The controller of BBC Two, Patrick Holland, has been busy launching its new season. He says he wants to bring the ‘unorthodox DNA back to the centre of the channel’ in a world of stiff competition from streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. Why anyone would think ‘unorthodox DNA’ would compete with The Crown or House of Cards I suspect only the strategists at the BBC could explain.
Needless to say since Mr Holland took over in March last year he has admitted to being shocked to learn of its reputation as ‘stuffy, comfortable and complacent’. Reach for the smelling salts! So what he promises now is to shock, provoke and upset people with a season of challenging programmes. These include an exploration of Africa in a wheelchair, a documentary on the Assads, a look at Russian football hooliganism, an insight into actor David Harewood’s experience of mental illness, an exploration of the Jewish faith, and a series detailing murder investigation. The channel is not afraid to upset! Indeed.
Holland’s mission is hardly new. A predecessor at BBC Two once hopefully described the channel’s heartland viewers as the ‘punk rock generation’, not ready to settle for staid and predictable programmes. In other words, never mind the demographics, here’s BBC Two whether you like it not. If the channel’s Civilisations series is anything to go by, the viewers do not like.
No private company would set out to ‘provoke’ and ‘upset’ its customer base, but since Mr Holland’s spending money – the BBC licence fee – is guaranteed by law, he is quite free to do what he wants regardless of ratings. Though you’d be forgiven for thinking it is somewhat unwise to accelerate the process by antagonising those viewers who have not yet voted with their channel changers.
But he must think that BBC Two viewers are sunk in such an abyss of lethargy, complacency or indifference that they need shaking out of it. It is this attitude, ironically, which betrays the complacency of the BBC hierarchy’s own largely ‘comfortable’ lives – courtesy of the licence fee-payer – and perhaps a need to soothe the subconscious guilt of their own privilege. Posing as cultural revolutionaries set on ‘upsetting’ the ‘stuffy’ attitudes of those they perceive as beneath them in intellect and taste of course does just that.
The new programming schedule betrays all these snobbish and patronising suppositions. The people who watch BBC Two may not use ‘streaming services’ but they will have heard of Africa, the Assads, Russians, football hooliganism, Judaism, madness and murder. They may even have direct experience of wheelchairs.
What is Mr Holland more embarrassed by? The ageing demographic of BBC Two’s audience, or the fact that some people still enjoy a TV programme made simply for the sake of entertainment or information rather than as part of a cultural re-education project, the same people who look to BBC Two for a relative lack of political correctness? Whichever, he clearly thinks they need to be ‘moved on’ and kowtow to the obsession that predominates elsewhere in the BBC, which could be summed up as diversity, diversity, diversity – of ethnicity, gender and sexuality (but never opinion, which is of course rigidly controlled).
Mr Holland concludes: ‘TV may have gone through revolutionary change over the 50 years since BBC Two was born . . . But we are still outside the tent. We are still challenging the status quo.’
To be a revolutionary he really needs to get inside the tent, and challenge public broadcasting’s ‘status quo’ by doing what TV used to do so well – trying to please the public. Granted, this may not win Baftas or plaudits from jaded TV reviewers who enthuse over dark, depressing and deviant material. But it might guarantee one thing his determined pursuit of the BBC’s thoroughly orthodox ‘progressive’ religion will not: an audience.