As the culture secretary, John Whittingdale, considers how far he can go in undermining the BBC, we remember how the unique way of funding rival television channels established in the 1950s created the golden age of British television. This is extracted from Alwyn Turner’s Terry Nation: The Man Who Invented the Daleks (Aurum, 2011).
If it was going to offer any resistance at all to the onward march of ITV, and maintain its unique claim to the funds of the licence fee, the BBC would have to compete on the field of populism.
Thus began the process of what would, fifty years later, come to be referred to as dumbing down. With the likes of The Ted Ray Show (1958-9), the corporation tentatively began the embrace of variety programmes, which had long been looked upon with disfavour (even in pre-broadcast days, there had been a definite social and class divide between the ‘legitimate’ theatre and the music hall), though BBC television did not yet try to match the brassy pleasures of Val Parnell’s Startime (1956-60) or Sunday Night at the London Palladium (1955-69).
There were by the end of the 1950s criticisms of popular television in general, but it was ITV in particular that came under intense and sustained attack. Those on the right criticised the appalling decline of artistic standards, while those on the left railed against the duping of the working classes with game shows, variety and lowbrow drama. Few were prepared to argue, as did the Labour politician Richard Crossman, that the public had a ‘right to triviality’ if it so chose, and fewer still were prepared to defend ITV as providing a legitimate expression of popular culture.
The assault reached a peak with the Pilkington Report in 1962, published the month before Terry Nation’s first television drama was screened on ITV. ‘The disquiet about television,’ opined Harry Pilkington (or rather, Richard Hoggart, who provided the intellectual backbone of the committee), ‘is mainly attributable to independent television and largely to its entertainment programmes.’
On the other side of the argument, there was Lew Grade, the principal target of Pilkington, who was baffled by all the criticism. ‘I was determined to prove that British programmes were the best in the world,’ he protested, ‘and I did it. Look at the sales figures!’
It would be absurd, of course, to claim that audience share should be the sole criterion for judging the value of entertainment, but equally absurd to ignore it altogether. Like pop music, which defined itself by the relative weekly sales of various records, television was designed to provide entertainment for large numbers of people, and viewing figures at least provided a crude measure of its success in this direction.
Furthermore, Grade’s defence of exports went some way to answering the charge of Americanisation. Selling British programmes to the States was surely as valid a response to Hollywood as was Keynes’s allocation of tax revenues to the Royal Opera House, or the Communist Party’s belated endorsement of folk music and Morris dancing.
In any event, competition between ITV and the BBC, whatever the reservations, proved to be beneficial to both. Despite all the fears, Britain had by chance stumbled upon a near-perfect structure for television. With just two mainstream channels, each dependent on a different source of funding, competition was centred on programming, not on chasing advertising revenue. Meanwhile the establishment of BBC2 – the one positive outcome of Pilkington – allowed an outlet for the new, the experimental and minority interests, including the science fiction championed by Irene Shubik.
For twenty-five years from the launch of BBC2 in 1964, through the first incarnation of Channel 4 (again with a different funding mechanism), up to the dawn of the multi-channel satellite future, this was the golden age of British television…