6 May 2016

Who can save us from our new TV royalty?


Where the town of Warrington foots one of the few bridges that crosses the Mersey, there stands perhaps the finest statue of Oliver Cromwell; better even than that which stands outside the House of Commons. Nothing about it is too proud. No arm extends in triumph and no sword is raised to denote challenge or strength. Instead, Cromwell is contained within his own embrace: his left arm wrapping sword and Bible; his right hand kept humbly low. It is a difficult almost introverted statue that captures the ambiguities about our most notorious exponent of regicide. It is also memorable because it stands in an area whose history is rarely marked on the national stage. Between Cromwell’s time and the present day it sometimes feels like the only thing of note about the town was the birth of Chris Evans.

Warrington’s favourite son shares very few similarities with the puritan Lord Protector of England. Whilst one of them still evokes a fierce emotional response as befits the man who brought a great deal of suffering to the land, the other was Oliver Cromwell.

And, yes, Evans is that divisive.

He has also become something of a figurehead for a new establishment. He is BBC royalty; the personification of that ambiguous quality of ‘celebrity’ no more real than the divine right of kings. Honours are bestowed on him by the week, it seems. The latest rumour has Evans in line to become the new host of Children In Need, in addition to his Radio 2 show, the new series of Top Gear, and large portions of his week spent apologising to the media for leaving rubber skid marks on various national monuments. Yet he is not alone in finding himself the byword for ubiquity. The BBC routinely overdoses on the current flavour of the month. Adrian Chiles, Claire Balding, Susanna Reid… For a brief time before they scarper off to commercial television, presenters attain a status that producers seem to think transcends the things they’re presenting. Balding rightly earned her niche in equestrian sports but was soon noseying up to the kinds of sports stars she couldn’t pacify with a sugar lump. For a time, the Beeb deployed her ever-so-earnest delivery to every corner of the schedule except for reading the weather. Then it looked like Reid would singlehandedly save the BBC. Before them both there was Alan Titchmarsh and his jackets and Vernon Kaye entertaining us with his vague inarticulate sense of Vernon Kayedness… And what exactly does Claudia Winkleman do other than be Claudia Winkleman?

The BBC might argue that they are making the most of popular faces but it’s hard to see how the nation is best served by this endless recycling of the utterly average. It is the new cult of the presenter in which the act of ‘presenting’ has become a ‘talent’. Just how much is perkiness and chatter worth when rounded down to the closest million? Does it seem reasonable to pay any person so much to read from an autocue? It is value for money if Claire Balding handles every outside broadcast or Adrian Chiles has a spot on every early evening sofa? Celebrities with no discernible talent other than presenting make us unwilling cultists at the shrine of these jabbering mannequins of the Teleprompter.

Their salaries, you notice, fall into bands where quarters and halves of millions are made to sound trivial. Paying the top money for the top ‘talent’ might be a valid business model inside the private sector but that is not how the state broadcaster really should operate. If we were shareholders in the enterprise, then ‘programmes for profit’ should reap dividends. But we’re not and it doesn’t. They are providing a service to the nation on behalf of the nation and their profligacy should be suitably curbed. Presenting is not so rare a skill that it should demand such a hefty slice from the BBC’s budget. For one Chris Evans we could have ten other presenters each earning £100,000 or twenty new presenters, writers, actors, set designers, cinematographers, directors, and producers earning £50,000, still almost twice the average salary in the UK. Calculated at that average salary, one year of Chris Evans is worth new career opportunities for thirty eight hopefuls, eager to embrace the opportunities only the BBC can afford them.

The counter argument has it that BBC must attract the best talent to main quality. If that were true, talent in the UK would be a commodity rarer than British steel or Jeremy Corbyn’s pressed suits. As it is, the UK is blessed by an abundance of chirpy, chatty and confident pointers, promoters and prodders. Ignore the myth perpetuated by talent shows: it would not take a national search to find the next star presenter. Just this last week the media were reporting the story of a plumber called Colin Furze who had built his own hoverbike in his shed. Nothing much to see, you might think, except a crazy guy flying two dangerously spinning propellers across a field. Except Furze is the star of his own Youtube channel and his hoverbike was his latest offering to his nearly three million subscribers. What’s more, you would be hard pressed to claim that Furze’s content was any less professional than many BBC productions. Furze might be an acquired taste but if you like ebullient, loud, grungy plumbers who don’t recognise Health & Safety in pursuit of a barmy idea, then Furze is your man. Given a choice between Colin Furze hosting Top Gear and Chris Evans: I’m afraid you’d find me deserting my loyalty to Warrington.

There are some, of course, who argue that the BBC should simply be scrapped. Chris Evans’s career makes that case almost convincing. Yet there is a more compelling argument for the BBC based upon a clearer sense of what it is there to do. Television can often, of course, be a trivial part of our lives but not significantly so. The debate should be about the relationship between the BBC and the people and to what degree it plays a part in shaping our tastes, habits, thoughts, and attitudes. The BBC plays a valuable part in defining us as a nation and it is a service the market cannot be trusted to maintain.

John Whittingdale doesn’t exactly look Cromwellian but perhaps the BBC will emerge stronger after their trial by fire. They must, however, accept criticism and acknowledge that some of its firmest supporters believe it must change. The Culture Secretary reportedly quipped to Cambridge University’s Conservative Association that ‘if we don’t renew it, it may be that the BBC will cease to exist, which is occasionally a tempting prospect’. The remark was not greeted warmly by defenders of the BBC, possibly because nobody is quite sure how far it was just a quip. Whittingdale was described by Gary Lineker as a ‘chump’ and said that the BBC is ‘revered throughout the World. We should be proud of it, not destroy it’. He is right but it’s also hard to overlook the fact that he earns a reported £2 million a year to present football with less humour, passion, and insight than found on many an amateur football podcast produced each and every week on almost zero budget.

The BBC should, properly, be a portal through which we all invest in the nation, encouraging new talent which would inevitably produce new programming, new opportunities and a new faith in the BBC’s mission. It would leverage the talent this country produces like other nations produce cheap mobile phones. Lean, empowered, and unafraid to be unpopular, it would finally be a public broadcaster in the very best traditions of those that wish, above all else, to broadcast for the public.

David Waywell writes and cartoons at The Spine.