The bbc’s problem is its need to keep all licence fee payers smiling

The BBC’s desire to ‘connect’ with all segments of its audience has caused it to slip into the gutter to find the material that passes for modern comedy

In the light of recent events and given this column’s long-standing aversion both to Jonathan Ross and the BBC, you might expect to find it whooping with joy and doing a buck and wing dance. Alas, it is not so. While the discomfiture of Ross is welcome, the episode in which he was embroiled is a cause for despondency, not celebration.

It may be taken as axiomatic that Ross is as unattractive a piece of work as ever swaggered through the portals of Broadcasting House. Arch, lewd, foul-mouthed and with a knowing leer, he is a repugnant embodiment of smug self-satisfaction. As for his co-conspirator Russell Brand, his appearance and persona are so skilfully constructed to repel anyone with an atom of taste and discernment, that their accomplishment is nothing short of masterly.

And that is why one should look upon his like and those who find him appealing, and weep. Throughout the hand-wringing and agonising that marked discussion of the notorious telephone “prank” one assertion was frequently repeated: that because the BBC receives its income from everyone, it must please everyone. Or, as one former BBC Radio controller put it, it must “connect” with every segment of the audience.

Flowing from this assertion as naturally as night from day and accepted without question is that the BBC has a duty to cater for the youth market. By this is not meant Play School and Blue Peter – that is the young market – but rather the post-pubescent generation.

That is not as simple as it sounds, since we have become a nation in which adolescence extends well into middle age and beyond. We know that part of the BBC’s immense income is spent on audience research, so it is reasonable to assume that it knows what the market wants. If so, it confirms the worst fears of the pessimists. To judge from the broadcast output, the comedy that appeals to modern audiences is of a puerility that would have astounded earlier generations. So much of the humour derives from coarse language, bodily functions and, of course, anything to do with sex in its myriad forms that we seem as a nation to be frozen in a kind of collective arrested development.

One can hazard two reasons for this. First, for humour to advance beyond the naughty things that make children laugh, and to enter the realm of adult wit, you need an educated, literate audience able to appreciate allusion to a wider world than that of the nursery and the potty. Second, the advent of “alternative comedy” based on political correctness deprived the humorist of the full range of comedic possibilities. When modern comics talk of being “edgy” and pushing the boundaries, they mean to beat only against those confines delineated by middle-class sensibilities. No telly or stand-up comic would dare to be so edgy as to break the modish taboos on race or gender politics. Instead, the stand-up treats his audience to a supposedly sideways take on life punctuated with the effing that never fails to rise a laugh. With few exceptions, the result is an outpouring of the commonplace delivered by people who are immensely satisfied with themselves and their preening performance as adroit social commentators.

The tragedy is that the audience likes it. To judge from the BBC’s comedy output, the coarser and more vulgar, the better. And until recent events no one could tell the corporation any different. It has much in common with the comedians it hires: both are pleased with themselves, both reject criticism with a lordly indifference, both are politically correct and liberal/left.

That this obstinate wall of indifference to middle-class public opinion was breached by the outraged reaction to the notorious telephone prank came as a shock to the BBC. At first, it behaved in its customary way, namely to pooh-pooh the critics and offer a defence-cum-half-hearted-apology. Only when the outrage became a groundswell was it forced to take the matter seriously and respond, albeit tardily and reluctantly.

The BBC must be cut down to size and made to understand that public service broadcasting does not mean serving the public taste in all its basest forms. Rather it means providing a service of quality, creativity and imagination that no other organisation can. That service alone can justify the imposition of the licence fee. The BBC must forget its fashionable obsession with being all things to all men (and of course women, gays and ethnic minorities) and become again what it once was, namely a byword for the best that the media of radio and television can offer. Jonathan Ross, its most highly paid presenter, exemplified the very worst. v


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