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For decades those of us of a certain age have been able to measure our lives out in the episodic content of the BBC. Playschool for early years (remember them?) with Brian Cant and Floella Benjamin looking after our every need so long as the TV was on. Not forgetting the best maths teacher we never had, Johnny Ball. The fact that Johnny‘s daughter Zoe came to be the media face of 1990s ladettes via her stint on BBC Radio One before graduating in the 2010s to presenting on Radio 2 only adds to this sense of us as listeners and viewers growing up and old with this great British institution.
Primary school coincided with The Magic Roundabout, a five-minute dose of the magical just before tea time. An extraordinary, and total, reinvention of the original, French animation to give Dougal, Zebedee, Brian and more, an entirely new, and much-loved, meaning. “Time for bed?” Yes please, leave all the nasty news for the grown-ups to endure.
Blue Peter was more of a didactic if in a kindly way, bent. From the “Get down, Shep!” of John Noakes via that elephant dropping an almighty poo on the studio floor to creating all kinds of d-i-y artefacts with “sticky-back plastic” when all of us trying it at home knew it was Sellotape! Achieving a Blue Peter badge was the not-so-secret ambition of the aspirational child.
And as teendom dawned, the Thursday night post-supper treat of Top of the Pops. This was Glastonbury, the Brixton Academy, looking good, before most of the Arctic Monkeys were born, not on the dance floor but in our living rooms. Dictated by whatever was topping, rising, and bubbling under the week’s charts, broadcast live by Radio One the preceding Sunday evening, TOTP was broad enough to be the first introduction for many to Bowie, reggae, punk, Two-Tone and more.
But the real insight into all that music had to offer beyond the charts was provided for punky-indie adolescents by the incomparable John Peel broadcasting on Radio One from 10 pm, a strictly under-the-bedclothes night-time pleasure for those still of school age.
The BBC had a knack of conjuring up shows near-perfect for growing up with. Doctor Who has changed an awful lot from the era of William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee. Via regeneration, after regeneration, David Tennant, Jodie Whittaker and Ncuti Gatwa are not in the least the same as their Whovian forebears. Yet for many, just like for us mere humans growing up only to get old, continuities exist to provide reassurance. Daleks, exterminate! Where would we be without them? Modernisation, as politically we’ve learned, has its limits.
Not only that: change can also serve to disappoint. Monty Python existed on the outer edges of English surrealism. It was a near-miracle the show was ever broadcast. For fans, there had never been anything quite like it before, nor anything like it since either. The dead parrot, the four Yorkshiremen, on the big screen the People’s Front of Judea, not the Judean People’s Front, achieving a crossover to the popular that few of a surrealist disposition achieve, or more likely even seek. John Cleese, Minister of Python’s Silly Walks, with Fawlty Towers moved this Pythonesque caricature of Englishness to an even bigger and broader audience. The fact John has now himself become a caricature of Basil, his most famous character, is for many a grave disappointment, or perhaps rather the most surreal consequence imaginable.
1968: a year of revolt. The mai events in Paris, the Prague Spring, and the Tet Offensive in Vietnam reached the very edge of the Saigon US Embassy compound. Meanwhile, in good old Blighty, something is stirring on the Walmington-on-Sea seafront. Yes really, ’68 marked the first broadcast of Dad’s Army, a defiantly and most particular English version of anti-fascism. The Bank Manager, his Assistant Manager and junior clerk, united, together with the local butcher, funeral director, seaside retiree, local spiv, and more, against Hitler and what his stormtroopers would do to their beloved town. OK, not exactly the Anti-Nazi League but for a comedic version of the breadth and reach of the wartime popular sentiment against fascism, none will ever match Mainwaring, Wilson, Pike, Frazer, Godfrey, Walker but most of all Lance Corporal Jones. As Jones endlessly reminded us about fascists: “They don’t like it up ’em.”
Does any of this really matter? For some, the BBC is a century-old voice of the establishment. For others a cabal of the woke. But as Raymond Williams sought to teach us, “culture is ordinary.” Thus, for most, rather than simply via the news, it is in the nooks and crannies of children’s TV, soaps and celebrity-led reality TV and comedy that ideas are formed, dismantled, remade. Stuart Hall (no, not the disgraced former BBC It’s a Knockout presenter, but the other one, the cultural theorist) applied Williams’s premise to an entirely new way of ‘doing’ politics:
“It is through culture that processes of social change make themselves most dramatically visible. Culture is a constitutive dimension of society.”
Stuart believed popular culture was the site where everyday struggles between dominant and subordinate groups are fought, won, and lost. Culture thus has to be thought of as active, a key part of society. And in the process, politics become inseparable, or at least it should, from popular culture, and vice versa – on a mass (media) scale in turn serving to erode traditional class alliances. From daleks to Strictly, this is why the BBC not only informs and entertains, but matters too.
October 18th 2022: Happy hundredth BBC.
Stuart Hall, Writings on Media: A History of the Present
Note Philosophy Football’s BBC Centenary T-shirt range, including a half-price offer on The BBC: A People’s History from here
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