Sunday, 6 August 2017

The culture of the BBC

It was the usual round-up of rootless intellectuals, and the talk was the kind of thing you expect—terribly knowing and disillusioned and conscientiously indecent. I remember my grandfather had a phrase for the smattering of cocksure knowledge which was common in his day—the “culture of the Mechanics’ Institute.” I don’t know what the modern equivalent would be—perhaps the “culture of the B.B.C.”
John Buchan - The Island of Sheep (1936)

The quote surprised me when I originally came across it. Surely in Buchan's day the BBC was stuffy, high-minded and acutely conscious of its social responsibilities?

A casual observation by a character in a work of fiction does not overthrow that perception, but it certainly chimes with Buchan's general outlook. He disliked the kind of trite intellectual dominant in our public arena today and especially within the BBC. He would have raised an eyebrow at BBC salaries too.

At the time of publication, John Buchan as 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, was Governor General of Canada so he probably looked down on the BBC as a callow upstart in the world of social and political ideas. Perhaps he thought the corporation might mature into something weightier if only the right chaps were involved,  a perspective likely to be common enough within his exalted class.

Eighty years later the BBC seems to be much the same apart from the technology and the accents. Its culture survived and flourished while Buchan’s did not. 


Graeme said...

Are you sure of that? I can't help feeling that Buchan and many of his fictional characters - such as that Lord Lamancha, Edward Leithen, but probably not Richard Hannay - would have fitted easily into the inner circles of the EU. That ethos of doing what they thought of as good things for people who could not be expected to think for themselves is just the sort of attitude that we get from the Heseltines, ken Clarkes, Blairs and Verhofstads of our epoch

Demetrius said...

In a way you are right about then, but I recall into the 60's the BBC pushing obscure poetry and ultra modern plink plonk music as the way to go for the Arts. The aims were one thing, what was actually going out on radio and early TV was another from the "experts" of their time. Buchan's Mechanics Institutes were from the late 19th Century for the skilled workers and clerks etc. By the 30's they were moving on as Technical Colleges and Adult Education at the time. Most of this was soft Left thinking where social progress met Temperance met anti gambling etc. Very different from today.

Macheath said...

Despite Buchan's exalted status at the end of his career, he was originally a son of the manse from Fife; that uncompromising East Coast Calvinism leaves its mark, even with a veneer of Oxford gloss.

It would, I think, be a mistake to judge by English standards a man whose chosen title and much of whose literary inspiration came from the Borders and Fife.

A K Haart said...

Graeme - you may be right but I've only read the Richard Hannay novels. As you say, he wouldn't fit in.

Demetrius and Macheath - I think Buchan was describing something we still see in the BBC today - the "smattering of cocksure knowledge" which is not moderated by the knocks and setbacks of real world experience. We see it everywhere and to my mind the BBC has never tried to set itself apart as a genuine source of deeper authority.