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Melvyn Bragg is right – the BBC has a class problem

Our Oxbridge-educated media elites know nothing about the working class.

Michael Collins

Topics Culture Identity Politics UK

In 2005, broadcaster Melvyn Bragg fronted a series that documented the story of ITV. The title was perhaps a comment on what the independent broadcaster was and what the BBC wasn’t – The People’s Channel. Last week, in a similar vein, Bragg criticised the BBC for its crass portrayal of the working class.

The BBC has long had a class problem – both on screen and behind the scenes. Tellingly, when ITV launched in the 1950s, the BBC’s first director-general, Lord Reith, compared the arrival of popular television to the bubonic plague. He feared that independent television would not advance the mission of the nation’s public-service broadcaster, established during his tenure, to ‘inform, educate, entertain’. He compared the BBC to a ‘drawn sword parting the darkness of ignorance’. His paternalistic approach to the masses would go on to set the tone for the institution we now know as ‘Auntie’.

Indeed, the BBC today is as synonymous with that paternalism as it is with the Oxbridge pedigree of its staff, which has forever been a priority when it comes to employing programme makers and board members. While Lord Reith made sure that women never read the news, and divorcees and homosexuals never played in the BBC orchestra, the corporation also ensured that those born below stairs never moved above them, unless they had a suitable degree from Oxford or Cambridge (which the Cumbrian-born, working-class Bragg had when he began his broadcasting career at the BBC in the 1960s).

Today, the BBC peddles a cosmetic diversity when it comes to race and gender, but class has always finished a poor third when it comes to recruitment. When one of Reith’s successors, Greg Dyke, declared that the BBC was ‘hideously white’ in 2001, he was exposing his own dark ignorance. The broadcaster was and is actually hideously middle- and upper-class. Those enlisted to embolden the ethnic-minority quota tend to arrive with a similar degree and pedigree as colleagues who are a whiter shade of pale. That is, unless they are staffing the kitchen or the post room.

As the academic Matthew Goodwin tweeted recently, while ‘the media class is obsessed with the holy trinity of race, sex and gender’, social class represents, by far, our biggest divide. And the gulf between those ‘who are actively shaping the national conversation’ and ‘the people who have to listen to it’ is only getting wider. This, he said, leaves many ‘with a palpable and growing sense they do not really feature in this “conversation” at all’.

Despite the BBC paying lip service to diversity daily, and to a disturbingly crass degree, it’s not merely the absence of the white working classes among creatives behind the screen that’s amiss. So is the portrayal of them on screen. As Bragg rightly argued in the Radio Times last week, they continue to be summarised by stereotypes and caricatures that belong to another age. According to Bragg, the BBC only wants to portray the working class as ‘miserable’:

‘I want to say, “Look, people like this, they worked so hard. And yet they came up from the mines. They came in from factories. And what did they do? They created a huge culture.” That was completely unrecognised. These people are [portrayed] as either miserable, broke or in despair. It wasn’t like that – and it needn’t be like that.’

Yet this was the story even in the 1960s, the decade in which Melvyn Bragg began his broadcasting career. Under the aegis of its then director-general, Hugh Carleton Greene, the BBC was determined to reflect the societal changes that were bringing about a supposed social revolution. RP accents and the right pedigree remained paramount behind the scenes, but cloth caps and whippets were in the running on screen.

As if to herald the news that the revolution would after all be televised, in 1960 the BBC screened the Dennis Potter documentary, Between Two Rivers. Like Bragg, Potter was an Oxford graduate taken up as a trainee at the BBC. The documentary recorded his return to his working-class roots in the Forest of Dean.

Really, the BBC was catching up with ITV. This trend to depict working-class characters and address issues they faced was already evident in the drama anthology series, Armchair Theatre, which began in 1956. This was followed in 1960 by ITV’s Coronation Street, which broke new ground in working-class representation.

Increasingly, with this vérité style of programming in vogue, the emphasis was on the everyday rather than the exceptional or the extreme. Ted Willis, a prominent TV scriptwriter at the time, referred to this as ‘the marvellous world of the ordinary’.

When the BBC launched the Wednesday Play in 1964, it courted controversy with films directed by the likes of Ken Loach, namely Up the Junction and Cathy Come Home, which drew attention to abortion and the plight of the homeless respectively. But these also set a trend for formulaic dramas that grafted standard working-class characters on to issues and causes that reflected the political agenda of the directors, playwrights or commissioning editors.

Ironically, the ‘box of delights’, as Potter described television, was discovering the working class just at the juncture when the folklore and customs of its localised culture were becoming extinct. The demographics of the working class were also changing, along with the landscape it was synonymous with.

While the working class has moved on in the decades that have passed, the BBC’s portrayal of it hasn’t. Albert Square in EastEnders is simultaneously a multicultural utopia and an urban dystopia. It bears no relation to the modern working class or to London’s current East End, despite the millions recently spent on a new set.

Both the experience and the outlook of the white working class have certainly changed since the 1960s, and more so in this century. The perennial issues that affect the many persist, but a majority of the urban working class has moved beyond the streets they were once expected to remain in, and away from the jobs that defined them in those neighbourhoods. What brings them together, whatever their economic situation, is a shared experience and a shared history. Class, after all, is determined by where you start out rather than where you end up. This has often proved a problem for many on the political left, as well as producers and writers, who assume the working class must stay poor to remain moral.

Elsewhere on screen, white working-class characters are conveniently cast as shorthand for particular prejudices or opinions that are anathema to the Oxbridge-educated gatekeepers of broadcasting. And this is happening at a time when the history of the white working class is being rewritten or erased to fit the racial narrative of our elites. For instance, London mayor Sadiq Khan recently assured us that London was built by immigrants and refugees, while others have informed us that it took the ‘Windrush generation’ to put the ‘great’ in Britain.

Despite their incessant need to namecheck cosmopolitanism and diversity, many of those at the top table in broadcasting still have an utterly parochial view of the working class. Clearly, the drawn sword is yet to part the darkness of their ignorance.

Michael Collins is a writer, journalist and broadcaster. He is the author of The Likes Of Us: A Biography of the White Working Class.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Culture Identity Politics UK

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