I think I have always been dissatisfied with British broadcasting.
It was quite acceptable to my generation to read Shakespeare or see Laurence Olivier on screen – these were world figures of renown. But Scotland is not England and to have, as a guest in my living room, all of England’s culture and language, both high and low, all of the time, was unacceptable then and is unacceptable now.
Of course the world moves on. On a Sunday, we will watch omnibus editions of EastEnders and all Britain’s children will tune into endless cartoons and brightly-coloured caricatures of birds and monsters, all of which, to quote the song, were ‘born in the USA’. But so concerned are the liberal parents of England about this state of affairs that they, too, are up in arms about the lack of British-made programmes for children. Indeed, some commentators would say that the agitation among Scottish viewers, broadcasters and politicians is only one aspect of a more widely felt concern about the state and future of public service broadcasting in Britain.
It was at a meeting convened by broadcasting regulators, Ofcom, about just such public service broadcasting, and attended by Mark Thompson, the BBC director general, and Michael Grade, his opposite number at ITV. They opined the reason why Scotland’s contribution to the television network had halved in recent years was due to a lack of talent and ideas among Scottish producers.
The other interesting fact about Ofcom’s statistics on the dramatic fall in Scotland’s contribution to the network was that the fall in Scotland’s case was to be compared with a rise in the percentage contribution from other British regions, such as BBC Wales.
BBC Wales, we are told, has done a wonderful thing in making Dr Who in Cardiff, where Welsh creativity has ensured its success.
Dr Who is now filming for a fourth series, has reached 30 million viewers, and, at peak production time, employs 400 actors, writers, editors, technicians, designers and producers.
The ripple effect of this amount of economic activity can be imagined and, not surprisingly, the Welsh Assembly government is using the success of the Welsh Dr Who to promote TV and film production in Wales. It would appear that tourism in Cardiff has increased, too, as a result of views of Cardiff on the programme and its spin-offs.
Dr Who might be a blueprint which Scottish Enterprise and the Scottish government’s Broadcasting Commission might want to look at when they consider Scotland’s future in the network.
Millions of pounds are spent by government and government agencies in national companies such as Scottish Opera, Scottish Ballet, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the National Theatre of Scotland. In addition, there are city theatres, commercial orchestras and other musical ensembles which obtain a measure of public financial support. There surely must be opportunities for harnessing some of this money, talent and activity in the service of Scottish broadcasting.
As an example, Scottish Opera’s dark and powerful production of Lucia di Lammermoor might be linked to a film adaptation of Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermuir itself. The book might feature in readings on the radio and there are numerous opportunities for documentaries on Scott’s Scottish novels, to which the Bride was a late addition, and on Donizetti, whose bel canto opera makes for easy classical listening. The theme of love frustrated by an arranged marriage is an universal one, as is the theme of a powerful and ambitious matriarch who brings tragedy to her family and those about her.
In the early days of British silent filmmaking, I understand that about half the films were adaptations of the work of two Scottish novelists, Scott and Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes in various guises continues to appear frequently on our television screens – but where now is Walter Scott? There is as much a need to revive the great plots of Scott’s novels as there was to reinvent Dr Who.
But the question hinted at remains: should Scottish broadcasting and its future depend on the London-based commissioning powers of the BBC and ITV?
This question must be among those which the Broadcasting Commission named by the First Minister will have to address.
On commissioning, the columnist, Iain Macwhirter, who has considerable experience in the industry, writes that there is no longer a media business in Scotland. London is the only source of commissions, according to him. The politics of broadcasting, the source of money and the regulatory structures are based in London and that is where the business is done. It seems to this writer that only when these powers are repatriated to Scotland will we begin to see the kind of Scottish broadcasting service we want, with power devolved and a ‘Scofcom’ to manage affairs in the interest of viewers and democracy.
I have, as I said at the outset, always been dissatisfied with British broadcasting. If there is any reason to be encouraged by recent events it must be that broadcasters themselves are questioning the role, amount and quality of Scottish broadcasting and that, for the first time, a Scottish government seems determined to have something done about it. I offer my best wishes to all those politicians and commissioners seeking to increase the quantity and quality of Scottish broadcasting.