Show Hide image

Service to the public

Those who damned the BBC clearly didn't watch enough of its programmes

I'd be willing to bet good money - as much as £139.50, in fact - that when one day social scientists look back to television in 2008, they will be overly preoccupied with the scandal known as Sachsgate. This is a pity. It was towards the end of October that the whole sorry mess began to unravel, two weeks after the original offence - the dumb, misogynistic phone call that Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross so charmingly put in to the actor Andrew Sachs, informing him that Brand had slept with his grand-daughter - took place on Radio 2, not our television screens.

Thanks, however, to the efforts of the Mail on Sunday, Ross was suspended not only from his radio job, but from BBC1, too. At which point, Joan Bakewell started going on about the "moral crisis" at the BBC and suddenly everyone was upset, not by Brand and Ross's terrible manners, nor by their sexist instincts, but by the licence fee.

When I say "everyone", I exaggerate, of course. Most of us, being sane and having enjoyed Little Dorrit more than life itself, are perfectly content to carry on coughing up roughly 38p a day for the licence fee. We grasp the fact that Ross is just one individual; we turn off his crummy, craven Friday-night chat show as soon as it comes on. We also know value for money when we see it.

A noisy, libertarian minority nonetheless slavers over Ross's misdemeanours (especially, we note, that he once made a joke in which the words "Mrs Thatcher" and "masturbate" were placed in close proximity) like a fox over a butcher's dustbin. At last! A hook on which to hang their long-running campaign against the government-sponsored liberals who had the temerity to axe One Man and His Dog. The self-anointed leader of this gang is Charles Moore, the former editor of the Daily Telegraph, who, in protest at Ross's continuing employment, is not going to pay his next licence fee. "So, arrest me!" he shouts excitedly, like some really square teenager whose parents have caught him smoking a spliff.

It is his hope that others will join his daffy Home Counties rebellion, although, as far as I can tell at the time of writing, only a few pensioners have written to him in support - and, alas, their martyrdom is going to have to be nominal rather than actual, because those who are over 75 don't pay the licence fee in the first place.

Moore's campaign is entirely baffling to me, not least because the BBC is now just about the sole guardian of so many things that he holds dear. (Which other channel is going to screen so much live coverage of the state opening of parliament?) I can only assume that he watches so little television that he is unaware of what the rest of us would miss should, God forbid, the BBC be privatised. So its crazily expensive rebrand of news output last April was a complete waste of money (£550,000 for a spinning globe and not a lot else), but has he seen News at Ten since its return? The BBC has not had a vintage year creatively speaking, but even a fairly ordinary year for the corporation is an amazing one by everyone else's standards, and that's before we get to its peerlessly slick and professional coverage of the Beijing Olympics.

While the ailing ITV gave us such delights as Rock Rivals (sort of like The X-Factor, only, er, pretend), The Palace (dysfunctional, oversexed royalty led by the ever furniture-like Jane Asher) and Lost in Austen (patronising guff for girls who just can't get enough of Mr Darcy), the BBC's drama department gave us Little Dorrit and Tess of the D'Urbervilles (swoon, swoon), Doctor Who, House of Saddam, The Long Walk to Finchley (Andrea Riseborough's portrayal of the young Maggie Thatcher was so deft and so sympathetic that it would surely have pleased even Moore, her authorised biographer) and a simply brilliant season of short films on BBC4 about the lives of British TV comedians (my favourite was Trevor Eve's blistering turn as Hughie Green). BBC4, while we're on the subject, gets better and better - I have loved its recent series of documentary films about ailing family-owned department stores. And the move of its controller, Janice Hadlow, to the top job at BBC2 bodes well for raising of standards at that channel next year. I hope she commissions an awful lot of Gavin and Stacey, the funniest and least cynical comedy since Dad's Army. Meanwhile, her successor at BBC4, Richard Klein, inherits a fine property in which to hang his own curtains.

Of course, it's not all good at the BBC. Given its remit, and the immensity of its output, how could it be? At The One Show, the presenter Adrian Chiles looks more embarrassed with each day that passes. And let us quickly dismiss the turkeys that were Bonekickers (CSI meets Time Team) and Apparitions (Martin Shaw in a dog collar), and pray that neither series is recommissioned.

Elsewhere, we have seen Channel 4, like ITV, struggle with falling profits, a battle that one can already see reflected in its output, though things are bound to get much worse next year. What used to be an innovative channel is now clogged mostly with reality TV and the cheesiest sort of lifestyle programming - and I write as one who quite likes Kirstie and Phil.

Where has all the original drama gone? Channel 4's speciality for the past couple of years has been the kind of greed-driven property shows that seem less than pointless in a recession. It remains to be seen how it will replace them: with more Gok Wan, probably. Still, Jamie's Ministry of Food, in which our meaty-fingered hero went to Rotherham and made grown Yorkshiremen put on their pinnies, was nothing if not provocative, and The Devil's Whore, its Civil War drama, proved unexpectedly stirring (take a second bow, Andrea Riseborough).

Finally, let us not forget that it was in 2008 that dear old Richard and Judy departed the shores of Channel 4 for a mysterious station called Watch. I must admit that I rather miss their mindless twittering, though admittedly not quite enough to seek out - do stay calm, Charles - their "new position".

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 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special