We’ve alluded a couple of times to the changing nature of the BBC in the late 1980s and early 1990s. If you start from 1984, when Michael Grade took over at BBC1, and go to 1995 there are only two instances in which a BBC1 or BBC2 program wins the BAFTA for Drama Serial or the nearest equivalent award. Obviously Grade was only in charge of BBC1, but let’s use his ascent to mark a particular attitude about what the BBC was. There were two more instances where BBC Scotland won, but let’s for the moment also treat them as a separate thing. Then, from 1996 to 1999 BBC1 and BBC2 had a straight sweep of the category for four years, and won seven of the twelve from 1996 to 2007. And inaugurating that sweep was Our Friends in the North.
Clearly something changed. And yet it’s difficult to straightforwardly identify what, exactly, it could have been. John Birt made a major reorganization of the corporation in 1996, but it’s difficult for a variety of reasons to just hand him credit for a revitalization of the BBC’s drama efforts. And after all, the BBC remained top notch in the world of comedy. Nor is it even accurate to say that Our Friends in the North marks the point where the BBC returned to the top of its game in producing prestige dramas: that’s clearly 1995 and Pride and Prejudice.
It is tempting to allude to a nebulous idea of a broader cultural swing. The Labour Party was, at this point, seemingly all but certain to regain power whenever the next election happened. There certainly was, in the broad sense, a swing towards a more leftist vision of the country, although the question of how leftist New Labour was is vexed to say the least. The swing back to a more confident and prestigious BBC coincides thematically with that even if the actual causality is borked. And that causality works well, in particular, with Our Friends in the North, a story largely about the material arc of leftist politics in Britain over a stretch of time that coincides almost perfectly with that covered by this blog.
But there are some fundamental issues in play here, and ones that we’ve only ever touched on in passing, so let’s slow down and look at the component parts of this. First is the BBC itself. One of the fundamental mantras of this blog has been that it is a terrible mistake to treat the BBC as though it resembles a commercial television station of the sort that produces virtually all of American television and most of the rest of British television. This is due to the fact that the BBC is not only a public service broadcaster as opposed to a for-profit channel, but also to the fact that there are decades of history of the BBC that have given it an entrenched vision of its role in Britain that stubbornly fails to be completely erased.
A key aspect of this role is that the BBC maintains a complex relationship with the notions of the mainstream and the marginal. This is perhaps most straightforwardly exemplified via Top of the Pops. Top of the Pops was, in one sense, a straightforward show: a musical live-ish performance show featuring currently popular songs. But the BBC, being the BBC, had a wrinkle that other shows in this tradition didn’t have to contend with: it couldn’t be seen to be influencing commercial taste directly. So instead it set up a strict set of rules for what could make it onto Top of the Pops and took an overtly curatorial role, featuring whatever was popular instead of trying to be tastemakers. The practical result of this was to foster a closer relationship between the counterculture and the mainstream than exists in, say, the United States. The Sex Pistols appeared on Top of the Pops in 1977. Whereas the idea that a major commercial network in the US would talk about punk in 1977 in any terms other than how punks were going to eat your children is flatly ludicrous. But the Sex Pistols were popular, and so onto Top of the Pops they went, and there wasn’t a lot considered beyond that.
This is a viscerally different experience than existed in the US, where the line between the mainstream that could be viewed in publicly authorized culture and the counterculture, which had to actually exist in marginalized spaces. And it’s a consistent trait of the BBC, which has historically consciously viewed its mandate as being to provide something for everybody in Britain, and thus to have a wide variety of programs that are actively marginal for no other reason than that the country had margins.
But the example of Top of the Pops also points towards the biggest flaw in this model, which is that the margins are still being represented by an institutional structure. We talked about this way back in the Mary Whitehouse entry in terms of the fundamental problems of the Reithian model of the BBC, which is roughly what I’ve been describing for two paragraphs here. The BBC’s vision of serving everybody is based on the idea that it can “improve” everybody, and thus has a fundamental condescension and paternalism towards the marginal segments of society. Even if it’s representing them – indeed, in some ways precisely because it’s representing them – there is still a fundamental power imbalance that means that the BBC will always be serving the needs of power. And for the horrific effects of this one need look no further than Jimmy Savile, who turns out to have been casually raping hundreds of underage women during his decades working at the BBC.
But more to the point, he was doing this in a way that was blatantly known to those in power. Everybody, it seems, knew Savile was a pedophile. But nobody stopped him, and those that raised the issue failed to push it to resolution. A similar bit of monstrosity recently arose in the US around the Penn State football team, where it turns out that Jerry Sandusky, defensive coach and serial child rapist, was protected for years for no reason other than that the alternative would mean endangering the entrenched structures of power that are a major college football program. (For British readers who do not inherently grasp the sheer and maddening size of college football, it may be helpful to realize that Wembley Stadium is the twentieth largest stadium in the world. The twenty-first is Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, the stadium used by the University of Florida’s football team. Wembley, of course, is in London, which has a population of around eight million. Gainesville, Florida, where Ben Hill Griffin is located, has a population of 125,000. And Ben Hill Griffin is only the eleventh largest college football stadium in the country. It sells out every game.) In much the same way, Savile was allowed to rape people for decades largely because the alternative was to damage the BBC, which was, of course, far more important than protecting people from a serial rapist. After all, the BBC was a pillar of Reithian values, and Savile’s accusers were just teenage girls who couldn’t keep their legs shut.
This is, of course, the fundamental problem with the halls of power embracing the margins. It’s always a matter of the fox getting the keys to the henhouse. You can’t put powerful people in charge of serving the needs of the powerless without it turning abusive. The BBC is, at the end of the day, still blatantly a tool of entrenched power. The best that can be said for it is that it serves a slightly different version of entrenched power than most things that serve entrenched power serve.
Which, actually, brings us rather cleanly around to New Labour. There’s a line Slavoj Žižek is fond of about how the nature of ideology is that we blindly accept modern capitalism, with the extent of political dialogue being about which subtly different flavor of it we want. As he puts it, “can we have a few more rights for minorities? A little more health care?” There are few better illustrations of this basic concept than New Labour, a movement that largely amounted to rebranding the Labour Party as a slightly nicer version of the Conservative Party. New Labour’s central tenet was the straightforward acceptance of neoliberal economics combined with the belief that maybe a bit more money should be given to social welfare issues. This was, of course, fairly big business in the nineties. In the US, Bill Clinton achieved similar success by promising to “end welfare as we know it,” in effect completely ceding all ground on the issue to the Republican party and their completely fabricated mythology of “welfare queens.” (The next stage of this evolution, of course, is the right’s realization that one can just completely dissociate governing and campaigning by framing brutally conservative policies in the language of triangulation. But George W. Bush and David Cameron are going to have to wait their turns to come up in the blog.)
Perhaps the best way to frame New Labour is in the terms we used to frame Thatcher, namely Warren Ellis. Ellis’s comments on Thatcher amount to a quite good monologue in an issue of Planetary and a nice bit in the documentary interview Captured Ghosts in which he describes living in Thatcher’s Britain as amounting to waking up every day expecting to see that she’s installed Daleks on the street corners. It’s a vicious critique, he clearly hates her with a passion, and he’s genuinely witty about it, but it’s still two good lines. Whereas Tony Blair gets Transmetropolitan, an entire sixty issue comic series devoted to the basic theme of how much of a terrifyingly evil fucker he is. Which isn’t quite fair, but still captures an essential truth about Blair, which is that he’s a terrifyingly artificial figure. From his perfectly coifed public image and style to his meticulously message-tested politics, Tony Blair was a blatantly opportunist figure, and New Labour always existed in the shadow of that.
And yet there’s something to be said akin to Terrance Dicks’s beloved Churchill quote about democracy being the worst system of government except for all the others that have been tried. New Labour was the worst option on the ballot except for the other one. Put another way, New Labour was absolutely horrible from any principled leftist perspective, but what would you have preferred? Five more years of John Major? The debased spectacle of an ostensibly leftist party whoring itself out to Rupert Murdoch is a horrifying concept worthy of a sixty issue Warren Ellis diatribe, but at least it’s not the Tories.
(I recognize that I have a substantial contingent of Lib-Dem readers who are, right now, about to raise a host of very reasonable objections. I, at least, am not particularly interested in a debate about the merits of voting for third party candidates who are not going to win general elections. But I will note that in a purely pragmatic sense, due admittedly to an appallingly unfair electoral system, the Lib-Dems were at no point a plausible winner of the 1997 election. In practical terms, “a viable third party that escaped the false dichotomies of the two party system,” while self-evidently the correct answer to “what would you have preferred,” is more or less equivalent to picking “a unicorn.” While alternatives to the two-party system are surely worth building towards in the future, the question “who do you want running the country as of May 2nd, 1997” had only two answers that had any chance of happening in reality.)
Which is actually the crux of what Our Friends in the North is about: the agonizing imperfection of politics, and the way in which both radical politics and working within institutional structures fail, often painfully, to be adequate to the task. In one sense it is emblematic of what a BBC approach to the political would have to be. On the one hand the plot acknowledges the vast margins of British society, most obviously in Nicky’s flirtation with radical anarchism and Geordie’s stint in the Soho porn business. (Oh, fine, the Doctor’s radical anarchism and James Bond’s stint in the porn business. Which actually works, as phrases go.) On the other, it ultimately rejects radicalism, punishing Geordie with homelessness and wholly disavowing Nicky’s anarchist stint. It’s deeply flawed and cynical, wrapping everything up in a pappish bit about how “tomorrow’s too late” while Oasis instructs us not to look back in anger, which is, it is safe to say, a tough ask regarding the eighteen years of Tory government that were barreling towards their close at this point.
But what do you want? The nature of broadcasting – and thus of television as a medium – is that structures of power are going to run rife in it. There’s only so radical television can be. And anyway, why embrace any sort of pure radicalism? The sixties ended. The good guys lost. Our nostalgia for their near victory doesn’t change the fact that they got their asses kicked and their tactics discredited. We came to this conclusion way back in The War Games, itself a collaboration between a political radical and the very embodiment of institution fetishism. And yet somehow the gravity of the 1960s still drags us towards this, our own version of the absurd belief that The Web of Fear was the pinnacle of what Doctor Who could be. Which is to say that for all that Our Friends in the North is deeply flawed, its lack of knowledge and certainty and its willingness to present a muddle as a muddle is oddly satisfying. This is the crux of the postmodern liberalism this blog has been touting for over a year now: all things being equal, better to be confused and uncertain than not.
And for better or for worse, the BBC enables this. It’s the moral debate I set up between All-Consuming Fire and Blood Harvest redux, really. All-Consuming Fire may have been more aware of the horrors of paternalism, but its very moral clarity gave it too easy a road towards blindness. Whereas Blood Harvest was paternalistic as all hell, but had a view of the world that made it suspicious of any sort of certainty. The BBC is similar. Yes, it’s a corrupt bastion of entrenched power that does horrible things like protect and shelter serial rapists for decades. But of the many corrupt and rape-enabling institutions in the world, it’s one of the most beneficial. It’s certainly better than any other broadcaster I can think of.
And so Our Friends in the North marks a strange sort of turn in what the BBC is. For all its flaws, Our Friends in the North is a good program worthy of celebration. That the BBC can make well-written drama with a complex and nuanced worldview and high production values is, on balance, a good thing worth being proud of. And if we compare it with the TV Movie, which is just two months down the road from its final episode, the virtues of Our Friends in the North immediately become clearer. Given the choice between this and farming a cultural institution out to a Canadian liquor company so that Rupert Murdoch could air it in the US, the choice is clear: this. Absolutely this. At least Our Friends in the North is something we can have some pride in.
Which is to say that we are not, as we head into fourteen years of Labour and a revitalized BBC, entering some new golden age of culture. But we are, at least, entering a measurably better one than the horrific mess that we’ve spent the last year tracking. I’ve occasionally attempted to divvy this blog up into distinct acts. Act I ran from the creation of the series through to where Mary Whitehouse successfully bullied it into impotence. Act II was the story of how it slowly learned ways to fight back. And we are now, at last, among the final and fading embers of that phase of things. And now, over the course of the next month or so, we do the slow transition to Act III. That’s not the same as moving to some phase in which everything is magically good again. But if you squint and hold the world at just the right angle, it might just be that we’re halfway out of the dark.