Why Would The BBC Hate Quentin Letts?

 by Martin Belam, 15 July 2005

The Daily Mail ran a full page piece today from Quentin Letts bemoaning the BBC's "latest drive against middle-class suburbia". Referring to the BBC Governor's Annual Report Letts writes:

They effectively told their programme makers to ignore everything that is most normal and routine about British life. (But to depict the freaks, the outsides, the law breakers and convention smashers, by all means)

He is reacting to this paragraph on page 24 of the report:

Another important genre prioritised for additional investment is British comedy. It is extremely risky, expensive to produce and unpredictable in its results. When the BBC gets British comedy right, the rewards in terms of audience appreciation are high.

This is well illustrated by Little Britain, the most successful programme to transfer from BBC Three to BBC One. However, our review found some evidence of a legacy of dissatisfaction with BBC One sitcoms seen as "too focused on middle class suburbia" and which compared poorly with sophisticated US imports.There is ground to be made up here, but we are encouraged by the quality of the new BBC comedy starting to come on stream.

I can't myself disagree with what the governors have said. The BBC hasn't had a massively successful sitcom for some time - and nobody denies that the likes of Frasier, Friends and The Simpsons have raised the bar for how consistently well-written the audience now expects a sitcom to be. Surely, no offence to my colleagues who commissioned it, there has to be more to state-sponsored comedy than 2.4 Children?

I think Letts interprets the remarks rather more broadly across the whole of the BBC's output, rather than the specific comedy genre for which they were intended. Later on he brings out the obligatory reference to the BBC One idents:

Between programmes, the BBC's television channels [sic] run mini corporate identity films, which depict multi-cultural scenes from our predominantly white, surburbanised land

There's the one with the black guys in wheelchairs, or the Asian dancers, or the urban skateboarders. I don't particularly object to these. They are jaunty and quite fun.

I'm happy to belong to a majority that is tolerant and generous to its minorities. Good old Britain

It seems a little odd, however, that none of these clips ever shows humdrum events from the white, middle-class England that forms most of our life experiences. Could they not sometimes show little girls taking part in a Saturday morning pony-club ride, or middle-aged ladies reading the Grattan catalogue, or codgers sitting in a pub

If Quentin changed channels from BBC One to BBC Two he might at least occasionally see the Two's morris dancing, which might be considered a step in the right direction.

Letts article was quite amusing, he has a gently humourous way of poking fun in his writing which makes for an easy read, even if you are disagreeing with him. There is one serious point, though, that I would want to pick up on. Letts writes:

Tune in to the BBC's television news bulletins and you will notice that, compared with previous decades, the presenters are not all 'hideously white', as the BBC's former director-general Greg Dyke once put it - and very proficient they are too.

Like many who have subsequently quoted it, Letts omits to mention that Greg wasn't talking about on-air talent, but the hideous whiteness of the legions of people in the BBC behind the camera. Things are improving for sure, a while back the BBC won the CRE's Race in the Media 'Media Organisation' award amongst others. However the Media Village in White City can still feel like an almost exclusively twenty-to-thirtysomething white enclave during lunch hours. It is certainly completely different in demographic and ethnic make-up to my experience of London from living in Walthamstow or working in Soho or near Covent Garden.

The Letts article was in fact the second big spread in two days inspired by the BBC - yesterday the magnificently named Simon Sebag Montefiore had a double-page feature "Marx The Monster", inspired by the In Our Time Greatest Philosopher vote.

I find it breathtaking that people who are both humane and intelligent - as I'm sure Radio 4 listeners are - can lionise a man whose work gave rise to more misery in our world than any other individual.

It's nice to see the audience being credited with a bit of intelligence for a change - even if Montefiore passionately disagrees with their verdict. He can't though help slipping a barbed attack on the BBC into the final sentence of the article, having described hatred in Zimbabwe, torture in North Korea and mass graves in Moscow, Montefiore observes:

These are the real legacy of the BBC's 'greatest' philosopher

And with that possessive apostrophe the blame for choosing Marx shifts subtly from the 'humane and intelligent' audience to the corporation itself.

Of course, I think if I blogged every bit of beeb-bashing by the Associated Press, this would become a rather monotonous and one-track blog. However, I had to rise to the bait today, not least because of the two different promo boxes the Daily Mail had on the front page today. The first promoted Quentin Letts article, screaming from the front page "I am white, middle-class, love my wife, own my home, and adore traditional TV sitcoms. So why does the BBC hate me?"

Daily Mail front page promoting Quentin Letts anti-BBC article

The puff-box was replaced in later editions to advertise....a free BBC Worldwide DVD of "Keeping Up Appearances".

2nd Daily Mail cover today, this time with an advert for a free BBC Worldwide DVD

Now that's comic timing.


What an idiot. Hope you didn't have to buy that to scan it...

Letts obviously isn't looking hard enough at his idents. Some people doing Tango not good enough for him? Salsa. A few black people in the dance crowds, but mostly white. Both dances that the "middle classes" love doing.

And of course when they were first started there was Tai Chi (still used occassionally) and ballet too (dropped after they showed it static before announcing the Queen Mother had died).

And if he wants really hum drum activities, then there's the kids skateboarding and the bunch of youths wandering around an estate!

I'm just surprised he doesn't have a problem with the wheelchair ident (What? black people IN wheelchairs? Two minorities in one ident?! OUTRAGE!)

I thought the change of front page from a hate bbc rant to a classic bbc comedy dvd was perfect "Private Eye" material. Tried to find a copy of the new front page online to send in but luckily you've done it for me, although i'm sure if we both noticed they alreaddy have it included in next weeks issue

Please stop trying to apply logic to the Daily Mail: teaching pigs to sing, etc.

For Quentin Letts
Now's the time to start a new club! It is the VFC. Very Fat Cats and is limited in membership to Labour Party Officials who are well off [under Blair} and also named Prescott!

Building 7. 23 minutes.

To be trusted?

I rest my case.

Ah, great - so since the BBC broadcast that documentary about 9/11 conspiracy theories, I'm going to get random comments about it from tin-foil hatters on random posts here that mention the BBC. Which is about 65% of them. Brilliant

Keep up to date on my new blog