Missing Pritchard

Unfortunately, I missed the Amazing Mrs Pritchard last night. I say unfortunately, but by all accounts I wouldn’t have enjoyed it. I really wanted ot watch it to see if it was really as bad as it looked.

Richard Huzzey confirms my worst fears:

Having opened up a critique of the modern party system, and suggested that it had become a contest of image, rivalry and management pitches, Mrs. Pritchard then misses the target. Where is the pitch to idealism? If it had been a drama about principle triumphing over pragmatism, it may have been high-skies dreaming, but at least it would have been inspirational. We should be demanding from our politics. Instead, we were given the absence of principles as an ideal, that made her pure. A blank canvass was apparently the best thing for a new sort of politician. Her lack of interest in politics is her strongest virtue.

Of course, this is exactly the approach of Blair, Cameron and, post-2001, Charles Kennedy. Yet, unlike in the drama, it hasn’t inspired anyone. One hopes that during the rest of the series, the Annoying Mrs Pritchard will get her comeuppance, but somehow I suspect that even if the series does acknowledge some weaknesses in her approach, Mrs Pritchard herself will remain a sympathetic character.

It isn’t really fair to comment on something I haven’t seen, but that’s another issue that irritates me. The BBC’s website won’t tell me when the programme is going to be repeated, if at all. This is in common with most of the BBC’s original programming. Despite the fact the world has changed immeasurably since the BBC started in the 30s, they still slavishly follow the principle that their programming is all about the nation coming together at a specific date and time to watch the same TV. People frequently complain about there being too many repeats on TV, but in my experience the opposite is the case. Put simply, while the BBC chooses to repeat certain low grade pap that it can’t make money out of any other way ad infinitum (Dad’s Army, Two Pints of Vomit and a Packet of Genital Warts, etc.), most new programming is repeated as little as possible with the specific aim of maximising profit.

The truth is, most “quality” BBC programmes aren’t paid out of our license fee, but make a profit. They don’t even take on the whole risk themselves and almost all of it is a co-production between, for example, Discovery (most nature documentaries and Horizon), HBO (Rome) and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (Doctor Who). This stuff they then go on to sell on DVD (the prices of which are kept ridiculously high compared to other DVDs), repeats channels such as UK Gold and of course on the global market. What you pay for out of your license fee is the uncommercial stuff, which with the exception of things such as educational programming and news, normally means low grade crap such as soap operas and reality TV. This sort of stuff would of course be perfectly commercial if it was paid for out by allowing adverts, but we are told that would damage the “quality” of shows like Animal Hospital and Eastenders.

I’m struggling, really struggling, to justify the license fee these days. All my leftish prejudices tell me that I should, but then I see how the BBC has distorted commercial television to the extent that all there is to watch after 9pm is wall-to-wall phone-in quiz shows and shopping channels and wonder if there isn’t, surely, a better way to ensure a high standard in public service television. No one would dream of trying to set up a UK version of HBO, precisely because of the BBC. Yet people are being put in prison on a daily basis for refusing to fund it. There’s something profoundly wrong going on.

For this reason, I welcome the fact that Blair and Brown are reportedly blocking the BBC’s request for a massive hike in the license fee, but I do feel we need a more radical long term solution. Yet if anything qualifies as a “third rail” issue in British politics, it is questioning the status quo over the BBC.


  1. Two entirely separate comments here

    I think the “more radical long term solution” is pretty clear in your post, actually. If the good quality stuff is commercially viable by itself – and I think you are right, a good deal of it is – then for that part of the BBC we set up a legal structure that allows it to continue to operate the way it does now, but without the presense of the licence fee. Actually I would then allow it to choose its own funding sources going forward – subscriptions, advertising, DVDs, paid downloads, whatever – in order to allow it to evolve as technology and the market evolve – but that is not crucial in the short term. You could probably increase foreign revenues quite considerably from this part of the BBC if it wasn’t constrained by its “first duty to licence payers” charter that it has at the moment.

    As for the “low grade crap”, then by all means let it be funded by advertising. I really don’t care. In my mind that sort of programming is actually worse here than in my native Australia, where it is funded by advertising. At least in that market programmers are very directly concerned with the question of what audiences actually want to watch.

    The second point. When I first came to the UK, I was struck by how unfamiliar British people often were with classic epsiodes British television. And yes, I was struck by how few repeats there were. On the ABC (our income tax funded, fairly cash starved, and minority audience public broadcaster) classic and merely good BBC stuff (Yes Minister, Fawlty Towers, Dr Who, The Goodies) would be repeated many many times. I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s watching Dr Who repeats stripped five days a week pretty much continually). In Britain on the other hand, these programs would be shown once and then never again, or perhaps once for a “very special occasion”. The BBC did (and does) spend most of its time showing original programming of lower quality. (This isn’t necessarily a criticism. It is just that average quality programming is always worse than your best stuff).

    I was led to believe that a major reason for this was the nature of Actors Equity contracts in this country, which paid fees to actors on a per showing basis for repeats in the UK, and these fees were of the same magnitude as what they the actors had been paid the first time. This ensured that the BBC did not show many repeats, and made lots of new programs, which kept actors in work. For foreign sales the arrangement was that the BBC could sell the program for whatever they could negotiate, and then the actors got a set percentage. Therefore, you could add lots of repeat rights to a contract to sell a program to Australia without adding hugely to what you charge them, but for repeating a program in the UK the costs were quite high.

    Obviously the way that repeat rights are dealt with has changed somewhat in recent years with the rise of UK Gold, and BBC 3 and 4 and things like that, but I think these sorts of contracts may still more or less be in place for BBC1 and BBC2.

    To some extent this way of operating has just reflected the attitudes you talk about rather than caused it, I guess.

  2. Good grief!

    Satellite tv is £40 a month, comercial terrestrial channels don’t
    a. maintain a nationally available radio network with programmes for EVERY type of person.
    b. Do eductional programming
    c. produce any really groundbreaking natural history programmes (the stuff they show on the BBC is shown to degree students in lectures)
    d. Deliberately produce programmes for every ethnic group and informing those who don’t live in the big cities about the culture of other ethnic groups (when you grow up in rural England pretty much everyone is white).
    e. Have a website that would enable your child to pass their GCSEs in the absence of ANY school teaching
    f. have the same young/new writer & director opportunities
    g. Fly the flag for British drama all over the world
    h. Just as an example, the majority of the Farenheit 911 documentary was BBC news footage. You can’t get that type of investigative reporting or objectivity anywhere else

    Every person I’ve met from the US and many mainland Europeans have been blown away by the quality of the BBC and the sheer bliss of being able to let their kids watch TV with out being blasted with a wall of adverts for crap toys, bad food and more expensive cars than their parents can afford. I’ve made friends in other countries (where English is not the first language) through shared joy over stuff like The Office and Little Britian let alone older stuff like Monty Python and Blackadder.

    Stop moaning – Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til its gone?

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.