Three can still be the Magic Number

As a youngster desperate to watch The Word and Eurotrash, I had to employ as many clever-clever techniques as I could to stop my parents from finding out. Pillows against the door, volume down to 0, subtitles on, standing up (rather than risk creaking on the bed or a chair). I think that, on the whole, I got away with it.

All that, though, was another world away from television today, and what young people access for entertainment, music, humour. Fixed schedules, weekly ‘event’ television, dedicated strands on specific channels – all these and more besides are as outdated to younger audiences as Swapshop was to me in the 1990s. It’s little wonder that the BBC, subjected to justifying every penny of a reduced licence fee, can’t be seen hanging around with its ‘youth’  output, or be seen to have too traditional an attitude towards the provision of programmes for a younger audience. It is no longer the case that Network 7 (and there’s a contemporary reference, kids) can be used to fob off opinionated teens once a week.

BBC Three, the oft-rebranded, re-focused, re-calibrated youth and young people channel on digital television, is to be moved away from the box and onto the Internet. For most of its audience, there will be no difference. Streaming television, be it through the BBC’s own iPlayer or something like Netflix, is second nature for the kids of today. ‘Must see’ dramas and comedies can be accessed through alternative means, and frankly, there’s more than one way to watch Family Guy of an evening. (And on that point, moving Family Guy and American Dad to a post-Newsnight slot on BBC Two could have countless positive consequences.)

The problem with BBC Three has been one consistent issue with confusion. Was it the launchpad for new talent, and if so, why did so many pilots and trials fail? Was is the dumping ground for shock-docs, and if not, how many times could the Beeb say it was constructive to show parents acting surprised at their drunk children having a good time on holiday? Using Being Human as a catch-all calling card for all that is good about Three is useless when Lee Nelson was given two (count them, two) series. The BBC should be doing more than presenting an all-year round YouTube clips show, too, which Good News… has been since the dawn of time.

Rather than mourning the loss about Three, let’s look at the possibilities. More digital space for broadcasting footage from festivals and minority sports, perhaps? If the Beeb wants to think a little differently, why not use the CBBC frequency for teen/youth programmes after close-down?

The future of the BBC is always and forever in doubt. Every penny has to be justified, perhaps more than ever. Five years ago, I suggested that axing BBC Three would be a good thing, and I still do.

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Channel hopping, on one leg…

You could hear Charlie Brooker and Konnie Huq snapping their pencils in exhausted anger in response to BAFTA creating “Reality and Constructed Factual” as an award category some years ago. Oh well, one half of the still slightly unfathomable couple must have said to the other, there goes sharp satire towards THAT part of broadcasting, have we done sports television yet?

Perhaps ever-so-but-not-quite less now than in recent years, television is all about the specific ‘concept’ show, one specific strand left tied between two posts only just close enough together to avoid snapping, but far enough apart to allow it to disappear if viewed from a certain angle. BBC Two bloody loves a ‘concept show’; n just one genre they’ve enjoyed asking professional chefs to cook for the Queen, not-so-professional chefs to cook for each other, and complete amateurs to cook for Andi Peters and Christine Hamilton. From these ‘concepts’ ripple out variants which don’t quite work but fit the bill, sort of tribute band versions, such as ITV’s doomed attempt at making ‘Great British Menu’. (“ITV’s doomed attempt to…” could become a meme, actually, if it isn’t already.)

BBC Two has also given us an 114-year old women (give or take) sewing LIVE and current cult fave ‘Great British Bake Off’, which promises and almost always delivers UNCENSORED FLOUR SIFTING at before 9pm. Scandalous.

From the ripples out to the farthest reaches of television, the ‘concept’ show continues almost but not quite unwatched. SKY One, bless it, bought the rights to “Project Catwalk”, where a dozen gay men and two kooky women bitchersize to-and-fro in between occasional shots of LIVE SEWING. Channel 4, for reasons nobody can fathom, continue providing airtime to Middle Class Big Brother ‘Come Dine With Me’, and both Five has a strange delight with domestic and bought-in ‘concept’ programmes showing people learning to take a holiday with strangers and F-list celebs and that sort of thing. It’s a wonder, as many sane individuals ask every now and then, that they’ve not run out of shows to broadcast.

Well I think there’s a good number of programme ideas left for “Production Concept Architects”, or whatever BBC Media City types are called this week, to put inside their thought-pods. I have not been influenced by ‘Sex Box’, the Channel 4 red-triangle nostalgia fest in which two couples are interviewed having just shagged in an opaque box. (I seem to remember Vice magazine doing something similar if not identical, more than once, as nothing is new under the sun.). Laudable, Channel 4? I understand the principle behind the programme – for many viewers of sex on-line via small boxes with the volume down the only questions asked after a fuck usually consists of ‘Oh yea, you like that don’t you?’ Not entirely convinced, though, that putting documentary clothes around “The Sex Inspectors” makes ‘Sex Box’ automatically valid or credible.

Anyhoo ‘Sex Box’ has not got me thinking, as I said, about a 6-part Channel 5 ‘concept’ show where three couples are taught a different sex position every week for the chance to appear on Television X [proprietor: Mr R Desmond]. No, instead, I think BBC Two has just the right gap in its schedules to do away with cookery, learning to conduct an orchestra and giving floppy-haired nature presenters the opportunity to drop Manic Street Preachers lyrics into stock footage of an owl being torn to shreds, for the broadcast of “Writers Block”, a 28-or-so episode reality-and-constructed-factual winter warmer in which budding writers, poets and EMO-RUBY (or someone like her) must go from scrawling “No Milk Today” outside the house every morning to a novella just in time for a Christmas Day dramatisation after Brenda’s speech. Tie-in NaNoWriMo and you’ve got the BBC roping in the “Twilight” fandom who spend 20 days writing “If Only I Was……whatever the girl is called in it for the purposes of this bit Brenda?” before calling it a day because NOBODY IS GOING TO TURN ME INTO EMO RUBY or whatever.

“Writers Block” goes straight to the heart of the BBC’s argument that Auntie is all about brains and not beauty, intelligence over people having sex in a box or being shouted at by Davina. Learn to write poetry having been forced into screaming choice words at “Eggheads” – surely it’s a winning production on that alone? It’s very Radio 4, yes, but if you can tolerate “Quote Unquote” and “Poetry Please” then you can put up with 5×26 minutes every week of a pop-up restaurant owner from Hoxton speak-singing in front of John Barrowman and Sophie Ellis-Bexter, surely?

Television relies on making new things out of very old ideas; there’s nothing in “Strictly” that looks particularly different from 1970s and 1980s variety shows, for example. The ‘concept’ show has provided modern viewers with some must-see classics, only these can disappear as fast as they come. What nobody wants is constant reliance on the tired format – see “The X Factor” struggle, see “Come Dine With Me” turn into in-joke hell. If there’s something remotely different to experiment with, I say go the heck with it. Tune in to watch “Writers Block” on BBC Two, it’s the BBC Four show you always wanted in a format you’d be too British about to complain over. Sounds…..whatever the word is….I’ll do better next week, honest, don’t evict me….

Word of 2012

This has been the year which has seen media cannibalism: the Leveson inquiry and all which continues to fall from that, both merely implied and strongly hinted. It’s been a year of trust and mistrust, stretching around the world and filling both television screens and social media feeds.

Twelve months ago my word for the year summarised the prevailing mood of the time – what seems now as more of a flash than a precursor, although continued demonstrations in Greece, Spain, Italy and elsewhere show the natural progression of whatever it was people planted in 2011. That word and its intent has been overtaken by one of its core principles, which is why I’ve chosen the destination as the word of the year, rather than the means by which it is sought.

“Justice” has wrapped itself around this year and continues to direct the news agenda. It’s been the heart of the matter and the guiding principles. On the football pitch (and considerable time spent off it), ‘justice’ has been the heart of the alleged racial abuse between players and amongst rivals. Across social media platforms, most notably Twitter, teenagers have been locked up for abusing celebrities, putting under strain the arguments of ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘democratisation’ which underpins the popularity of new media.

In nations across the world, different definitions of injustice either fill our news pages or are conspicuous in not doing. Israel’s ‘pillar of strength’ operation against Hamas in Gaza is framed by whichever definition of ‘justice’ it is to which you subscribe. In the Australian Parliament, the injustice of sexism was put to the sword by Prime Minster Julia Gillard in the most unexpected viral video of the year. As Conservative MP Nadine Dorries learns the hard way that you can’t talk about politics whilst eating an ostrich’s anus on prime-time ITV, her pet subject of abortion reform was brought into stark focus in Ireland with the death of Savita Halappanavar, lifting even higher the position of justice within that notoriously difficult debate.

Anders Behring Breivik was jailed this year for his mass murder in Oslo and Utøya. His actions – and the sentence he might avoid were he considered unfit for trial – examined what we considered to be rightful justice. In Norway and in the UK, the death penalty argument was brought to light once again, setting against each other what each consider to be rightful justice.

“We need to see that justice is done” is a common politician’s refrain. The on-going MPs expenses scandal brings in questions of justice, certainly when members are arrested (or not) for fraud. The vexed issue of votes for prisoners, and the century-long debate on the injustice of unelected politicos sitting in the House of Lords, questions our nation’s definition of justice. Of course for many Conservative  MPs, the judgements from the European Courts strike at the very heart of British Justice, capital letters underlined in bold, standing proud over the tinier, illegitimate Johnny Foreigner Justice. How Britain deals with people like Abu Qatada – with or without European courts – reflects on how diluted or otherwise our justice system may well be. Parliament discussed the right to live – and the right to be born – as did British Courts.

For the BBC, the ‘justice’ sought by victims of Jimmy Savile and others has been the Corporation’s defining moment, causing again those who want the wholesale abolition of Auntie to take their chance in making the case. Somehow the Savile case has caused ripples across the country into most unexpected areas. I have to be very careful in how I phrase this, as I don’t wish to be sued, so I’ll just say that “People who should not have been accused of wrongdoing were wrong accused of wrongdoing and that was wrong.”

Across Europe the ‘sons of Occupy’ and connected relations continue to push against the economic and political establishment which rule their lives. In Spain, a theatre accepts carrots in lieu of payment, and of course Catalan independence is a drum beaten with the sound of the pursuit of justice. Elections in former Soviet republics, such as Belarus and Ukraine, shake the expected definitions of democratic representation. In Athens, supporters of Golden Dawn reject the establishment for ‘real’ justice as opposed to the establishment oppression (as they see it) in the age of austerity.

Last year, I chose “Occupy”. This year, “Justice”. I notice that the OED and others have considered ‘omnishambles’ to be the defining word of the year, which might be true for a narrowly defined Westminster village version of the ‘national word of our age’, but it doesn’t work as universal. Well, unless Mitt Romney had won, I suppose…

Auntie needs help

Jimmy Savile hid “in plain sight”, using his character as the perfect smoke-screen, taking his relationship with the BBC to its most extreme conclusion. The BBC as an institution was frightened of him, to the conclusion of being in awe, and from the initial controversy about his alleged behaviour the connected stories have questioned the very foundations of the corporation itself.

The resignation of George Entwistle has allowed the right-wing critics of the Beeb to run riot in today’s newspaper comment sections and connected blogs. Here’s the justification in swift follow-up to the real-terms cut in the licence fee to call for the BBC to be broken up, split apart and sold off. The Daily Telegraph calls the BBC “bungling”, and runs thought pieces by Norman Tebbit and Dan Hodges sharpening swords, carving knives. Influential blog ConservativeHome sets out the arguments for the natural conclusion to Entwistle’s resignation – sell off, break up, close down. The Guardian calls for the Beeb to be given “a bit of a slap”. Those on the left fire up their criticism of the BBC’s bias towards the Government’s austerity agenda, those on the right lay on thick their attacks against the perceived bias for Labour and Labour-leaning personalities.

When the Coalition froze the licence fee for six years – a real terms cut – the BBC had to start a fire-sale. Local radio has been slashed to the very bones, taking with it even Danny Baker whose BBC London show was scrapped for “financial reasons”. Popular shows on BBC Four were taken to the sword, repeats increased, high profile stars were jettisoned. Critics on both wings celebrated, and most loudly came cheers from the Right.

But the context of the BBC’s current malaise is framed not by Savile or alleged abuse of children in North Welsh children’s homes. The print media has taken tonnes of criticism through the Leveson Inquiry, every tabloid whipped into submission, the News of the World shut-down. Is it any wonder that the press are enjoying the slow, certain collapse of the BBC and its supporters? This is the best chance the print media has had to enact its revenge after months of Leveson related battering. The blessed Beeb allowed Savile to fiddle with young people in an entertainment establishment hush-up, don’t you know, and allowed for favourites in the industry to knock investigations into the long grass. AUNTIE IS A DEPRAVED TART!

I’ve been a cheer-leader for the BBC for my entire life, and I remain such today. I support the licence fee, and always have done. The crisis has been allowed to move away from generalities to specifics because the BBC and its supporters are too timid. The press shout loudest and the BBC whimpers. We’ve been here before – the demise of Greg Dyke’s role as DG against the false prospectus on which the country was taken into war in Iraq – and again the critics took the opportunity to call for a wider slashing of the corporation into bits. Sell off the radio stations, carve up the news organisation, shut down digital stations – then, as now, the best parts of the very best institution open for an auction at the earliest opportunity.

It didn’t happen then. It could happen now.

Of course massive editorial failings at the heart of “Newsnight” are to blame for some of the current malaise. They should be investigated. However Jimmy Savile managed to get away with his crimes, he did so with greater complacency than just within the grounds of the BBC. How much did the press know, and how many ‘friends’ of entertainment’s biggest names managed to manoeuvre claims against family favourites away from the front pages? These should be investigated too; it’s not just a BBC problem if a culture of silence hung over generations of investigative journalists whose contemporaries now calling the BBC to be torn to shreds.

The changing face of broadcasting in this country is a wider issue which should not be dragged into a debate about alleged child abuse and journalistic failings across more places than just the Newsnight offices. How people access television has changed forever – through iPlayer, through downloads, through streaming – and it’s up to all channels to adapt to these changes. The BBC has been at the forefront of adapting to new broadcasting realities, and all from a licence fee which is the best value television subscription package in the world. There has always been a small subset of people who resent the strength, depth and breadth of the BBC, and today they’re at the most confident. I’d be willing to put money on them being the most upset if they ever get their way.

This is London, sponsored by…

The BBC is in a financial bind. Since the election in 2010, the licence fee has been frozen (effectively cut) and both Welsh network Sianel 4 Cymru and the World Service has been brought under its funding responsibilities. Less money, stretched so far, means serious consequences. We almost lost 6Music, and they’ve only gone and axed Something For The Weekend.

Critics of the Beeb always trot out the line “What about showing adverts or go subscription?”, the former of which is now to become a reality. If all goes to plan, the BBC is to broadcast adverts on BBC World Service programmes for the first time.

Auntie’s neutrality means last night’s coverage of this news was as measured as it could be. The phrase “thin end of the wedge” was used only in quotation. There’s probably plenty within the Corporation who think exactly that. Adverts on the BBC? Well, there’s a path now taken and there’s the destination and doesn’t it look NICE? All warm and fluffy and neon lit with advertising types raising their glasses and beckoning us all inside.

The World Service is the most iconic of all the networks prefixed with the letters ‘BBC’. Its legacy is stunning – getting news to places where it was otherwise filtered through genuinely bias sources, if indeed the news ever got to people at all. Famously, Mikhail Gorbachev heard of the 1991 coup in the Soviet Union through the Russian language World Service broadcasts.

The BBC is required to source £3m funding from commercial activities by 2014. Adverts can only be the start – and pessimists are meeting with realists to paint what that must mean for the television channels we take pretty much for granted today. Unlike its other radio networks, the World Service is not merely news and opinion; for millions of people, it’s the voice of reason, neutrality and wisdom they are denied at home. It is often the only credible news source they can access all day. Adverts may be necessary because of the new funding rules – but the consequences can only be damaging. The inclusion of commercial messages between BBC programming was always the ‘scare story’ used to shore up support for the licence fee; the scare story is now coming true.

If you’re angry about the inclusion of adverts on the World Service (which isn’t funded by the licence fee, or at least not yet), step away from the Daily Mail website. Its commentators have rubbed themselves to an awkward, disappointing orgasm over this story – “The arrogance of the Bunch of Boring Creeps….” groans one. “I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s tired of paying for left wing biased programming I neither watch or agree with.” faps another. “It’s about time these Socialist parasites funded their own programming.” tugs away one more.  Good old Daily Mail – for whom ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’ should be a secondary by-line. Wait until it /has/ gone, DM faithful, you’ll be left with Channel 4 and product placement during the Archers (now broadcast on Virgin Nostalgia).

The “thin end of the wedge” will weaken, compromise and ultimately kill off most of what makes the BBC World Service so important and crucial as a provider of news. Successful adverts will promote the Government to force the Beeb to add commercials onto national television; and with it goes the licence fee and ultimately everything commercial companies would not dare risk paying for. Goodbye to BBC Four, 6Music, the archives of plays and interviews and live music. The World Service was a beacon – it should not be allowed to transform into a billboard.

Threedom

One of the greatest crime dramas you’ve never watched has returned to the iPlayer, capitalising on the soon to be launched second series. Amongst other programmes in the schedule around it are travelogues from Orkney, dead-pan comedy Nurse Jackie, the Proms, and an edition of Top of the Pops from 1976, featuring Thin Lizzy. Earlier this year, the channel dedicated almost an entire month to broadcasting subtitled comedy-drama from Iceland. Tomorrow, the story of Italian-language crime fiction and on Wednesday a look at submarines in cinema history. The crime drama, incidentally, is Denmark’s The Killing, famous for the chunky-knit Faroese jumpers worn by lead star Sarah Lund.

All this, and as they say, so much more, is found on the BBC digital channel, BBC Four. Paid for through the licence fee, it’s remit is as much souped-up BBC Two as it is SKY Arts, the Sunday Times, and BBC Radio 4’s Loose Ends. If you’re worried that watching a decent enough documentary on BBC Two could put you within channel-hopping distance of Jeremy Clarkson, then this is the network for you.

Or at least it might be the channel for you, for now. With the safeguarded 6Music clusterfruitcake still leaving a bitter taste in their collective mouths, the suits at Auntie Beeb are diving back onto the buffet trolly. Facts are facts, after all, and the fact is the BBC needs to find cost cuttings. And find them fast – the licence fee is guaranteed for six years, though frozen, and that all adds up to a reduction in real terms. Easy targets could cause the usual suspects to start biting, hard, and not just particularly sharp of tooth around the whole argument of the Corporation’s funding. Big ticket sporting events, bigger ticket celebrity pay packets and phenomenally successful though populist prime-time entertainment shows are all easy targets for the BBC’s enemies – if the network is to compete in multi-channel Britain without an ever increasing revenue stream, those enemies require rapid and effective placating.

Over on BBC Four, the cuts are already showing. Original dramas will be shrunk in number, and mostly shoved across to BBC Two. Non-English imports will struggle to survive at all. Bought-in documentaries will doubtlessly increase. Live music reduced to “Radio 3 with pictures”, twice the work for presenters, less outlay for producers.

The argument from within the Corporation itself is tricky to reconcile with the long held assumption that Auntie doesn’t do ratings wars. “It’s your BBC!”, Terry Wogan would recall in a mocking voice, turning the once often heard slogan into a punchline, often when another multi-million pound splurge is outed by the newspapers. This year, the BBC announced that their youth-orientated channel BBC Three would be given greater broadcasting hours, and the money to go with it, for the temporary transformation into BBC Olympics. Further, the channel would continue to enjoy greater amount of investment for new talent – so whilst “The Thick of It” and “Getting On” did very well for Four, it will be more “Two Pints of Lager” and “The King is Dead” for your licence fee pounds from next year.

Selling the BBC Three “youth” angle is easy for the buzz word compendiums which walk around Television Centre these days. Defending “60 Second News”, the producers underline the traditional journalistic approach to slashing the events of the day into haiku. The great quote – for all the wrong reasons – is “so much TV news assumes knowledge on the viewer’s part”, but that is not how BBC Three works.”

In the light of the riots in London and elsewhere, such forthcoming arguments as “Three verses Four” becomes somewhat harder to balance. In short, the BBC does a great service in providing Three, recognising that BBC One will always be more stable, family orientated, more mainstream. BBC Three has helped young writers and actors, given coverage to womens football and wheelchair ballrooom dancing (no, really) and ensures that fans of “Family Guy” and “American Dad” don’t have to sit through “Newsnight” for one episode each, every week, in the graveyard slots on BBC Two.

It’s the channel which people love to hate, usually for reasons of thinly veiled condescension. How unfortunate that well meaning critics could be hitting the network at the wrong time. “Down with what the youth want!” cry the establishment, newspaper columnists, the middle-class Twitter hive mind. “It’s all just too vulgar”

Looked at from afar, it does appear the BBC Three formula of “shock, awe, and celebrity” sets itself apart from its broadsheet near-neighbour and all of the other BBC output. It’s not too much to say “It’s not exactly SKY One, is it?”. On Monday, BBC Three gave you the option to watch a ‘make under’ programme with a Lady Gaga lookalike, followed by reruns of “Eastenders” and “Little Britain”. On Wednesday there was a ‘secret wedding’ reality show and the film “Sliding Doors”. Tomorrow, an episode of “Total Wipeout” and a rerun of “EastEnders”.

But, wait. Go back a few days to “Young, Dumb, and Living Off Mum”, in which spoiled teenagers are filmed cleaning youth hostels for minimum wage, as part of a “life lesson reality show”. Tomorrow, Cherry Healey (no, me neither, the name sounds like a brand of ice cream), investigates body-image issues amongst young women. On the 24th, there’s “Good Will Hunting”. Not exactly “The Hangover II”.

Despite its brash logo and ‘street’ outer-skin, the depth of BBC Three saves itself the bother of arguing back against the broad-brush side swipes. Yes, it is very different from other BBC output, and of course BBC Four is far closer to the Reithian manifesto. If there was only one to save, I’d choose Four, and not just because of the occasional chance to revisit “Wallander”. I am older than the BBC Three target audience, but can still see that many of its exploitation programming is not exactly doing the Beeb much of a favour. Could you see why there’s not a 24-hour “T4 Channel”? It just wouldn’t stretch that far.

BBC Four causes Auntie a headache because of its cost and audience viewing figures. Generally, stripped of the Proms and “The Killing”, Four costs more money to run, and attracts far fewer regular, loyal viewers. BBC Three is cheap, popular, and serves a part of the population well who have spent months slogan shouting (and rock throwing, shop looting) against the various establishment icons. The potential for BBC Four is huge – though what the BBC could do with Three at a time when the Government aren’t exactly striking a confident pose in front of youth unrest is the opportunity to educate, entertain, and inform, Generation Internet.

Standing up for the very best of the BBC is easy. I’m a supporter of the licence fee, I watch far more BBC Four than any other channel, and I do struggle to justify the output of Three if pressed to look at its entire schedule over any given month. However, from a neutral point of view, it seems obvious why the cost-cutting is looking at taking money away from Four; the danger of perception has always shaken the suits at Television Centre. “Beeb Throws Your Licence Fee Into Subtitled Nonsense!” at a time when your teenage target audience feel alienated and ignored? If the BBC can balance the books, and in conjunction with all their executives, take an average viewer to and from BBC Four in small doses, then the possibilities could all turn out okay. It cannot be easy – the Beeb may save Four and face accusations of snobbery and detachment, or save Three and be slammed for dumbing down. The struggle at the heart is snobbery – is it somehow prejudiced against the core audience of Three to suggest they need more history, drama, and subtitled films?

In November 2009, the danger at the time was from a Conservative Party hinting that the licence fee could be “top sliced”. Back then, my suggestion was to go for BBC Three for the obvious cost-saving options. Context is all – to choose one over the other will damage the Beeb and alienate millions of viewers. I would prefer the investment needed for BBC Olympic be transferred into more Sarah Lund and 70s prog rock….but perhaps that point of view is precisely the problem.

C-Notice

My mother passed away last week, and doubtlessly she would be appalled at the subject matter of this blog. That said, she always felt writing on-line always ensured the author was one paragraph away from a broadsheet’s newsdesk, meaning everything must surely balance out.

The four-letter C-word which is most offensive is matter for discourse after the Mail on Sunday created (in the sense of inventing something from scratch) one of their classic front page stories. Put together the BBC, liberals, non-British nationals and the breakdown in society and you produce classic MoS flabbergasted outrage.

As you may have noticed, the MoS don’t just reproduce the joke at the centre of the outrage, they also make it very clear that Sandi Toksvig didn’t actually use the word itself. In common with every comedian, comedy writer and funny woman in history, she used innuendo and implication. The line in full? The Coalition put the “n” into “cuts”. Hilarious, no?

BBC-bashing removed, the MoS have nothing else but froth and nonsense sprayed across the front page. It must be like helping an elderly former General, working at the Mail, never knowing when an innocent subject would set him off, spewing hate across the room without warning, leaving a poor care assistant to spend the evening wiping spittle off the Union Flag jigsaw puzzle. “How was I to know it was upside down?”

The word in question, all four letters of it, is at the top of broadcasting watchdog’s naughty swears list. For British viewers who must assume that the list no longer exists, it’s still pretty much taboo to say it. Chris Morris got knuckles wrapped for just putting the word in an on-screen graphic. It’s common to hear “fuck” and “shit” and “twat” all over the channels after 9pm – or at first thing in the morning if you’ve fallen asleep without turning off the Thick Of It DVD. The most holy of holy words (or if you prefer, hole-y, innuendo fans), is still only present very rarely. American viewers may never hear it at all on their television programmes (indeed, US audiences are always left bemused at just how much swearing, and inventive swearing at that, features uncensored on British TV.)

Any A-level student worth their salt should recognise the word as one used without much red-faced embarrassment across centuries by writers who could tiptoe (not pussy foot, come on now) around the Monks and printing presses. The Oxford English Dictionary has this from the year 1400:

In wymmen þe necke of þe bladdre is schort, & is maad fast to the cunte.

Chaucer, famously, would utilise all manner of alterations to the word – Kent, at one point, making the Wife of Bath seem more well travelled than first thought – and let us not forget “chamber of Venus” while we’re at it. If you want real emphasis with your swears, there’s also this 19th Century construction:

He‥became in fact *cunt-struck upon her.

and this from a publication called “Romance of Lust”.

As the very good blog “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklands” says, this entire article is much fuss about exactly nothing. Radio 4 is not CBBC, nor is The News Quiz soft and fluffy family fun. When Alan Coren was a regular team captain, he was just as rude and raucous. Maybe Sandi has the misfortune of being female, and therefore automatically handicapped in the mind of your average Mail journo? Doubtlessly they hated Sarah Lund for not looking after her son properly. These Danes! Nothing but trouble since they landed here, what have we been told about immigration?

Having been brought up without much swearing in the house from either parent, my introduction to any naughty word was at school, and limited in any case to suppressed giggles wrapped around them. I will always remember being ticked off for using “twatted” – in the context of “being hit” – which I used knowing it to be controversial. I tend now to utilise them as and when needed. There’s always times and places for using “shyte”, which is always better with a northern accent behind it. For this fake front-page splash, the Mail have generated outrage where none is justified – the word was not used, only implied, and if the world of Carry On… movies or Blackpool’s saucy postcards are acceptable for their peculiarly outdated world, then so can this.

If you want to go anywhere else to learn about the joyous little world, I can move you towards the BBC Two language programme ‘Balderdash and Piffle’, where Germaine Greer analysed the history of it with characteristic vigour.

I apologise to my mum for using such terms, of course, though having also used it to bash the damned Mail I’m sure she understands.

We’re all in this forever

James Bond and Victoria Coren make gambling look sexy. George Osborne has spun the Roulette Wheel with all the allure of knitting phlegm. His Spending Review was sprinkled with good news, in the same way a paper-cut finger wafted around a bit splatters blood on the walls.

(There will be blood on the carpet following the SR. If any LibDems are pushed into on-coming traffic there is still a chance Charles Kennendy could be called upon to top-up Osborne’s water with Islay Malt. Or cyanide).

Such is the breadth and depth of the SR that the reaction has seems breathless and confused. The BBC having its life effectively guaranteed for 6 years is news nevertheless greeted with utter incredulity. “Save The BBC!” doesn’t sound quite so logical when the review has done just that. Over the six years, a freeze is as good as a cut, so expect Match of the Day 2014 to feature unrivalled coverage of the Zamaretto Midlands League.** But still they shout it, like football fans cheering for a player they hadn’t noticed substituted (which, incidentally, reminds me of a recent Burscough game which involved a young fella continually cheering a player who wasn’t even on the bench. Oh how we laughed…).

Much as been made of the (pre-announced) proposal to remove child benefit from higher wage earners. Cue the most bizarre through-the-looking-glass political arguments in modern times. “The lowest earners in society should not fund the child benefit of the well off!” cries David Cameron. “The most well off are entitled to handouts no matter how middle class they are!” bellows Ed Miliband. If Gordon Brown’s removal of the 10p tax rate made you question the known-knowns of British politics, welcome to Kafka Plus…

The SR was neither rape upon the nation or reasoned treatment for an ill patient; the truth lies somewhere in the muddle. Over 100 pages of mindgasm explain each Department’s budget in terms Sir Humph could not disagree with. Everything is covered; from a new suspension bridge over the Mersey to a Universal Benefit (one handout to unite us, etc. and so forth). In truth, of course, no politician truly denies the scale of the problem faced by the Chancellor; the nation is in mammoth debt, and so are its people.

The Osborne Agenda is pithily labelled “ideological” by critics who, on the whole, are exactly as ideological. Union leaders dust off their placards, Labour members fill up with nostalgia for childhood lost in demonstrations and marches. Thought ideological divides in politics were dead? Welcome to the most significant divide between sides since the introduction of the Community Charge.

The review comes at the very end of what could be called “the age of entitlement”. With a benign economy, low interest rates and banks throwing mortgages and credit cards around like samples at a supermarket, it is little wonder so many millions of people took advantage. I certainly did, maxing out the credit card on long weekends and (most shamefully of all, perhaps) Domino’s pizza. But years of 100% mortgages, holidays and flatscreen televisions did not build the debt mountain bequeathed by Labour; the two tales of national and personal debt run parallel, and one is disguised as an elephant. The demise of Woolworths, near demise of Wedgewood, epic scales of economic catastrophe across all the professional football leagues; they too wore the elephant suits. There are only so many ‘known knowns’ we dare acknowledge, no?

The review touches us all. With such drastic cuts in local council funding – council tax frozen for at least one year, though not necessarily across the country I suspect, notice the Sir Humph lexicon in the Report – every library, swimming pool and elderly care centre will suffer from the sharp pencil. Councils may learn from this sharp slap across the buttocks, scrapping the ‘non jobs’ which soak up so much money. “Audience development officer” for £30 grand a year? £19,000 a year is a decent enough wage for anyone – but for a “street football co-ordinator”? Does it sound patronising to draw attention to these jobs, or instructive? Is this another trip through the looking glass? When the Daily Mail covered the “non-job” story, a council spokesperson explained that money was spent on “everything from lollipop ladies to librarians”. Good, how it should be, and unfortunately such roles may be curtailed by the council funding slash-and-burn. There is something rotten with the system if – and, alas, I am not making this up – “teeth cleansing instructors” are on the Town Hall payroll.

Within the lifetime of this fixed-term parliament – if we ever get there – the Spending Review will soak into our wallets, our skin, get under our hair, interrupt our phonecalls with a high-pitched noise like a cat being tickled by an ovengloved hand. The size, depth and generosity of the welfare state must be tackled. Ditto the inexorable pouring of Government borrowing. And the size, nature and behaviour of our police force in their ‘war with fear’ must be altered. In short, the Coalition are tasked with achieving reform through force; it doesn’t make me feel easy or comfortable, but neither do Northern Rail’s damp and frosty Pacers and I have to put up with them too….

**You thought it didn’t exist, eh?

2 Big 2 Fail





So, how did we all feel about Match of the Day 2, then?

Six footie seasons ago, the BBC launched its ‘laid back’ version of ancient highlights programme Match of the Day. Professional Baggie Adrian Chiles – the archetypal ‘mate down the pub’ – made the programme his own. Not as ‘gentleman’s club’ as the older MOTD long ago became, the BBC Two version soon grew into vital viewing. If “Goals on Sunday” had the devil’s share of viewing figures, MOTD2 took most of the workplace banter.

Chiles’ well publicised sidestep to ITV left vacant the most prized sofa spot in sports presenting. Almost all available presenters would eventually be linked to the post. (Except Manish, obviously. Never Manish.)

The spot would go to Colin Murray, the enthusiastic Norn Iron “Fighting Talk” chair for Radio 5 Live and former Europa League anchor for Five. The reaction was, largely, popular. Formerly a Radio 1 DJ, Murray was known and respected for a wide sporting knowledge with wit and humour. MOTD2 seemed to have chosen well. Its first episode was shaky, with animated sections and faux-archive camera effects being criticised for being ‘gimmicks’. Murray was still himself, though, and for all the skills required to front highlights programming, he was doing okay. He is not “the mate down the pub”, more “bloke you talk to in the queue at the work canteen”, and that was enough to keep the faith.

Yesterday, however, the patience given to him by many viewers finally snapped. Having forgiven him for the ‘pulling matches out of a paper bag’ stunt, those who were ready to give one last chance flicked over to “Top Gun” or the paused “300” on the other side. His crime? A contrived ‘wine tasting’ segment with David Ginola and Lee Dixon, the latter looking utterly bemused while the former wore the same weary expression from the moment Murray tried to poke fun at his pronunciation of the word ‘pitch’. (It lead to a dud joke about ‘peaches’, the kind of humour which died when ‘Allo ‘Allo was cancelled).

It’s not as though the ‘wine tasting’ of itself was enough to lose patience. Murray’s take on MOTD2 has been to introduce too much forced banter and jokes, in the same way of the poor souls left floating around the sinking “Mock The Week”. Having moulded “Fighting Talk” into a gem of a show, vital listening for anyone about to set off for the match, hopes were high for how much Murray magic would transfer to the screen. Given the nature of the show – its time slot means many viewers would rather just have the footie to watch before heading to a work night sleep – anything delaying the action seems irritating. Chiles wasn’t exactly without banter and humour, he was able to balance the want of the viewer with the constraints of the format. The BBC cannot afford much more than extended highlights, and with the licence fee being frozen for 2 years there’s not much left for any live football coming to Auntie in the foreseeable. A show like MOTD2 shouldn’t be a straight-faced newsreel, Sky Sports News without the rolling newsfeed, it should neither appear as though two different programmes are fighting for prominence. MOTD2 is not “Something for the Weekend”.

With Chiles gone, and Murray unlikely to be transferred so early in the season, the producers have a choice. They could slowly transform the programme, stage by stage, into refreshed ‘highlights with quirks’ in the hope of persuading doubters to come round to the idea. Or they undo the damage with a sudden reversal to “Chiles mode”. Whichever happens, one fact remains very central. SKY are eager to claim as much football rights as they legally can; a damaged “Match of the Day” brand reduces any opportunity for the BBC to argue the case for keeping hold of even basic highlights packages.

Five Alive

Ready for the new series of “Snog, Marry, Deport” ?

It is rumoured that Richard Desmond, he the big chief at the Daily Express and Daily Star, in addition to a collection of top-shelf magazines of the one-handed entertainment variety, is at the front of the queue outside the RTL offices with a big bid for British television channel Five. If this sale goes ahead, and the Guardian is suggesting OFCOM and the Competition Commission may be having words, British television may undergo one of its biggest character shifts in generations….and all at a time when the future of the BBC looks a bit cloudier than usual.

Desmond is no fly-by-night suit. His media empire is certainly impressive, albeit one built on both extreme prejudice and porn. Both the Express and Star have spent the last 6 months becoming increasingly less subtle with their language and tone, reaching a peak (or the depths) with the former’s use of the word “Ethnics” on the front page last week. It really does grate on the teeth, doesn’t it? The Star has used the sensationalist (and untrue) headline “They’ve taken all our jobs” this year, right out of the text book of the most knuckle-dragging of extreme types.

It is worth noting, too, that the Express is home to such a regular collection of pet hates and conspirliloon articles that, if read too quickly or flicked through at speed, would give a casual reader the impression that Diana died of House Price Cancer. Whatever voice the Express and Star claim to use these days, it’s neither one of the sound majority or reasoned few. And the threat now comes from a home-grown media tycoon making his way into national television in what could be a “pincer movement” with the increasingly hyperbolic SKY News.

Channel Five, as was, launched as the final jigsaw piece in the grand plan of what was the very analogue-obsessed Broadcasting Act. Launched on a promise of “football, films and fucking”, the rebranded Five sounds like the perfect place for Desmond…but we now better than that, don’t we? With broadcasting regulations tighter than before, and the likelihood of an overtly prejudice programme not high in the first few months, Five may improve from its import heavy output at first….

…I just dread for its future in the long-run. Now I appreciate that Five has never been the place to expect The World At War or subtitled films (well, of a certain kind, mayhaps, it’s just a man like Desmond with his back-catalogue comes to the table with a certain….well, prejudice. Neither the Express nor Star hide their colours – offensive and prejudiced beyond the reasonable tone of national, mainstream newspapers.

While I’m here, I have been somewhat baffled by the reaction – largely on-line – to Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s hint that the BBC licence fee could be cut. Given that most complaints normally come from people who WANT it cut, I guess it is true that you really cannot please all people all of the time. In an age of austerity, why should the BBC not have a cut in its income stream? I love the BBC, have always stood up for it against the whingers and whiners, it’s just so typical to hear the “save the BBC” calls come up on the basis of “teh evil Tories” suggesting a cut in paying for Auntie.

Look at commercial television – mayhaps Sky Arts as a potentially exciting exception – and look at the output of the BBC. Wonder what Five could turn into under the watchful eye of the proprietor of the Express (“ETHNIC BABY BOOM CRISIS”). Don’t dismiss the maxim “be careful what you wish for”.