or the French marchers in Paris making the French establishment truly fear revolution.
I heard him say that he has still refused to join the establishment – as he chose his operatic arias and esoteric eastern songs. I was not of that same class of ‘leader’ in the 60s. I was a working class lad brought up by liberal parents who was taught his own worth and therefore truly believed in the worth of all. Here was a man steeped in the raj and educated as only money can buy. He came from the establishment of another nation and has always been part of an intellectual elite here. He really, really believed what he said, that he was not part of the establishment.
Sorry matey bubble but someone whose high-brow taste and humourless patter is given air on the establishment clarion, someone who is selected to share their choice of music with the BBC world is not an outsider treading their lonely path in angst and anguish but so deep in the mire of the establishment that they can barely see the perimeter fence, not on top ramparts holding a flag aloft, pulling down the barricades to let ‘the people’ flood through!