Stop the destruction of the BBC's comedy tradition

Dave Cohen urges action against the Tories' plans

Philip Davies is a spokesman for the Campaign Against Political Correctness. He believes Muslims should fly the flag of St. George on their mosques, and regularly writes to Trevor Phillips at the Equality and Human Rights Commission asking questions like: ‘Why is it offensive for a white man to black up?... Why does the Orange Women’s Book Prize discriminate against men?... Isn’t the existence of a cycling course for Asian women racist?’

He is also the Conservative MP for Shipley. He wants Britain to leave Europe, votes against anti-gay discrimination and opposes laws to tackle climate change. He’s also a member of the House of Commons Select Committee on Media, Culture and Sport, one of the more powerful overseers of the fate of the BBC. In less than four months people like him will probably be running the country. And regardless of political persuasion, anyone who works in comedy should be deeply, deeply concerned.

When Tory think-tank Policy Exchange recently cited We Need Answers as a perfect example of what the BBC shouldn’t be making, the response was bemused amusement. The idea that this low-budget panel show could be singled out as a threat to the nation is almost laughable, and even the programme makers themselves didn’t seem bothered.

But all comics and writers should be nervous and worried by this development, it’s part of a much larger Conservative strategy to undermine the BBC and, eventually, destroy it. Am I being over-dramatic? I don’t think so.

I’ve read the report this comment comes from, and while I don’t follow everything, the gist of their argument is that the BBC should not be making programmes aimed at 18-35 year olds, as they’re already catered for by Channel 4 and Sky. It’s all written very reasonably, and makes no mention of scrapping the BBC altogether - but its recommendations that the BBC should give up trying to compete for an audience would, inevitably, lead to a massive fall in ratings. At which point, certain MPs would start asking why we’re giving it so much money.

This stupendously ignorant comment that the BBC should stop trying to cater for a young audience is wrong on so many levels. Popular comedy has always appealed across all age ranges. Apart from the odd costume drama hit, I can’t think of any other department that consistently delivers shows for all ages.

But what I think doesn’t matter, I have no power to dictate to the BBC what shows it does and doesn’t make. You can argue that neither will they, but years of attacks on all fronts means BBC comedy makers have already been cowed into self-censorship. And with ITV already Cowelled into making comedy that doesn’t offend sponsors and shareholders, there are few other places to go.

This whole manufactured ‘debate’ about taste in comedy has been dictated by the media – specifically, the hostile anti-BBC media. Chortle may be amazed to see articles in the Mail on Sunday expressing surprise that no one has complained about a bad taste gag, but you never know where the next big circulation grabber is going to come from. Did anyone see ‘Sachsgate’ coming? The director-general of the BBC didn’t.

In other circumstances, and happier times, we could have left the BBC to get on with defending itself. Bloodied by a series of spurious scandals, and bullied by a Labour government scared of being seen as soft on the nation’s namby-pamby purveyors of culture, they are no longer capable.

The BBC’s response to attack has been depressing. Too liberal a news agenda? Suddenly we see in-depth journalistic stories about illegal immigrants, and Nick Griffin on Question Time. Obsessed with climate change? Cut back on green-friendly programmes. Too rude to 78-year old grandparents? Sack two presenters and the head of department. This is the organisation that responded to its most hardened competitor, James Murdoch of Sky TV (the clue is in the surname guys), who said the BBC has too much power thus: ‘Yes, maybe you’re right.’

So why should you care? Because the BBC makes lots and lots of comedy. And if you’re a comedian, maybe starting to make a name for yourself, the first person to approach you to appear on radio or TV will probably be from the Beeb.

Almost everyone who works full-time in comedy got their first break with the BBC. There’s a career ladder in place for anyone aspiring to write or perform for a living, beyond the comedy circuit. Excluding the internet, your first publicised exposure as a stand-up or sketch performer will almost certainly be on a Radio 7 new comedy slot, or a Radio 4 pick of the Fringe show. As a writer your first commissions will almost certainly be on Newsjack or Recorded For Training Purpose’. As you progress you may find yourself guesting on 4 at the Store, or appearing as a panellist on a show.

The BBC do this not for money, or simply because they like you, they’re doing it because they want to make big successful comedy shows in five and ten years’ time, and they want you to be experienced when it's your turn. You’re free to choose - like Harry Hill, David Baddiel or Al Murray - to go to ITV where the money is (or was), but they are just three examples of performers whose early breaks were at the BBC.

I always thought investing in new talent made financial sense, but that argument doesn’t work with Sky, or ITV or Channel Five. Maybe that’s why I’m a comedian and not the CEO of a massive TV company. It certainly won’t work with a Tory government, who will by their own admission be looking to cut, cut and cut as soon as they get in. They know the BBC is massively popular and deeply liked across the nation – that’s why they and their commercially interested mates have been roughing it up for the last couple of years.

So it’s worth supporting the BBC out of self-interest. But also, for all its faults, the BBC is a brilliant public service – what Britain does best. People who work for the BBC usually do so because they prefer it to working in the commercial sector. Same reason thousands prefer to work for the NHS rather than privately. The Tories are convinced that everyone, like them, is motivated by money alone. Their often stated mantra that the BBC is run by a bunch of liberals and lefties has some truth, because these are people who view work more as a public service than means to an end.

It’s probably too late to stop the Conservatives from winning, but we can still help the BBC. You don’t have to do much. If you're a comedian in Equity or the Writers’ Guild, just keep hassling your union to defend the BBC, even as it continues to negotiate payments to writers and performers downwards. Write to your MP – seriously. Especially if you live in Shipley, Philip Davies clearly enjoys a good letter.

Then hopefully in a year’s time, when the BBC commissioning editors have to choose between your brilliant sketch show and The Black And White Minstrels, they’ll make the right decision.

Published: 25 Jan 2010

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