Snogging BBC3, Avoiding 6 Music, Marrying Cynicism or Idiocy

Either the top BBC management are incredibly stupid or they’re trying to be too clever by half — and, quite possibly, they’re both. Why on earth do they think that axing BBC Radio 6 and the Asian Network is a strategic course of action?

By its charter, the BBC has to primarily cover public service obligations that commercial broadcasters arguably won’t undertake but it also feels it can’t be too elitist if it’s levying a regressive tax of £130 per household for its services. Interestingly, the range of programming on channels like Sky Arts and, to a lesser extent, Classic FM and many US cable channels like HBO shows that it’s possible to produce commercial broadcasting that doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence. In fact the most crass, dumbest programming that can be viewed on any remotely mainstream channel (such as on Freeview) is BBC3 — inspiration of gems like ‘F*ck Off I’m Ginger’, ‘Snog, Marry, Avoid’, patronising rubbish snippets of news presented by ‘cool’ presenters who no doubt got the job through their father’s connections down the lodge, repeats of ‘Eastenders’, various programmes where people film their genitals for an hour, ego-trip hagiographies of BBC programme makers (‘Dr Who Confidential’) and where the only half-decent programming is destined for BBC2 anyway. It’s almost entirely absolute total rubbish but is considered inviolable by the idiotic BBC management as it’s targeted at the sacred Yoof market — people who the BBC commissioners completely fail to understand despite their obsessive pursuit of the demographic. You have to end up watching Stag Party Channel on Sky at midnight on a Friday to see anything equivalently witless to the general rubbish pumped out by BBC3.

So this expensive pile of insulting crap remains untouchable whereas a couple of cheap radio stations that serve less fashionable demographics are to be wiped from the schedules. I’m not sure what the Asian Network has done to offend the BBC management so much. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to it but it appears to be a more public service orientated station than its untouched equivalent — 1Extra. This would appear from its publicity to be focused on the sort of music that Radio One provides quite a substantial outlet for and pirate stations in London even more so — and it seems to address a far narrower audience than something generic like the Asian Network. 6 Music falls down because it’s meant to serve those too grown up for Radio One (surely anyone over about 13?) and those not old enough for Radio 2 (over 35s apparently). I thought the targeting of those two stations was simpler — Radio One is for single people and Radio 2 for marrieds or equivalents (just listen to any dedication that comes in on Radio 2 — it always mentions a wonderful spouse).  At heart it’s a fairly serious music station, despite being hijacked by the egos of ‘look at me I’m a rising star’ merchants like George Lamb or that Lauren Laverne,  6 Music is playing the sort of slightly less commercial music that a public service broadcaster ought to play and the last thing that should happen is it to be closed down. Radio One is far harder to justify, as is Radio Two.

People have speculated the whole thing is a cynical exercise in creating a grass-roots movement to ‘save’ 6 Music — perhaps the BBC realised that the crass stations they want to preserve like Radio One and BBC3 wouldn’t generate such almost universal sympathy and goodwill? Yet, if they’ve been cynical enough to do this, they’ve only just drawn further attention to the rubbish that they’ve been too weak to consider touching.

All I can say is that they’d better not even hint that they’re threatening BBC4.

The Secret Life of Chaos

I had a choice of viewing on the BBC digital channels last night. I could have watched ‘The Truth About Stag Weekends’ (or similarly titled) or a programme about the mathematical theory which underpins the whole universe. I had a quick peek at BBC3 and, although the Prague lap-dancing clubs looked interesting, watching the antics of a bunch of pissed-up blokes for an hour lost its appeal so I watched the thought-provoking programme on BBC4 — The Secret Life of Chaos. It started out with an ambitious premise — to explain what Douglas Adams might also have called the question of ‘life, the universe and everything’. The idea is that simple mathematical equations, pioneered by Alan Turing, could explain how patterns get created out of otherwise regular and identical material — such as in how embryos develop out of stem cells or how planets agglomerate out of dust particles. IMHO the programme seemed to stop short of actually explaining how this happened but they alluded to feedback loops, which I’ve studied on an Open University course (can’t remember which one now). Basically the idea is that very tiny differences in an environment are massively amplified using the feedback loop until something becomes very distinctive.  There are other theories too — such as how things like tree branches or rivers tend to repeat the same patter.

The end result was to argue that science and mathematics have explained away the big questions previously posed by religion: we don’t need to ask why we’re here,  the answer has been worked out.

The main point of the programme for me was to re-inforce the importance of simplicity. Keep things simple in all walks of life, especially things like software design, because the way even the simple things interact will lead to incredible complexity. Start complex and the whole enterprise will soon fail.

The presenter, Jim Al-Khalili, seemed pretty good. Apparently he’s a favourite guru of Melyvn Bragg on ‘In Our Time’ but we can forgive him that. His programme about the elements and the periodic table is on next week.

Wednesdays Will Never Be the Same Again At the Red Lion, Caerleon

I had dismal hopes for the Channel Four programme — the Red Lion — on Thursday. Another instalment of government promoted doom and gloom about the evils of drinking seemed on the cards.

The programme visited 10 of the 600 Red Lion pubs in the country (the most popular pub name) and the first one featured unashamed, wanton binge drinking, the only objective of which was ‘to get hammered’ — but this was by a group of women. It was a student netball team from Newport University (no, I never realised there was a university there either) who religiously went out on a Wednesday to get completely plastered playing ‘pub golf’ (a close relative of drinking golf that I’ve played myself) at 9 local pubs. So the programme started with a dozen or so girls downing a pint of Guinness in one at the Red Lion. Rather than be apologetic, the students they interviewed were refreshingly honest about their motives — drinking to get pissed (although they have to be able to stand up or else that would be a bad night) and ‘feeling like shit’ the next morning was a big part of it. These women were not violent or sad or ill — they were all pretty athletic as they played netball for the university. I remained in awe as they went on to other pubs in Caerleon to down other drinks in one. I expect that, after this programme, Caerleon will never be the same again on a Wednesday night as hundreds of male binge drinkers will no doubt want to make a favourable impression on the netball players by consuming even larger amounts of alcohol. Where is it again?

After that classic opening, the programme went to a reasonable cross section of other Red Lions. It seemed that even when they found the inevitable solitary drinkers whose whole lives revolved around the pub that even these characters came out of the programme with a lot of dignity. My favourite Red Lion was one in Whitworth, north of Rochdale, which was pretty typical of the pubs I learned to drink in (in Tim Martin approved fashion) myself just over the hills from there. There was one Rugby League player who cheerfully admitted to spending £100 on beer a week — as he didn’t have much else to do. He also gave one of the most eloquent descriptions of the pleasure of being mildly inebriated.  As with the netball players, even the BMA might have problems correlating the large volume of alcohol consumed with the physical fitness required of the players. (It brings to mind the conclusion that Jancis Robinson came to in The Demon Drink when she reviewed the scientific literature that the people who drink most do so because they can — i.e. fit young people in their 20s can outdrink almost anyone with no ill effects.)

What the programme managed to convey quite effectively was the sense of camaraderie and community that can be found in all good pubs. It showed the pub is a leveller of society and class — with the regulars being incredibly brutal in their comments towards each other but all done so in the safe knowledge that they’ll be back there the next night. The pub pricks pretension and is an amazing social leveller. Many of these issues have been examined by social anthropologist, Kate Fox, who devotes a whole section of her book ‘Watching the English’ to the etiquette of round buying. The last Red Lion was closed — bought up by an owner who has no intention of re-opening it but, by the look of the boarded up windows, can’t get planning permission to do anything else with the building. Speculating and profiteering were ripping the heart out of a community — odd that after 12 years of New Labour.

There was plenty of potential for ridiculing the pubgoers, who were remarkably candid, but what came across was an amazing feeling of common humanity bonding the pubgoers. After all, the pub is basically an institution where ‘the public’ are invited into a ‘house’.  The programme generated a very favourable review in The Guardian. I can’t put the conclusion better myself:  ‘a lovely portrait of a peculiarly British institution’. The Times review says ‘Drinking in moderation, the contributors suggested, was a dreary waste of time.’ I couldn’t possibly comment.

Andy Williams — King of Easy Listening

The Baby Boomer generation is fond of re-inventing its history and self-mythologising itself to the extent that you’d think they were all at Woodstock or burning down the Bastille and that the music of the Beatles was thought far too ‘square’. In reality, although my parents were thankfully a bit older than the typical boomers, I remember that the soundtrack to the late 60s and early 70s was not so much Hendrix and company but Neil Diamond and Andy Williams whose records are indelibly imprinted on my brain. In ‘cool’ retrospect Neil Diamond is now so trendy that he even played Glastonbury. BBC4 just showed a documentary about Andy Williams’ duets on his NBC TV show which featured all kinds of luminaries such as Judy Garland, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash and many others.

It was good to see the man himself introducing the clips. The one I enjoyed most was his collaboration with Simon and Garfunkel. I can’t help but imagine that these two are a couple of the most unlikeable, dysfunctional individuals ever to come to public recognition — at least their public personas anyway. However, there’s no disputing that they made some fantastic records and Williams joined them in a threesome to perform perhaps my favourite — ‘Scarborough Fair/Canticle’. Simon’s guitar accompaniment was beautifully simple and Williams’ voice perfectly complemented Garfunkel’s pitch. It was quite lovely and showed how adaptable Williams was as he was soon shown doing a bit of R&B with Ray Charles.