Celebrity brains down the BBC

If St Luke was right – and this column would be the last to question him on this or any other matter – there ought at this minute to be some muted joy in heaven.

For, at the BBC, not one sinner but two have repented, or come as near to it as the native arrogance of that organisation permits. After years of steadfastly defending televised rubbish on the ground that “quite simply, we must provide something for everyone”, the BBC’s governors have rebuked the executives responsible for the slide into populist programming.

The brace of penitent sinners are the chairman of the governors, Sir Christopher Bland, who, barely six months ago declared that the corporation had stayed “true to the vision and public service purposes which have shaped and led the BBC since 1922”, and director of television, Alan Yentob, whose every statement has exemplified the maxim, “never explain, never apologise”.

Now hear them. Sir Christopher complains that serious current affairs and arts programmes such as Omnibus and Question Time have been pushed into late slots to make way for more populist alternatives; and Yentob, acquiescing in a plan to ditch many of BBC1’s trashier daytime programmes, describes the move as “braining up”. Can it be that these hitherto obdurate defenders of the indefensible have seen the error of their ways? I doubt it. But every sinner that repenteth ought to be given the benefit of the doubt and we should wait to see apologetic words translated into convincing action.

Wellwishers are not helped by the fact that on the very day when repentance trickled forth came the news that the BBC had compiled a “wish list” of celebrities for possible appearance on Question Time. The corporation confirmed that approaches had been made to Elizabeth Hurley, Sir Elton John, Sting, Kenneth Branagh, and Peter Gabriel. Thus the Christian forgiveness in our hearts is gnawed by a worm of doubt. If Question Time is to be brought back into the mainstream it must pay the price and become populist. What kind of repentance is that?

To be fair to the BBC – and lumme, how we try – such is the cult of celebrity in Britain today that no institution remains immune from its malign influence, not even the monarchy. Television and celebrity are inseparable: one begets the other. Celebrity is the modern equivalent of ancient mysticism. It is inherently paradoxical: little is worth heeding unless graced by celebrity (hence Sir Elton John’s appearance at the funeral of the Princess of Wales, herself a celebrity) yet no one quite believes that celebrities exist, or at any rate exist in the same way that ordinary mortals exist. Just as it was impossible for an Ancient Greek to imagine Apollo trolling the streets of Athens, so it is difficult for a modern Briton to conceive that the semi-divine creatures seen on television are of flesh and blood and capable of moving among them. Which is why celebrities tend to be at best ogled, at worst mobbed.

A young woman called Charlie Dimmock has attained celebrity by appearing on a TV gardening series without wearing a brassiere (the same was true of the late Percy Thrower, which shows that feminism still has some way to go). Recently the Daily Mail ran a feature about a number of ordinary women, who also chose to tread life’s path bra-less, people which it described as “the real-life Charlie Dimmocks”. Thus for the Mail and its readers the Charlie Dimmock on TV is some kind of construct, not real at all. Such is the mysticism of celebrity. (It is an unhappy thought that somewhere there may be a real-life Alan Yentob.)

The cult of celebrity is pervasive and corrosive. It is the principal reason why we no longer have a quality press. The Times and the Telegraph now devote as much space as their tabloid cousins to pop singers, minor actresses, fashion models, sports personalities, and TV soap stars. No question of the day can be credibly discussed without the participation of celebrities. For instance, in an attempt to divine the quality of written and spoken English in Britain today (in truth, a publicity ploy) the dictionary publisher Collins sought the views of 104 people including Bob Monkhouse, Jilly Cooper, Anna Ford, Geoffrey Boycott, Sue Lawley and Janet Street-Porter, this last being the equivalent of seeking the opinion of a Goth on the qualities of Roman architecture.

Though celebrity cheapens and tarnishes, its commercial value is irresistible. A product endorsed by a celebrity is a product invested with mysticism. Small wonder the gal̬re of hairdressers, chat show hosts, footballers, dress designers, mummers, chefs, and interior designers are called icons, for that is exactly what they are Рimages regarded as sacred.

Mass communication and mass stupidity were made for each other. That they should be so powerfully and mutually reinforcing was not fully apparent until the age of television. That is why it is impossible for the BBC to aspire once again to the high ideals of public service broadcasting while remaining a medium of mass communication. That noble aim came nearest its fulfilment when the corporation was a monopoly, and suffered some erosion during a duopoly. In an era of multichannel broadcasting it is a cause as irretrievably lost as Janet Street-Porter’s aspirates.


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