I tuned to King Lear (Sunday, Radio 3) out of duty. It was on at 9pm. The Bafta TV Awards were on BBC One at the same time, Hillsborough was on BBC Two. I wanted to watch both. Now I know anyone can catch up with anything these days but the Baftas were, more or less, live and I suspected there was going to be a bit of uproar there, actors and producers protesting against Government encroachment on the BBC’s independence. I wanted to see who would pipe up.
And yes, I do remember there has often been influence exerted over the BBC by governments in the past, chiefly through the appointment of BBC chairmen, Lord Hill (appointed by Harold Wilson) in 1967, Lord Hussey (appointed by Margaret Thatcher) in 1986 to mention but two. What’s changed now is that the present Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, appears to favour much more direct control. We will know for sure, of course, what he actually proposes when his White Paper is published.
Why am I so bothered? Because state control devalues broadcast news, limits dissent in everything from comedy to documentary, fatally undermines creativity and reputation. The BBC, unlike state broadcasters abroad, has been largely protected by its Charter, hence both the BBC’s worldwide reputation for credibility and its global sale of programmes.
Yet I also dread how far the BBC now seems prepared to accommodate Government demands. In the last settlement director-general Mark Thompson got no increase in licence fee but accepted such additional bills as those for World Service and national digital conversion. This duly brought serious financial consequences. More recently, director-general Tony Hall agreed to absorb the cost of free licence fees for over-75-year-olds. Further cuts to programme budgets now loom. In radio, where budgets are minute compared to TV, these have major impact. They show now in repeats, if not yet in such showcase programming as this season of full length Shakespeare plays.
King Lear absolutely shone. Gaynor Macfarlane’s direction was immaculate. Every player spoke the verse so well that its rhythm amplified the dramatic impact. Ian McDiarmid played Lear, Bill Paterson was Gloucester, both performances outstanding, nuanced, gripping. When Goneril and Regan faced down their father, questioning his requirement for a regal entourage, McDiarmid’s response “Oh reason not the need…” had the fury of both a king and a father who no longer exerts power. The blinding of Gloucester was horrific in its unseen intensity. I started listening on the dot of 9pm and didn’t miss a word until, two and a half hours later, it ended.
Radio 4’s Julius Caesar was dusty old set-text Shakespeare suddenly sprung to new life, broadcast serially last week. Director Marc Beeby made the streets of Rome sound real, Tim Pigott-Smith was a threateningly regal Caesar, Robert Glenister an intriguing Brutus, Jamie Parker a persuasive Antony. Productions like these show how centuries can melt away when the heartbeat of the language comes through.
On Monday morning I duly read about the pro-BBC uproar at the Baftas in the papers. Yesterday I thought what a shame there wasn’t a mention anywhere of Monday night’s BBC Radio Awards. I was there. Radio 5 Live won Team of the Year for their coverage of the Paris bombing; the six young writers from Radio 1Xtra’s Words First lined up on stage, performing poems that took the prize for Reaching New Audiences; Blood, Sex and Money won the Best Drama category.
The second tranche of this began at the weekend, is on every afternoon this week on Radio 4. It isn’t a straight dramatisation of Émile Zola’s mighty 20-novel sequence about the Rougon-Macquart family, more what is fashionably called a “mash-up ” but still a thrillingly faithful version with occasional star castings (Samuel West, Alison Steadman), the whole held tight by Glenda Jackson’s sinuous linking narration. What compels are the characters, the situations, the feel of being in another world, another time.
Let us gather such rosebuds while we may. The BBC is preparing to fold radio into a giant bundle combining other kinds of programming, including children’s TV, a move recently spotted by Simon Heffer in the Telegraph. Just as we enter what is acknowledged as a new golden age of audio the BBC, not the Government, not the demon Whittingdale, is thus committed to a shift that will rob its own radio service of status and significance. On the old Home Service’s Toytown Mr Growser would have said, “Disgraceful. Ought not to be allowed.” I’m with him.