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22 March 2004

Serious television? If only . . .

David Cox finds that when the BBC tackles weighty subjects, it still ends up with triviality

By David Cox

Dumbing down can come to irritate even its instigators. As director general of the BBC, Greg Dyke was seen as the arch-priest of populism, yet even he came to wonder if things might have gone too far. Last year, he decided to silence his serious-minded critics.

Dyke resolved that the BBC would come up with a peak-time TV series committed to unadulterated, in-depth analysis of the great issues of the day. He personally manipulated the corporation’s finances to secure a healthy budget for the project, instructed schedulers and programme-makers to accord it the utmost priority, and then sat back to await the much-missed plaudits of the educated elite. Sadly, Dyke had departed the stage by the time that the series launched, at 9pm on 10 March on BBC2. Perhaps that was just as well, in view of the programme’s reception.

The subject matter of the first edition, entitled If . . . the Lights Go Out, was energy supply. This was widely considered a well-chosen topic; its treatment did not, however, find universal favour. Two out of three critics on the corporation’s own main preview show derided it. The Daily Mail found much of it “inept and half-hearted”. The Daily Telegraph urged BBC2 to “regain some confidence in the intelligence of its own viewers”.

All of these comments were provoked by If‘s unusual format. Straightforward exposition was avoided in favour of a mix of factual comment and dramatisation. Thus, statistics and experts’ soundbites were intermingled with a developing scenario in which a little girl ended up fried, after her mum resorted to a paraffin lamp during a power cut caused by a terrorist attack on a gas pipeline.

The approach permitted no proper explanation of the history, logic or operation of the fairly complex arrangements governing our power supply system. Still less did it equip viewers to assess what balance should be struck between tackling “fuel poverty”, guaranteeing security of supply and meeting environmental objectives, or how such a trade-off might best be made. Instead, hints were spun off at random. All too often these fuelled misunderstanding rather than enlightenment.

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So what happened to Dyke’s vision?

If‘s editor, Peter Barron, arrived from the wastes of Tonight With Trevor McDonald eager to get at big issues. However, BBC2’s controller, Jane Root, insisted that if her channel was going to have to accommodate this venture, it must somehow attract large audiences. Barron suggested that a drama-documentary could have a part to play. BBC2 had recently secured ratings triumphs with two scaremongering, futuristic drama-docs, one on a smallpox outbreak and the other on a transport crisis. Root leapt at Barron’s suggestion: every edition of If would be a drama.

The plan succeeded, in so far as that If . . . the Lights Go Out attracted three million viewers, actually beating its competition on BBC1. Root, at least, was well satisfied. “I was giving blood the next day,” she says, “and the nurses asked me if I had seen the show. We ended up having quite a complex discussion about nuclear energy.” But how well-informed was this discussion?

One man remains to be convinced. If‘s onlie begetter, Greg Dyke, has been on a trip to Brussels. He told the New Statesman: “Everybody was saying there that the European experiment is now at an end. This is a really interesting subject. Quite how you do that as a drama I have no idea.”

But what about If‘s impressive three million rating? “Reaching a lot of people was not the criterion,” says Dyke. He was not trying to maximise audiences; he was out to plug an important gap. “There was no vehicle on the BBC for discussing in real depth very serious long-term subjects.” So what went wrong? “If you’re the director general, you set a project away; you don’t really see it again.”

Root, however, is unrepentant. “I wanted to get across complex arguments in a way which would make them comprehensible to a broad audience,” she insists. She points out that If managed to reach the kind of people whom conventional current affairs shows find it hardest to attract – women and the young. The programme was backed up by a (typically confusing) studio discussion. A programme website offers viewers’ comments and links to relevant sites. Barron hopes there may also be a book to accompany the series.

Yet the opportunity to un-leash the full potential of the electronic blackboard on the big issues of the day has been ducked. Should If succeed in whetting appetites, how are these to be sated? Could If be accompanied by another new show, this time genuinely analytical? Root does not rule this out. Believe it when you see it.

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