LONDON LETTER

NO SOAP FOR THE BBC

Beverley Baxter April 15 1952
LONDON LETTER

NO SOAP FOR THE BBC

Beverley Baxter April 15 1952

NO SOAP FOR THE BBC

LONDON LETTER

Beverley Baxter

IS GREAT BRITAIN going to allow commercial sponsored programs on radio and television? That is a question which will be debated not only in Parliament and in the Press but in the unofficial parliament of the pubs. The life of the present BBC charter is ebbing peacefully to its close and we have to decide whether to renew it or to open the gates to commercial sponsors.

The existing situation is that there are roughly twelve million radio sets paying an annual license fee of one pound each, and a million and a quarter television sets which pay a license fee of two pounds each. To complete the statistical record it will be seen that the BBC has an annual income from listeners and viewers of approximately fourteen and a half million pounds.

There is no competition within the corporation, and there is only one employer for technical and administrative staff and only one employer for what might be described as the entertainers. Thus you may, in your opinion, sing like Caruso or be a funnier comedian than Jack Benny but if the BBC does not think so you can sing to the moon or caper for a herd of cows because there is no place for you on the TV screen or the air of Britain.

It is quite true that there is the concert hall and the vaudeville theatres, which the British call music halls, but the radio has become such a popularizing medium that without it the singers and comedians have little chance of profitable employment elsewhere. The same thing applies in the department of talks and brain trusts. You may have the wisdom of Solomon and the voice of Laurence Olivier but, if the BBC does not think so, you are out.

Having carefully stated all this I must in fairness confess that it is not

wholly true. There is a radio station at Luxembourg which is controlled by British interests and gives recorded programs in English sponsored by British advertisers. Therefore the BBC ban on an artist cannot prevent him coming in from Luxembourg. It is reckoned that t he listening British public for this pirate station numbers from three to four million, in spite of the fact that in southern England, including London, the reception is very bad.

It is inevitable that a monopoly such as the British Broadcasting Corporation must endure not only criticism but charges of favoritism, discrimination and, among minor officials, a certain amount of bribery

but not on a big scale. The plugging of song hits offers an obvious chance for band leaders to earn something on the side, and I have known a hit to be plugged by so many dance bands that one turns off the radio to escape from going mad. But let me emphasize that, on the whole, British broadcasting has been conducted with a surprisingly small amount of petty bribery. On the other hand its monopolistic character has certainly made tyrants out of some officials who were never intended by nature to be bigger than gnats.

Strangely enough, the case against the BBC was greatly strengthened by the sudden death of King George VI. Within a few minutes of that sad event the announcer told us the King was dead and then added: “The BBC is now closing down except for announcements at 12 noon, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. and the usual gale warnings and weather reports.” All programs were canceled and rightly so, but to create a gulf of silence broken only by the same announcement of the King’s death and the changing weather reports was a deplora ble Continued on page 26

London Letter

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collapse of judgment and imagination. In fact it was an abdication of radio’s place in the life of the nation.

Think of the news items flashing from all over the world, the scenes in New York, the messages from the dominions, the hush in Cairo, the sorrowing natives in Africa, the tributes from Europe. It was a story that never paused for an instant hut grew in volume and emotion like a mighty flood. Think too of the chance to hear recorded playings of Wagner’s funeral music from Götterdämmerung, of Handel’s Messiah, of Gounod’s St. Cecilia Mass, and even the recorded service of the coronation of George VI and his Queen. The newspapers (and, incidentally, they were magnificent) could have been left plodding hopelessly along at the heels of radio with its power of instantaneous announcement.

So the storm of criticism broke over the heads of the BBC hierarchy and no reasonable explanation was, nor could have been, forthcoming. It was being said on every hand that the charter should not be renewed. Yet there were grave doubts in a few minds which caused us to ask whether it would not be better to let things go on as they are rather than permit commercial sponsors.

I know the answer which is always given to me on my annual visit to Canada and the U. S. After my protest against the plugging of pills and tooth paste and deodorizers by young men with unctuous “come-to-the-penitent-bench” voices, my friends say “We only turn on the radio for the New York symphony concert which is sponsored by—.” That may be true with a minority but the radio is an all-day companion to a great number of people and as such has been a friend to man and a destroyer of loneliness.

Those Headaches of Hamlet’s

But let me repeat that the mealymouthed voice of a man describing to women listeners the wonderful joy of washing underwear with Somebody’s soap makes me quite sick. The seraphic ecstasy of his words, the self-righteous desire to befriend his listeners, the determination to bring light to dark spaces—that is not a man’s job. I would not mind so much if he did it as a straightforward proposition. It is the evangelical note that I cannot endure.

Again my Canadian and American friends say that they get so used to the commercial touting that they do not hear it. With great respect I say the proposition is absurd. Are commercial firms such philanthropists that they pay for programs and stations just to give pleasure and with the full knowledge that no one listens to the plugging of their particular commodity? If that were true there ought to be a lunacy commission to enquire into the brains of commercial managements.

When an actor plays Hamlet on the air or the ¿creen and utters his last dying words, “The rest is silence,” I claim that it is intellectually, artistically and spiritually revolting if we hear another voice say: “Do you

suffer from headaches like Hamlet? If Hamlet had taken two of Somebody’s tablets three times a day he never would have got into that condition.” First I do not believe it, and second it would have been a loss to the world if Hamlet had been cured.

There is of course the logical pretext that all these programs come to you at no extra expense. But are the people

of the great North American continent so poor that they cannot pay for their entertainment? As I pointed out a moment ago even the impoverished British put up nearly fifteen million pounds a year for their radio and television services, and do not grumble.

It might of course be argued that newspapers and magazines accept advertisements which constitute a form of sponsorship and that contributors, such as your London correspondent, have no qualms about accepting the benefit therefrom. That is perfectly true but there is all the difference in the world between advertising in a publication and advertising on the air. At no point is it possible for the advertiser to force a reader’s concentration entirely on his announcement. Admittedly, advertisements not only increase the n venue of a publication but they often add to its reading attraction. Yet in reputable publications the advertiser has no control whatever over the editorial policy or contents.

A Dulcet Frankenstein

I must confess that my own attitude has been strengthened by my study of American television a few weeks ago in the U. S. Let us first give this new giant its due. In the lonely places of America it brings the companionship of living and visible people. To the invalid and the aged it is a friend and undoubtedly adds to the attractions of home life. To a great scattered country like the U. S., with a vast population of varied racial origins and differing complexions, it creates a unifying influence.

Then what is the other side of the balance sheet? First there is this obvious point that advertisers who have to pay high rates for peak times will want programs that will appeal to the largest possible public. If that is admitted, and I do not see how it can be denied, there must be a steady leveling down in public taste. The first-class will have little chance for it must always appeal to a minority.

Second, there is the demonstrable fact that since a human being has only one pair of eyes it is not possible to look at a screen and to read at the same time. And since there are only twenty-four hours in a day the time given to reading must be reduced. This will have a growing effect on publishers who, in an attempt to hold their own, will be inclined to look for books of a sensational and pornographic character. I am not saying that television is pornographic but its threat to publishers must produce the effect I have described.

Third, there is a more subtle and perhaps a more sinister development which, at the moment, is not generally foreseen. As I see it commercial tele-

vision is gradually placing the power of national propaganda in the hands of the Big Interests. The large advertisers will eventually pass in power the newspapers with their long-established traditions of editorial independence. How long then will it be until advertisers sponsor political and even presidential candidates? By their power to present a man on the screen, and the even greater power of keeping him off the screen, they can profoundly influence national opinion. This may seem a fantastic idea but there is always before us the classic example of Frankenstein and his monster. Man is continuously developing monsters that he cannot control.

Finally, I come to the intangible aspect of the question, and to some extent, the spiritual. We live in an age of regimentation with standardized products, standardized entertainment, standardized architecture, standardized locomotion, and almost standardized religion. That is particularly true of the North American continent, although Canada is more stubbornly individualistic than its great neighbor to the south.

Here in Britain the process also exists but to a lesser extent. The acute ear can still detect differences of accent in people living only a hundred miles from each other. The Englishman, the Scot, the Welshman and the Irish are as stubbornly individualistic as in the days when the Romans tried to civilize them and failed. They do their own thinking and they make their own way of life, in spite of the shortages and vexations of contemporary existence. In their homes they can turn on the radio with the knowledge that, though they may be bored, they will not be reminded of the ills that flesh is heir to, nor be told that a pretty girl suffers from body odor, bad breath, hairy legs, and even dandruff—because she doesn’t. If I am to believe my ears the American girl, supposedly the loveliest of her sex, only holds her place in human society by the most advanced efforts of science. Which is again absurd.

Therefore, in the battle of the BBC charter, I shall join the dwindling band of those who want to leave things as they are. No one can deny that the BBC has a firm reputation for integrity —a mighty asset in the world as it is today. Many of the programs are excellent, and musically it is a joy. On the other hand some of its programs are tawdry and even a bore.

But this much is certain. You can leave your set muttering away in the corner and know that you will not be badgered, harried or affronted by it. Be it ever so humble an Englishman’s home is still his castle and I hope he will pull up the drawbridge against the advancing hosts of commercialized sponsorship, if