Now’s the time to digest talk of a new digital age

In the cut-throat world of digital technology, scientists have done the unthinkable in allowing mobile phone users to eat and speak simultaneously.

Among all the exciting things that the new generation of mobile phones will enable users to do, one has escaped notice – until now.

The first phase of the technology gave millions of people the ability to stride through a crowded pub, Nokia clamped to ear, in search of a spot where the reception might improve, while repeatedly yelling: “I can’t ‘ear ya!”

Building on that achievement, the manufacturers of these mobile miracles promise that soon we will be able to use them to send e-mail, access the Internet, play music, and see the person at the other end who can’t hear us.

They will also fulfil what was, for me, a childhood ambition.

In an age when entertainment was simpler, ventriloquism was a popular act. It reached its apogee with Educating Archie, which ingeniously brought the art of voice-throwing to sound radio, allowing the ventriloquist Peter Brough a freedom previously unknown to his calling, namely to move his lips and speak quite normally, albeit in a higher pitch than was native to him. The real ventriloquists, however, were those brave veterans who sat before an audience, swivelled-headed puppet on knee, uttering through an improbable rictus phrases such as “gockle o’ gear”, which we devotees instantly understood to be “bottle of beer”.

But the cleverest trick of all – the one that separated the parvenu from the master – was the ability to recite the alphabet while swallowing the contents of a gockle of gear. I don’t think it was ever accomplished to perfection, though some of those old artistes came near. Nevertheless, along with being able to dribble like Stanley Matthews or affect the hairstyle of Tony Curtis, it was among the feats to which I aspired in the days before judgment became clouded by the onset of acne.

Now, many years later, up pops Phil O’ Donovan, managing director of Cambridge Silicon Radio, with something called Bluetooth – a gadget which, he explains, can be incorporated into a mobile and, when “waved near your PDA or laptop, will synch up your diary and address book”. Skipping over that, which means nothing to me, we come to the really exciting news. “Your cordless Bluetooth phone and hands-free headset will let you talk on the phone while drinking coffee.” Wow! Ventriloquial powers at last.

Don’t ask me how it works, nor if it’s dangerous. There have already been enough stories about mobiles causing memory loss and cancer, among other things, without adding unnecessarily to health fears. For all I know, when waved near the throat, Bluechip may synch up the larynx and epiglottis, enabling simultaneous swallowing and talking. But however it’s done, it’s a miracle.

Of course, those ventriloquists of old will be simultaneously turning in their graves while muttering “load o’ gollocks”. That’s understandable. You don’t have to be a Luddite to mourn the loss of skills that flourished – unadorned and unaided – in the pre-technological age. But each generation must make use of the technology to hand. A Stone Age ventriloquist, obliged by lack of materials to recite “ug” while drinking from a puddle, would have given his eye teeth, if he had any, for an alphabet and a glass bottle.

Less important, and less valuable, than conferring upon ordinary citizens the ability to perform the cleverest accomplishment in the ventriloquist’s repertoire, the new digital technology is capable of revolutionising the BBC. This column has been a stern critic of the corporation, mainly on the grounds that it broadcasts too much rubbish in the chase for ratings.

To be fair, the BBC finds itself in a dilemma. Because it extorts £2.3bn a year from a poll tax on just about every householder in the land, it feels obliged to cater for popular taste, which is, of course, execrable. At the same time, it is required under its charter to provide “public service broadcasting”, which is not at all the same thing as serving the public with what it likes. At bottom, the problem lies in the Blairite concept of the new middle class, which lives uneasily alongside the old middle class.

The new middle class likes its entertainment to include plenty of sex, strong language, celebrities, fast-moving action with fireballs and broken glass, and violence. The old middle class tends to eschew those things in favour of programmes that are funny without being scatological, informative without being patronising, and entertaining without being populist.

It is impossible to serve either audience without putting off the other. Or it used to be. With the advent of multi-channels there is no excuse for failing to provide both middle classes with the programmes they want to see. For instance, those of us who are interested in food and drink but do not wish to submit to the baby-talk of Gilly Goolden (who recently described a wine as “fabbo”) could be offered a programme in adult English.

Now the Birtian shadow has been lifted and we have a fresh start in the shape of Greg Dyke, it is time to forget old enmities and past criticisms and look to a new era. How about it, Greg?


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