Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Beware the ides of March

(Revised January 2012 to add links to two YouTube uploads of Living for Kicks in full: one is here; the other is here)

50 years ago tonight - the same spring Blue Streak was cancelled and the Times gave up the imperial ghost, while Lonnie retrenched to the old CockErNee world having already created a new one, Cliff opined the new suburban pseudo-perfection and Max sang "I've got words for Elvis P" knowing that they would remain forever unheard - Britain's post-imperial humiliation was manifested on ITV, its single biggest platform at that moment, on two fronts. Barcelona's utter humiliation of Wolves, in the very same Molineux mud where only half a decade before they had been proclaimed the de facto world champion club side, exposed the old ways of English football for the antiquated facade they had become, and after a brief break for the news (really not a break at all, then) Daniel Farson's Living for Kicks exposed - with an almost unique sympathy for mainstream media at the time - the frustration and alienation of the first generation of clearly-definable teenagers, caught in a decrepit political state where exhaustion was everywhere in denial.

25 years ago this week, the old working class as a definable political or social force - and the whole idea of a Britain where everyone was somehow working towards shared ends within the public sphere - finally died as the miners succumbed, and "Material Girl" hit the Top 5 as the first song after Newsbeat (Bob Stanley carmodised that only 5 years later, by the way).

It may be that the historians of a quarter- or half-century from now will look back on early March 2010 with the same ominous sense of a turning point - the beginning of the end of the public sphere in British broadcasting, the moment the BBC lost what remained of its nerve out of sheer fear of a government that hadn't even been elected yet - and backed out of its universal role, finally allowed the pseudo-choice and pseudo-freedom of market brutalism to dictate everything. Maybe I am being too bleak in my assessment. But on a night when BBC Four - BBC Four, for heaven's sake - showed programmes about animals in TV and Skippy the Bush Kangaroo - it is hard to resist the temptation that the BBC almost has a death wish, has lost its nerve, has lost all confidence to speak up for itself and what it ought to be out of sheer paranoia that it may be completely dismantled if it shouts too loud. Maybe Birt should have taken the "Himalayan Option" after all. We may not have had So Solid mixed in with Britney or whatever, but at least we wouldn't have risked losing everything once the Tories regrouped. Maybe we might see a return to "purer" public service principles. But I fear we won't, because 6Music and the Asian Network - unlike the suspiciously untouched BBC3, Cash in the Attic or Holby City - represent the epitome, duly updated and redefined, of what public service broadcasting should be about. They could never be provided by the market and are exactly what needs to be retained. While there may well be a case for spending less on US imports (but, I would venture, more on European ones) and less on sports rights (some events certainly should always be on free TV, but it would be wrong to alienate non-sports-loving licence payers any more than at present) there is no case at all for removing services like these. There is an ugly set of reactions being played to here - a desire to further increase NuTory control of British pop (and who can seriously dispute that 1Xtra would be the next target?), to further atomise the British population so as to strengthen elite power in the guise of FAKE "democratisation", to decisively separate Britain from its European neighbours and effectively complete pseudo-American "restructuring", and to isolate and silence all non-white voices and influences, to create by stealth the pure white state many Tories still secretly dream of.

As the reliably excellent Andy Beckett states in the Guardian, it was only Birt's reforms - which fatally compromised the old independent public service spirit, and may only have postponed the evil day - which managed to save the BBC last time. There are many in the Tory party who still feel let down by his skilful politicking of 16 years ago, who wish he hadn't come up with sufficient internal marketisation and a shift in priorities towards global sales and formatting to convince their leaders that a PBS/NPR ghetto wasn't the only way, and they are if anything more dominant in the party than they were then, as the old guard who felt a psychological tie to Reithian values have almost all retired and are now dying off. There is a determination, as there was with Bush over Iraq, to complete unfinished business.

The relevance of what happened 25 years ago should be obvious. But I think a look back at Living for Kicks is just as telling, because those teenagers - probably now mostly dreading a further fall in what is already Europe's lowest state pension - were dreaming of some kind of escape from the post-war state, some kind of shift towards the privatisation of the mind which for them wrongly equated with freedom. That was the "element of sadness, a wistful hankering after better things" that Farson mentioned at the programme's end. Seeing how the majority were probably only ever after the main chance and their own interests - obviously there were left-wing idealists, and one such speaks at length in Living for Kicks, but that was in Brighton, an unusual, bohemian-London-like place even back then, and even there they didn't seem like the majority - it is safe to say that they eventually got their way. But I know many of them regret it, and the way it has left their descendants in many important ways less genuinely free - in the senses that truly matter, not how much you can watch on YouTube or how much you can say on Twitter - than ever. They were indeed trapped in many ways, but the escape route they chose was fatally immune to exploitation by economic forces who pretend to care for everyone but in fact care for no-one. I will mention without comment that one of the newspaper front pages that appears in Living for Kicks is from the Daily Herald.

Meanwhile, all I can recommend is a well-worded and thoughtful (hysteria will simply strengthen our enemies) email to srconsulation@bbc.co.uk, or similarly expressing your views here. We may never get another chance to say it.


  1. Bravo for the great Daniel Farson article. I wish we had a cultural historian with your range here in Australia.

    How can I see Living For Kicks?

  2. I agree without equivocation that the present threat to the Beeb is a very worrying development indeed. Big thanks for a truly brilliant precis of the situation.

    However, while I wouldn't want to put a dampener on the encouraging surge of outrage at the announcements of last week, I have to say that the weight of focus on 6Music seems misplaced, and irks me somewhat.

    The principle of democratic plurality embodied in stations like 6Music is unassailable, but its form strikes me as being a paradigm of a certain kind of apathetic, middle mass, Guardianista-running-into-NuTory mindset.

    Cameron's Smiths/Killers/Clash soundbite is a pretty dead-on summary of the 6Music playlist, isn't it? Isn't the station a model of 50 quid bloke, pseudo-"authentic", conservative consumerism, a showcase for endless Bowie reissues and faddish ShockwavesNME-hyped nostalgia outfits?

    Bowie claiming it keeps the "spirit of people like John Peel alive" was absurd. Radio 1's nighttime schedule does a much better (though still woefully inadequate) job of that.

    There has been way too little emphasis on the loss of the Asian network. And I totally agree about 1Xtra, which has to be saved at all costs if it comes to it.

  3. Jake - you can't, as far as I can make out. It's not available on DVD or on YouTube or Google Video. My copy is from a 1992 rerun on Channel 4 here in the UK - I could send you a copy, if you contacted me privately (though I find my email address almost too embarrassing to mention anywhere - long story on that one).

    Alex - I do pretty much agree with you re. 6Music's *form*. I don't personally choose to listen to it very much - as far as DAB is concerned, I spend most of my time with 1Xtra, and while I support the station in *principle*, I find what it is in *practice* somewhat depressing - culturally offputting, as you say, for many of those reasons (I'd probably listen to the Freakzone - itself a depressingly conformist and sneery title - every week, even if it still had THAT NAME, if anyone other than Stuart Maconie presented it). An important part of the Peel spirit was the openness to black pop in defiance of the insularity of the indie culture that many people wrongly feel was *all* he represented, and there's nothing like that on BBC radio at the moment - 1Xtra does a good job but it is a form of ghettoisation, nobody who doesn't already like that kind of music will be turned on to it that way.

    I agree that it is depressing that the Asian Network has been played down. In my email to the BBC's consultation address, I mentioned an element of closet racism within the Tory party which I felt had influenced them over the Asian Network, and I specifically stated that 1Xtra should be defended if those same elements target it. I don't think people should be afraid to say this, and I think we can draw some fairly depressing conclusions from the fact that some 6Music fans - well-meaning and public-spirited as they fundamentally are - aren't saying it. Within indie culture, it was always possible to be admirably politically progressive in theory, but alarmingly self-segregating in practice - note that 6Music's audience is largely made up of people who were buying NME and MM twenty years ago, and we all know that those papers sold fewer copies whenever black artists were on the cover ...