Strikers lose the plot as BBC repeats classic 1970s drama

The sight of BBC strikers taking to the picket lines produced a wave of 1970s nostalgia, but would most viewers notice if many of the staff never went back?

Yet again the BBC has fooled the critics. We thought it had lost its touch with costume drama. Once renowned for its ability to recreate the past with an unerring attention to detail, it had grown sloppy and careless – apt, for instance, to introduce modern idiom into Jane Austen. How wrong we were.

What other organisation could have assembled a cast of thousands – not jobbing extras, but real players – and re-enacted with such evocative power a vintage industrial dispute circa 1975? One glance at the huddled pickets holding their placards and chanting their slogans was enough to send the memory racing back to the days when strikes seemed as deeply woven into the national fabric as cream teas and casual violence.

There is no denying the power of nostalgia to arrest our emotions and sweep us back to long-forgotten times and places. The BBC strikers achieved this with a remarkable facility. It was all there: the cheerful espousal of a lost cause; the camaraderie, contrived for a day, but somehow real; the brutish self-interest masquerading as public concern; the thrill of being away from the workplace, playing the revolutionary until it was time to go home.

Contributing to the spectators’ enjoyment was the knowledge that none of what we were seeing had anything to do with real life. That, of course, is the dramatist’s skill: to engage our attention and manipulate our emotions, but to allow us the comfort of a release into normality. It is a tribute to the skill of the BBC’s 15,000 strikers that they mounted a formidable spectacle from the fiction that 4,000 people should be kept in non-jobs at the licence payers’ expense. And, in an adroit coup de théâtre, the pickets underlined the central paradox by showing that their absence from work made not a jot of difference. The BBC’s programmes went out much as before (some noted an improvement) and the public proved magnificent in its indifference.

Sensing perhaps that the non-attendance of thousands of people in non-jobs might have insufficient dramatic appeal, the architects of the show contrived a number of neat sub-plots. “Celebrity Scabs” was fun: Terry Wogan, Sarah Kennedy and someone called Chris Moyles sauntered past the picket lines, but what had us biting our lips was what Anna might do. Last time there was a strike at the BBC, veteran feminist newsperson Anna Ford drove past protesting pickets with the plaintive cry, “I’m a single mother.” It was a poignant moment: one could picture the tear-stained faces of the little ones at home, fearful that the nanny and childminder might be laid off, leaving no one to look after them but their mother. We were, thank heaven, spared a heart-wrenching repeat. Anna did not cross the picket line this time.

So was the production a success? I would say that on balance it was. It was historically accurate in almost all respects, especially in its portrayal of collective and strident boneheadedness. However, although it’s a small point, I should like to have seen burning braziers at the picket line. This essential prop was noticeable by its absence, leaving the cast with nothing by which to warm themselves other than self-congratulation.

Jeremy Dear, the National Union of Journalists’ general secretary, congratulated all concerned on “causing chaos” and revealed that the one-day strike was merely the pilot for a whole series of further stoppages and “hit-and-run” action. He added that journalists might cause further chaos by insisting on taking their lunch breaks. Among the targets was tennis from Wimbledon.

This should be worth waiting for: the camera will zoom in on Anna Kournikova tucking a spare tennis ball into her knicker elastic, before the screen goes black, leaving the viewer with nothing but the sound of BBC personnel eating to rule.

There are always irritating people who leave a show asking: “What was the point? What was the playwright trying to tell us?” But dramatists deal in ambiguities, leaving us, the audience, to take away our own messages.

The BBC costume drama “Strike for a Day” gave us plenty to chew on. The corporation employs 28,000 people – yes, 28,000 – paid from an annual tax of £126.50 extorted from almost all householders. What is the point? What are they trying to tell us? The questions hang in the ether and go unanswered. The strike, however, provided some telling clues. We now know that without Natasha Kaplinsky, Dermot Murnaghan, Fiona Bruce, John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman life skims by in full sail. And the absence of Nicky Campbell bestows the sweet contentment of a curse lifted. For once, all we ask from the BBC is for more repeats. v

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