Saturday 23 Aug 2014
Check against delivery
Let me start with a big statement.
Television has been the greatest democratiser of understanding in the last hundred years. More than films, more even than newspapers, perhaps even more than books, it has offered a chair at the table of knowledge and opinion to anyone who chose to draw it up and sit down.
It has taken ideas and experiences that were once the preserve of the wealthy, the leisured and the literate and made them available to anyone with a television set. It's given millions of people the chance to connect with a world much wider and more expansive into which they were born.
It's done this by creating a whole new cultural form, which has, over the last 50 years, offered access to some of the biggest thoughts, translated through the prisms of the biggest minds; and has sought to achieve all of this through a medium that's primarily thought of as a leisure activity. It has brought millions of people to new ideas or unexpected subjects purely through its ability to engage, delight or provoke – and still continues to do so every night. No-one watches television from a sense of duty. Audiences have no sense of obligation; they decide how to spend their time entirely on the basis of what they think they will enjoy. That so many of them use that freedom to choose to be stimulated, surprised and informed by television is partly a sign of their curiosity and liveliness of mind. It is also tribute to the unique nature of the television they have come to expect will satisfy that desire – to the robust, extraordinary and powerful thing that is intelligent television in Britain.
So what is this television of which I speak? When asked what he meant by civilisation, Kenneth Clark – surely one of the presiding deities of serious-minded media – replied that he didn't know, but he recognised it when he saw it. Intelligent television is a little like that. Some of it is very easy to recognise. It is certainly not hard to spot when it looks like this:
Clip: Simon Schama on Obama's America
Or when it looks like this. Here's a clip from one of my favourite programmes of the last six months. The Love Of Money was a peerless examination of the financial meltdown in whose shadow we all still live, as related by those who were at the heart of it...
Clip: Love Of Money
Or, finally, like this. Here's intrepid geologist Iain Stewart entering a secret – and wonderful – underground world in How Earth Made Us.
Clip: How Earth Made Us
Who says we've seen it all? A literally awesome moment.
But I'm going to argue that intelligent television encompasses a far broader range of programmes than those which wear their seriousness of purpose so transparently.
For me, intelligent television also means this... Here's an extract from one of Two's biggest recent hits, which recreated life in a 19th century farm...
Clip: Victorian Farm
Clip: University Challenge
And this too... Here are the Hairy Bikers, Two's motorbiking chefs, exploring the hidden history of home cooking...
Clip: Hairy Bikers
I think all these programmes share a linking DNA of intelligent purpose, although they find very different ways of expressing it. I also think it is that generous, some might even say, promiscuous sense of what intelligence can mean on television that has been its major strength over the years. It is that which ensured it has never been confined to the safe but lonely margins of the media world; but instead has sought to find a role in the best of everything we do.
Over 40 years ago, the great broadcaster Huw Wheldon defined what I mean in a way that really can't be bettered. The best intelligent television – indeed, perhaps the best of all television – sought "to make the good popular, and the popular good". That pretty much sums up my own deepest beliefs about television's moral and cultural purpose – and especially that of the BBC.
I believe in it so profoundly perhaps because I consider myself a beneficiary of it. I grew up in a small town in north Kent where the window on the wider world was a pretty narrow one. Most of us who lived there we were pretty much alike, and we seldom met anyone different. Nor was it a place in which there was a great deal of cultural or intellectual life – so the television of the 1970s burst into my life with a great fanfare of possibility.
Clip: Read All About It montage
I loved encountering all those big minds and big subjects – from dramas, Henry VIII's wives – I think that was what provoked in me a life-long fascination for history – to the origins of man or the causes of the American Revolution. But just as much as I enjoyed dispatches from the world of the lively mind, I was also fascinated by reports from nearer home, made possible by television's unique ability to capture the stuff of life and bring it into your living room. Nothing made more impact on me at the time than an extraordinary project called Seven Up. This was the brainchild of the director Michael Apted, who, in 1964, chose a group of seven-year-old children from across the class and regional landscape of Britain, and undertook to film them ever seven years. Perhaps because the children were almost exactly my own age, the series has always had a particular resonance for me. We were shown it at school – and here's a clip that made such a profound impact on me when I saw it some 30 years ago.
Clip: Seven Up - posh boys
I can still recall how amazed I was watching that. I didn't know people like that still existed in modern Britain. There was certainly no-one like them where I lived. It was television that brought them close to me – and not just as ideas but all the intimate detail of the way they looked, dressed and spoke. More than any other medium, television introduced us to each other, in all our confusing, exotic complexity. Nothing demonstrated so forcefully the variety of who we really were.
It was programmes like these that created a phenomenon unique to Britain – huge audiences for a very wide range of factual programmes. Nor were these to be found only watching the BBC. It was ITV who created a series that still remains one of the benchmarks by which historical programmes are judged in its ground-breaking series The World At War.
Clip: The World At War - Oradour
Few series have begun with such a sense of haunting horror that signalled what was to come.
But a series like this – made with the highest possible intellectual intent – also demonstrated the degree to which producers understood the need to use all the tools that television offered them to engage an audience with their serious purpose. The use of archive, the quality of the script, the brilliance of Laurence Olivier's delivery of the voice over – these did not diminish but amplified the ambition of the project.
They understood – as all the best producers of serious television have understood ever since – that if intelligence is to have power and meaning in the media world, it had to find ways of communicating with an audience. It had to be big – big in its ideas, big in ambition, and big in its impact. Above all, it had to see the opportunity to be watched by millions as a thing to be celebrated and worked towards – a sign of success, not a falling away from a more rarefied standard of intellectual meaning.
Achieving that mass appeal whilst still retaining the substance that makes it worth while – that's always been the toughest challenge for producers of serious-minded television. It's often said that television as a medium isn't comfortable with ideas. When I was a producer, I can't say I found this to be true. On the contrary, it's the communication of a mass of factual detail that television finds harder – as a medium, it naturally abhors a footnote. It's far happier with big picture narrative; and with the discursive ideas that make narrative meaningful. When I was making History Of Britain, I was determined that it should aspire to be more than a bald chronological account – that it should tackle some of the whys as well as the hows... Here's Simon Schama on what I still regard, over a decade later, as on pretty good form, reflecting on some of the ironic ambiguities of 18th century British history...
Clip: Simon Schama on 18th century Empire
If avowedly serious-minded programming has benefited from its willingness to absorb some of the techniques of more popular television, how has the process worked in reverse? If the popular has helped warm up the good – can it be claimed that the good has infused some purpose into the popular?
Nothing frustrates a certain kind of serious-minded critic more than a certain kind of popular factual television. Programmes about the way we live now – about food, design, houses and business – are often regarded as being always of intrinsically less value than documentaries of more serious intent. Of course, looked at across the entirety of television landscape, some popular factual programming is empty, derivative and repetitive. There is no greater competition in the television world than for the returnable factual format which will deliver large, loyal audiences at low cost; and some of what results can hardly claim to the best of what television has to offer. But I think we dismiss these programmes en masse at our peril. The audience cares about them deeply, because it is in them that they feel they see themselves and their aspirations most recognisably reflected. So I think its imperative that these programmes shouldn't be regarded as being outside the purview of meaningful television; but should be encouraged instead to become the very best they can be – which is, I believe, very good indeed. For, at their best, popular factual programmes are simply another way of communicating knowledge about the world. It's often a different kind of knowledge, and is expressed in a different way; but it's there nonetheless.
Take Hairy Bikers that I clipped at the beginning of my talk. Si and Dave – and their very large motor bikes – have just completed a hugely successful series for BBC Two. Over three million people watched them each week in Mum Knows Best as they crossed the country in search of the recipes written and handed down by the nation's mothers. Their presenting technique doesn't bear much resemblance to Simon Schama; but these are nevertheless programmes about knowledge: they're about the history of food and of the communities that created the dishes, the story of life as it has been lived in homes where more conventional historians seldom venture. This is popular programming with a purpose – and every week it reached half-a-million people who otherwise might not have tuned into Two. Only the BBC, I would argue, could make a programme as effortlessly and enjoyable informative as this. The form is popular, but there's a serious intent there.
Something similar was seen at work in another successful popular format on Two last year. In The Choir, Gareth Malone took on the challenge of forming a successful community choir from amongst the apparently alienated and indifferent population of a depressed Hertfordshire town. What resulted was one of the most inspiring pieces of television of last year. This was a series about learning things and the joy of getting better at something; about the fulfilment that comes with being asked to stretch yourself beyond what you think you can do.
Clip: The Choir – Unsung Town
Distinguished as it was by the defining elements of the form – a charismatic presenter, a documentary format in which achievement and jeopardy were fairly evenly mixed, this was undeniably popular television – but who could suggest it didn't have something quite profound to say, about opportunity and the lack of it, and the transforming power of learning and involvement?
And a final, but very different example. Springwatch and Autumnwatch are hugely popular programmes that have found a new and very modern way of engaging Two audiences with nature. Whilst classic nature programmes feature the unusual and the exotic, the Watch programmes are rooted in the British domestic landscape. They're strongly dependent on the enthusiasm of the viewers, who contribute their sightings and knowledge to the team; and provide, for a predominantly urban audience, a real sense of engagement with the countryside. In a few weeks time, in a natural history first, we'll be moving out of the wild world and into the farm as we follow one of the greatest events of the British agricultural calendar. In Lambing Live, we'll spend a week capturing the birth of the national sheep flock. This will involve, as Kate Humble discovered, the transmission of some very intimate ram-based knowledge.
Clip: Lambing Live
The thing I love best about BBC Two is its ability to bring together in one channel these two visions of intelligent television – the popular good and the good popular.
I think both are better and more powerful for living in close proximity to each other.
This is not about trying to mix the two visions into a kind of bland homogeneity that offends no-one. On the contrary, I think Two is only properly Two when both are allowed to express themselves with confidence and clarity.
That's why I've been happy to place thoughtful and challenging programmes at the very heart of Two's schedule, at nine o'clock where the biggest battles for the audiences are fought out. Putting unashamedly demanding programmes there is a declaration of what the channel thinks is important, an indication of its commitment to a moral purpose beyond the power of the overnight. For me, it's been a huge pleasure to see programmes of real intellectual substance find a natural home at nine. Here's Armando Iannucci demonstrating the depth of both his passion and understanding for John Milton...
Clip: Armando Iannucci In Milton's Heaven And Hell
But I'm convinced that even these highest of high-end programmes benefit from being surrounded by Two's more accessible offers. It's a good thing, in my view, for the cleverest of programmes to have to think about what it means to live in the mainstream. And if that's good for individual programmes, it is just as beneficial for the channel as a whole. It's the confident eclecticism this produces that is the source of Two's uniqueness and its power. When David Attenborough arrived at Two as Controller in 1965, one of the first things he did was to commission two very different programmes. The first was Civilisation, which remains for many the touchstone of television intellectual ambition. The second was Pot Black, a snooker competition that drew on the new technology of colour tv to extend the sport's appeal. "It was a network," said Attenborough, "that sought to appeal to all levels of brow."
A mixed economy of programme remains, I am convinced, still the very best prescription for the survival of meaningful intelligent purpose. It is the presence of thoughtful programming as part of a mainstream offer that has ensured its robustness in the past and, I hope, will continue to do so in the future.
But the future will be shaped by a media landscape changing at a furious pace... where there is more competition for the intelligent viewer's time than ever before... to some extent, we're already there. The exponential expansion of new media during the last decade has fragmented the old mass audiences that used to underpin all television's ambitions. The audiences for everything we do on Two – both good popular and popular good – have, consequently, contracted in recent years. It isn't unique in that – this a phenomenon that has affected every terrestrial broadcaster. Everyone has so many more places to go now – and seekers after knowledge are especially well provided for. In the world of Google, Wikipedia, YouTube and blogs, what role is there left for intelligent tv?
Well, a surprisingly robust one, in some ways. For all the predictions that on-demand services would herald the imminent demise of both television channels and television schedules, neither has happened as yet. On the contrary, the latest research shows that most people still continue to watch television from live transmissions; and to navigate their viewing choices by channels.
But it's easy to see what the challenges are in the wider new media world. Both Google and Wikipedia offer access to an unimaginably large mass of information. They are unmatched as enablers and processors of information. They do very well what television has always done rather less well – marshal and deliver an unrivalled stream of facts. It's one of those strange ironies that the internet has refreshed, revived and redefined what looked like the most dry and arid intellectual form imaginable – the 19th century encyclopaedia. What it delivers is factual information – and anyone who uses it regularly knows that it does that with supreme assurance and ease.
But that's where the process of knowledge building begins – and not where thought ends up. The best intelligent television has always been about something else. It is interpretative knowledge, seeking not just to classify the world but to make sense of it, to extract meaning and draw conclusions. It is not afraid to make distinctions about what is important and what is less so; just by making a programme you say something about a subject's significance. And the bigger you make it, the more important you declare it to be.
It is, as yet, very hard to achieve comparable statements of impact in the new media world. The virtual universe is extremely democratic – we can all be experts there – but in the cacophony of competing voices, it can be hard to find signposts to things that matter, or that appear to be more than the sum of their parts. In a world of fragmented, contested information, the authorship and authority offered by the best serious television will still, I believe, have an important role to play.
But to do this, it may – sometimes – have to change the rules of its engagement. We've all been influenced by the culture of the new media world to expect our relationship with knowledge to be less one-directional, less about the passive reception of ideas, and more about a shared participation in what's interesting. That might mean fewer attempts to strive towards programming that feels "definitive", in the sense of drawing a line under a subject until the next generation feels free enough to attempt it again; replacing it with something more conscious that it, too, is part of an evolving, shaping national conversation. The recent series on the legacy of TE Lawrence presented by Rory Stewart was an example of what I mean here – throughout, Rory was reflective, musing, anything but magisterial as he sought to understand an episode of history in which he had himself played a part, and which he was conscious was still unfolding.
Clip: Rory Stewart – Legacy of Lawrence
And, as intelligent tv has always done, it will continue to evolve in shape and format as well as in its content. If it wants to continue to reach younger audiences – the hardest of all for serious factual television to attract – it will have to find ways of speaking to them in a language of programming that offers an alternative to the classic forms that now seem so firmly embedded into the landscape. I'm not saying at all that anyone under 25 lacks the attention span to connect with traditional television – but I do think younger audiences expect to choose how they consume their knowledge from a wider range of options than previous generations did. They're used to far more choice than we were! But I don't think television will be the poorer for that. A talent for constant reinvention has always been one of the things serious television has done best.
Here's what groundbreaking serious television looked like in 1957:
Clip: AJP Taylor
There we see AJP Taylor pretty much inventing the idea of the history presenter over 50years ago. Lew Grade – for it was the same man who brought us The Saint and Thunderbirds who brought us Dr Taylor – put him on after the wrestling on ITV, and it did excellently well.
Now groundbreaking history television can look more like this. Earlier this year, BBC Two attempted to tell the story of the noughties, to capture the social trends and changes that shaped our experience of the last decade. This wasn't history of the great events, so much as the story of the everyday and the ordinary. It sought to find a visual language and a tone that felt as modern and as fast moving as the story itself. Here the programme is exploring the ways in which staying young – or refusing to grow up – became one of the decade's distinguishing characteristics.
Clip: History Of Now
But sometimes the serious purpose of television needs nothing more to appeal to younger viewers than the same sense of immediacy, surprise and, in this case, enlightenment that so impressed me when I saw Seven Up all those years ago. Blood, Sweat And T Shirts was a series made for BBC Three which took a group of British teenagers to India to witness for themselves the conditions under which the clothes they buy are made.
Clip: Blood, Sweat And T-Shirts
The series attracted record numbers of younger viewers; and showed they too want something in their lives alongside Pop Idol.
It's the extraordinary ability of serious television to evolve that has made it such an important part of the culture. It hasn't remained a piece of antique virtue, much admired but little visited, left in dusty isolation on the protected margins of the culture. It has stayed meaningful because it has fought, adapted and developed to remain in the mainstream of British television and British life. It is that which has kept it so robust – and that has made it part of the national conversation, speaking not just to a self-selecting few, but to everyone with a mind open to be interested by the world. And it is, I believe, a process that isn't finished yet – or not if we don't want it to be. It's been offering something remarkable for almost 50 years now. Let's not stop believing it worth doing for the next 50.
Controller of BBC Two Janice Hadlow's speech to Newnham Seminar, Cambridge on Tuesday 23 February 2010: Clever pleasure – intelligent television and why it matters.
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