George who?

Did the BBC really need another safe pair of hands as director general?

The BBC is at a moment of crisis. It can no longer compete for sports rights, especially for football, cricket and horse racing. It can’t compete for the top US imports, from Mad Men to The Simpsons. Its arts programming is less talked about than that of Sky Arts. Its best television current affairs programme, Newsnight, is losing ratings and credibility.

Worst of all, its much criticised coverage of the Diamond Jubilee Pageant suggested an identity crisis. It no longer knows what it’s there for. All those presenters from factual entertainment, the compulsive matiness, the lack of research and lack of sense of occasion, enraged viewers and journalists alike. Whatever else happened, the BBC has always had a fallback position: for the great state occasions, royal weddings, funerals, coronations, no one does it better than the BBC. That is no longer true. And when this was exposed to everyone, the BBC failed to respond. Director General Mark Thompson blathered about rain and went into defensive mode saying it was alright really. It wasn’t the fault of the rain and it wasn’t alright.

Enter George Entwistle, who will succeed Thompson as the BBC’s Director General in September. Entwistle is what the BBC considers a safe pair of hands. He has spent his entire broadcasting career, since arriving in 1989 as a Broadcast Journalist Trainee, at the BBC. Like all modern Director Generals apart from Birt and Dyke he’s a BBC insider through and through. And like Thompson, he has spent most of his programme making career in Current Affairs – an assistant producer on Panorama, a producer on On the Record, eight years at Newsnight, with a two minor excursions beyond current affairs, first a couple of years at Tomorrow’s World and then one season as the launch-editor of the middlebrow Culture Show which defined Mark Thompson’s early years as surely as The Late Show epitomised the more exciting BBC of Michael Jackson and Alan Yentob in the 1990s. It’s the programme-making record that Director Generals are made of. Nothing too exciting but nothing that will frighten the horses.

At the BBC it has always been the channel controllers who are the exciting figures, the ones who made the talked about programmes – David Attenborough and Jonathan Powell, Yentob and Jackson, Michael Grade and Roly Keating. All of them made their mark in music and arts, drama or light entertainment. Director Generals are the grown ups, usually from Current Affairs, men (always) who can be trusted in a crisis. No women, no Jews, no arts or drama, no one from outside the BBC. 

The question is whether a safe pair of hands is what the BBC needs in a crisis. Entwistle will doubtless build on Thompson’s successes. There will be more exciting technology. The archive will go online. There will be more developments like the red button, Freeview, iPlayer and HD TV. There will be more super-smart programmes like Doctor Who, Sherlock and superb dramas like the current Shakespeare history plays and The Shadow Line. The Today programme, The World at One, the News Channel and the Ten O’Clock News will continue to provide an excellent news service on radio and TV.

The problem, however, is whether Entwistle can deal with the problems he has inherited, and as Controller of Knowledge (2008-11) and Director of BBC Vision (2011-12) has contributed to. First, what can he do about sports rights? Nothing. The licence fee is frozen till 2016 and then has to be renegotiated, during a continuing economic crisis with further austerity measures called for. Cuts at the BBC will continue so he won’t be able to throw money at problems, let alone sports rights. But at least he can start to address some of the growing problems in BBC sports coverage, in particular the cosy, overpaid and very high-profile Hansen, Shearer and Lawrenson team.

Second, can he do anything about audience share? No. The multi-channel world of cable and internet has done for the BBC’s hegemony. In the 1990s the BBC worked wonders by developing factual entertainment programmes – cookery, gardening, DIY, antiques – which bought them a share of daytime. Under Thompson they have fought all comers for Saturday night entertainment ratings. But overall the big battle has been lost.

Elsewhere, though, much can be done. Seriousness and culture can return centre-stage. The blurring between BBC2 and BBC4 (what are either for?) can be sorted out. BBC3 can be returned to its once clear remit. Disastrous failures like the Diamond Jubilee Pageant can be avoided by being handed back to News and, more important, by restating what the BBC is for. Above all, it’s time to make the BBC more exciting, time to frighten the horses a bit. Thompson wouldn’t. Entwistle should.

The BBC is at a moment of crisis. Photograph: Getty Images
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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit