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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In Kid Gloves, Knausgaardian style provides a route through a writer's grief

Adam Mars-Jones has created a clever, stoical and cool account of caring for a dying father.

In bookish circles, it’s pretty commonplace these days to remark on the way in which the spirit of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard hangs over our literary culture – noxious gas or enlivening blast of ­oxygen, depending on your point of view. Nor would I be the first critic to point out the similarities between his prolixity and that of the British novelist Adam Mars-Jones. Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle in the New Yorker, James Wood likened its style – “hundreds of pages of autopsied minutiae” – to that of Mars-Jones’s novels Pilcrow and Cedilla, the first two volumes in a thus far unfinished project in “micro-realism”. But originality be damned: I’m going to say it anyway. As I read Mars-Jones’s new memoir, Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father, it was Knausgaard I thought of repeatedly. Mostly, this was because I simply couldn’t believe I was so fascinated by a book that was at times so very boring.

Mars-Jones is by far the more elegant writer of the two. He is also feline where Knausgaard is only wide-eyed. Nevertheless, they clamber (slowly and with many pauses to consider the view) over comparable territory. What, after all, is Knausgaard’s account of the effect of milk on a bowl of ­cereal compared to Mars-Jones’s disquisition on the subject of orange juice? The Norwegian’s reverie is the longer of the two but it is Mars-Jones who is the more triumphantly banal. “Shopping on a Monday I saw a wide variety of types of orange juice on display in a supermarket and bought large quantities,” he writes early on. I love that “Monday” – it’s so precise. But it also prompts the question: which supermarket, exactly, was he in? Was it the same “large branch of Sainsbury’s” where, three paragraphs later, we find him picking up a carton of buttermilk?

You will think that I am taking the piss. I’m not – or not entirely. For all its pedantic weirdness, Mars-Jones’s memoir, clotted and rich and true, does its job rather well. As the subtitle suggests, at its heart is his tricky relationship with Sir William Mars-Jones, the high court judge who died in 1999. A clever man but also a difficult one (having made a bit of a leap in terms of education and social class, he clung rather ardently to certain comforting reflexes), he is brought to life vividly by his son, who often simply replays their most frustrating conversations. In doing so, Mars-Jones, Jr also tells us something of himself. He comes over as a bit silly and fastidious but also as clever, stoical, kindly and, above all, ever cool in the face of provocation. In this light, his Pooterish digressions are just another symptom of his unnervingly temperate personality, his clinical even-handedness.

His memoir is oddly artless, the stories tumbling out, one after another, like washing pulled from a machine. An account of his father’s better-known cases (he prosecuted in the Moors murders trial) shades into a detour on soup-making; an analysis of Sir William’s retirement – he gravitated, his son writes, towards the state of “inanition” – takes us, almost slyly, to an explanation of why Mars-Jones tenderly associates Badedas with shingles (a friend who had yet to discover he had Aids, of which shingles can be a symptom, bathed in it).

The reader waits, and waits, for the big scene, for the moment when Mars-Jones tells his father, a regular kind of homophobe, that he is gay. But in a strange way (it does arrive eventually) this is beside the point. From the outset, we know that it was Adam, not his brothers, who looked after his widowed father in his last days, sharing his flat in Gray’s Inn Square; so we know already that an accommodation has been reached, however horrifying Pater’s reaction was at the time. (Mars-Jones, Sr suggested that his son could not possibly be gay because, as a boy, he played with himself during a film starring Jacqueline Bisset; more cruelly, he delegated his clerk to research the possibilities of testosterone treatment for his son.) In any case, there is a universality here: for which of us, gay or not, hasn’t trembled on hearing our mother say, down the line from home, the dread phrase “Dad would like a word”?

After his father’s death, Mars-Jones attempts to continue to live in his parents’ home, insisting that the inn will have to evict him if it wants him gone. When it does turf him out, he writes a piece for the Times in which he denounces its members – in ­effect, his parents’ friends and neighbours. Is this just the response of a more than usually broke freelance writer? Or is it that of a man in deep grief?

Perhaps it’s both. Mars-Jones tells us quite a bit about his parlous finances but relatively little of his feelings of abandonment. He was closer to his mother. It is more than 15 years since his father died. And yet, here it is, his book. Those Knausgaardian impulses of his – perhaps they’re just displacement for his loss, word-fill for a void so unfathomably big that it still takes him by surprise, even now. 

Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father is available now from Particular Books (£16.99)

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 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism