TV’s Kleptocracy (1)
And so, almost from the moment of its first transmission, ‘Cathy Come Home’ was to become an all time audience favourite. In 1998 Radio Times readers once again voted it the best TV play of all time. In 1999 another poll was to vote it the same, and in 2,000 a British Film Institute poll voted it the second best television programme of all time. Another drama of mine, ‘Edna, the Inebriate Woman’ came in at 57. The poll was for all types of television programme. If we looked for its vote on single dramas only, it would be ‘Cathy’ first, ‘Edna’ 22nd.
We had created the prototype for a new strand of meticulously researched hard-hitting challenging documentary drama which, so we believed, would alter the face of drama and bring respect and glory to the BBC and through which it would serve its public.
Now, many years later, as these poll wins flush media mandarins momentarily out from their offices to cringingly filch a scrape of that glory, it is important to remember that ‘Cathy Come Home’ originally reached our screens through subterfuge. ‘Cathy’ was transmitted despite, and not because of, the media despots.
In the run up to Cathy’s transmission our producer, Tony, had lied to his superiors, using their ignorance of the new filmic techniques used in ‘Cathy’, to prevent them from seeing the film before transmission. If anyone had, the film would have been banned. This much was clear from Sydney Newman’s reaction next morning.
‘You’ve been patronising the proles,’ he stormed at Tony after summoning him to his office. ‘That is inexcusable. How many more of these things have you got in the pipeline? If you want to keep your job, keep your head down. And above all keep Jeremy Sandford’s head down.’
Sydney Newman’s gift to television was immense. This outburst was one of his few lapses. And it could have been different. BBC mandarins could have recognised that they had been delivered a new winning way of presenting documentary drama which would pay huge dividends in gigantic audiences and result in it being very clearly seen to be camped and in firm possession of the high moral ground of public service.
It wasn’t like that. Despite the lip service that was paid to ‘Cathy’ in the coming months and years by Sydney Newman and all the rest of them, the BBC in its corporate wisdom lacked both the perception and also the courage to capitalise or even understand the opportunity they’d been given. While publicly supporting ‘Cathy’, they took steps to see that it would never happen again.
‘You know, we can’t do any more of those,’ Huw Weldon, a man of immense importance in television at that time, lectured me. ‘We can’t because the audience wasn’t clear enough whether what they were watching was reality or drama.’ This, I believe, was not the real reason; which was that programmes like ‘Cathy’ rocked the establishment boat too much. They were too powerful for comfort.
And so as the plaudits piled in and the BBC basked in reflected glory there was, I think, the decision made at the highest level to applaud ‘Cathy’ in public but in private make sure that its like would never happen again.
Subterfuge had been an essential ingredient in the trip of ‘Cathy’ from script to screen in the first place. Most TV producers, unlike Tony Garnett, do not see deceit as a necessary part in their armory. Most producers as a result do not achieve that level of public acclaim. Most battles for this sort of excellence are lost. The script to screen saga of ‘Cathy’ is an extreme example of the failure of media mandarins in drama to keep in tune with the best of this strand that viewers really want; serious plays with inspirational hard hitting themes, documentary drama plays like ‘Cathy’.
Then, as now, barbarians stood at the gates of Media Castle. They looked outwards, not inwards. Secure, confident of immense strategic back up from higher management up there on the battlements, their role was, and is, to keep this type of excellence out. The same situation continues.
The vote for ‘Cathy’ in so many polls is a vote for far more than just ‘Cathy’. It is the public saying, please give us more of this sort of thing. We may enjoy, even applaud, your getaway escapist dramas, we get a frisson from the busty demoiselles of your eighteenth and nineteenth century soaps, but please one thing we really applaud and would like to see more of is plays like ‘Cathy’, hard hitting, carefully researched, presenting an uncompromising picture of modern society, slanted, but with the firmed up slant of proper research, integrity and conviction. Drama that is truer than documentary can be. Drama that is reality backed by attitude.
This, I believe, has been the message of poll after poll in which ‘Cathy’ has climbed ever higher in public acclaim. ‘Cathy Come Home’ could have been the first of a long line of hard hitting documentary dramas that would have brought much glory and respect to the BBC and continued to be an important platform from which the fifth estate could shine a torch or spotlight into the more worm-eaten aspects of our society and point perhaps to a heroic future.
T.V. mandarins, and especially T.V. drama mandarins, don’t like documentary drama. It requires skills they don’t have. Docudrama is about the way that society moves, that people live. Mandarins don’t know about that. Too many of them seldom go out into the real world but occupy a canteen culture, meeting only each other. They don’t know about life, although they believe they know about drama. So they are nervous of supporting a strand that will show up their ignorance; they have no training in sociology. They have never worked in one of those professions like journalism or the social services that bring one up against the way that people actually live.
It is from this insecurity, maybe, that comes their patronising attitude. Oh, it’s alright, they say, it’s even encouraged for viewers to participate in polls like those that have asserted resounding votes for ‘Cathy’. We, the elite who control access to the airwaves, will applaud. And we will learn nothing.
They, this class of mandarin folk on tasty salaries who control access to TV screens, programme executives, script editors, story development team members and all the paltry rest of that ilk, still man the barriers. They intend to remain there.
The gates swing grandly open a chink, to let barbarians in, then clang shut again. It is too many of those, I think, of real excellence and worth, who don’t get in. Or, just occasionally, through some scam or trick.
TV mandarins, as in other organisations (the police, the civil service) in their canteen culture (where non professional social contact is with each other, not with ‘real’ people) have learned nothing from the overwhelming vote in favour of ‘Cathy’.
Nothing other than to tighten the controls that for a moment were lax enough to allow through the most popular play of all time. That must never be allowed to happen again. It has not.
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