John Cleese is being harassed in a pub. The comedian – post-Fawlty Towers, pre-long descent into bitterness – has asked an age-old question: “What’s the BBC ever given us for 58 quid?” The answer comes from thirty of the corporation’s biggest stars, Bob Geldof and a golden retriever, as they list everything from drama to children’s television to natural history documentaries. The famous 1986 advert is a useful example of why the BBC is undervalued for its progressive programming. Its position as the world’s oldest and largest broadcaster can provide it with tremendous muscle, as their recent Olympics coverage attests, but this begets a reputation for being monolithic.
It would be unsurprising if one discovered that the word “institution” was invented in 1922 to describe the BBC. The corporation is a cornerstone of national life, with extensive divisions in television, radio and news, and a history that runs parallel with that of broadcasting, It’s telling that journalists have long employed the nickname ‘Auntie Beeb’: matronly and often infuriating, but a member of the family nonetheless. The dictum from its first general manager John Reith was that the BBC was to “inform, educate and entertain” but this utopian (and patrician) goal isn’t necessarily best achieved by venturing to the medium’s outer reaches. Before it was even called the Home Service, the original name of Radio 4 was the National Programme, and this gets to the root of the problem: it’s hard to create something bold when you’re trying to appeal to an entire county at the same time.
Innovation is often the preserve of outside voices, rather than an city-sized cruise ship of a broadcaster established under a royal charter. Its younger, scrappy rival Channel 4 is traditionally seen as the home for Britain’s daring television: on Christmas Day they broadcast the alternative to the Queen’s speech, rather than the fusty genuine article. Channel 4 was explicitly created to demonstrate experimentation and creativity (a remit they have fulfilled admirably, despite a long-standing tendency to confuse controversy with innovation), but it has never had a monopoly on challenging viewers through its content and form. By virtue of its gargantuan proportions and without the need to gain a certain audience size in order to attract advertisers, the BBC often possesses as a freer hand than its competitors to be audacious.
With this in mind, we’ve gathered five examples of the BBC’s most progressive output. This is a personal view rather a definitive ranking: it would be equally possible to populate this list with Cathy Come Home, Q5, Pennies from Heaven, Life on Earth and Pandora’s Box. Or with Magical Mystery Tour, The Year of the Sex Olympics, That Was the Week That Was, The Young Ones and Castaway 2000. Or with The Royle Family, Mathematics: introduction, Monty Python’s Flying Circus…
The War Game (1965)
The BBC doesn’t deserves all of the credit it might get for commissioning The War Game, as it didn’t actually screen the drama on television for 20 years. Peter Watkins’ documentary-style depiction of a nuclear attack on Britain, produced for the pioneering television play anthology The Wednesday Play, was withdrawn by the corporation after they realised the potency of what they’d created. In a statement in 1965, they said: “When the television service undertook the making of a film on this subject, it recognised the risk that the film might turn out to be unsuitable for general showing. In the event, the effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting.” Allegedly fearing mass suicides, they suppressed the film from a wider audience. Despite winning an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, it only received limited public screenings.
When The War Game did eventually make it onto television to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, it had been superseded by the thematically-similar docudrama Threads, but two decades later the film was no less horrifying. The War Game is part of a rich tradition of British television horror that runs from Nigel Kneale plays such as The Quatermass Experiment and The Stone Tape to terrifying public information films about substations, tractors and broken glass, but its lingering power comes from its pressing message. If nuclear war had broken out in 1965, this is what it would have looked like. It’s what nuclear war would look like today, too.
The history of British television is the history of watching people use telephones. Entertainment programmes from Swap Shop to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? to Richard & Judy have thrived on the inherent suspense in watching a TV presenter talk to a real person who is away from any producers or guiding influences. It is television at its least polished and most dangerous: usually the results are mundane, but things go wrong just enough that there’s always the possibility that everything might leap off the rails. This dramatic tension was employed to disconcerting effect in the mockumentary Ghostwatch, which uses the technique both as a source of scares and as an unconscious way to vouch for the truth of what it’s depicting.
If you happened to be flicking through channels on 31st October, 1990 and missed the start, there’s a chance that you might have been taken in by Ghostwatch, at least for a little while. The one-off drama presents itself as a live programme about a haunted house in Northolt, cutting between the house itself and a BBC studio which becomes an unwitting target for the poltergeist. The programme’s uncanny reproduction of live broadcasting caused some viewers to believe they were watching the real thing. Due to the controversy caused, it has never been repeated on British television, which made it even more potent in the time before physical media and the internet. For years Ghostwatch festered in the minds of those who saw it, and it is still genuinely distressing decades later. Where Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds radio play used fictional characters throughout, this is unsettling because it uses actual BBC presenters Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Craig Charles and the late Mike Smith as themselves. The programme it pertains to be is close enough to the formulaic that if you squint it’s almost possible to believe.
Blue Jam (1997)
From the very first line, radio programme Blue Jam lets its audience know what they’re in for: “When you sick so sad you cry, and in crying, cry a whole leopard from your eye. Sad mammal.” Before the world lost him to the snail’s pace of film-making, Blue Jam was devised by Chris Morris after the draining experience of creating news parody Brass Eye, which had drawn the hysterical attentions of MPs, the ITC and crowing tabloids. By design, the programme was under the radar, broadcast on Radio 1 at one in the morning. Morris originally lobbied for it to be on at 3 a.m., explaining to a journalist afterwards: “I thought that was about the latest time of day that could be late without being early. It’s a sort of – really it’s an autumnal, middle of the night show. You need to be as far from light as possible.”
Blue Jam feels like a fever dream, as stretches of ambient downbeat music are alternated with some of the most disturbing, surreal things ever said on national radio; Morris himself described it the effect as “spooky-woozy.” That it also manages to be hilarious – and surprisingly moving in the case of its desolate monologues about a confused, deeply depressed man – is an achievement. After three series, it eventually transitioned to television for the Channel 4 programme Jam, but the latter couldn’t manage to be as experimental, thrilling and bleak as the show that spawned it. Something was lost: the false sense of security it lures you into, as you start enjoying the music and forget what exactly it is you’re listening to. That’s when Morris gets you.
Marion and Geoff (2000)
When he isn’t trying to sell us Crunchy Nut Cornflakes or Fairy Liquid, Rob Brydon is one of the most innovative comedians working on television today. Best known for his warm portrayal of Uncle Bryn in Gavin and Stacey, Brydon is unsung for his commitment to unusual comic forms: the dark anthology series Human Remains with Julia Davis, his Larry Sanders-like satire of comedy panel shows Annually Retentive (which was simultaneously an actual panel show), his vocal contribution as the eponymous film-maker in the stock footage-mining Directors Commentary, and alongside Steve Coogan as bickering versions of themselves in Michael Winterbottom’s improvised sitcom The Trip. Some of these worked better than others, but they all were linked by a shared vision of presenting comedy on television by less traditional means.
The high-water mark of Brydon’s career remains his breakout role in Marion and Geoff, which he also co-wrote. Brydon plays the only on-screen character: Keith Barret, a divorced taxi driver struggling to put his life back together after his wife Marion leaves him for her colleague. The programme is constructed from recordings of Barret filming himself in his car, something he does for reasons that are never quite explained. A good man in denial of his ghastly situation, living with unwavering optimism and offbeat good humour, Barret is a successor to the lonely monologists of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, but the use of his car-bound camera anticipates a later culture of relentless self-documentation. The simplicity of the format is what allows Marion and Geoff to be so casually devastating: it doesn’t need big scenes involving lots of characters because it can show a man hugging a pair of stuffed toys in a car and make you cry.
All Aboard! The Canal Trip (2015)
If you want to really learn something about a person you should describe the concept of All Aboard! The Canal Trip to them and see how they react. Filmed in real time, The Canal Trip is a two-hour documentary of a narrowboat inching its way from Bath Top Lock to the Dundas Aqueduct. The camera barely moves, there is no voiceover and no narrative to speak of, and occasionally visual information about the canal’s history will appear on screen. There is clearly little room for equivocation: either this is intriguing or the most tedious-sounding programme ever made. There has perhaps never been an exclamation mark as potentially mocking as the one that appears in the title.
The Canal Trip‘s concept isn’t native to the BBC – it is inspired by the work of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, who have drawn huge audiences by showing exhaustive footage of nine-hour train journeys, tidal currents, salmon fishing and a jumper being knitted over twelve hours – but in a culture that exists in fast forward it can only be daring. The programme appeared as the centrepiece of 2015’s BBC Four Goes Slow series, and its popularity led to a Christmas Eve sequel depicting a sleigh ride and another showing a bus journey in the Yorkshire Dales. It is boring, but that’s also the point: once you adjust to its unusual rhythm, The Canal Trip has a hypnotic quality that can inspire a profound sort of beauty. It allows space for your mind to wander, casting you an active participant in the experience. If approached in the right mood, the programme can make you think more about canals than any sensible documentary possibly could.
Originally published on White Noise.