What’s The Big Idea?

by Stephen Arnell

The BBC’s DG wants more landmark documentaries and less ‘niche’ shows – does he know what he’s talking about?

Short answer – probably not, at least from what we’ve heard from Tim Davie over the last few days, when he’s been on a sales drive for the BBC Value for Audiences white paper.

I confess to a certain inability to take the current DG entirely seriously, as his previous employment/early political background, over-eager demeanour, ill-advised use of the word ‘virtue-signalling’ and tendency to firehose marketing twaddle at every opportunity gives him (IMO) a deficit in the gravitas department.

His famed 2012 Sky News walkout and then ‘mockney’ accent – Tim was privately educated – when being interviewed about the fall out from the Savile affair demonstrated, at least at that point, here was someone not quite ‘ready for primetime’.

His apparent obsession with ‘ultra running’ sets off my personal warning klaxon about those who indulge in such self-flagellating pursuits.

Mind you, I never cared for the public personas of either Greg Dyke or John Birt, so maybe the DG attracts a certain kind of person. With that off my chest, back to the matter in hand.

A philistinic approach was in full evidence when at the Reform think tank, Davie recently opined on the future of documentaries on the BBC:

“content which is worthy but gets few viewers will be cut from the schedules.”

The BBC should concentrate on: “landmark work – It’s not enough to say: ‘It got a low audience but it’s a very worthwhile thing to do’.”

So far, so very W1A (BBC2, 2014-17), especially in his call back to the dreaded Venn diagram, an object of mockery in the sitcom:

“I want us within that Venn diagram where you are getting reach, impact and unmistakably doing the best of PSB. We know what means – when you see a David Attenborough doc or Normal People, you just know what it feels like.”

It looks like the DG is up for more fare in the vein of Andrew Marr’s History of the World (BBC1, 2012) and other turgid ‘landmark’ blather from the likes of Dimbleby, Paxman et al.

These shows often fulfil an ego-driven ambition of the presenters to make a statement, mostly of their self-importance, but bring little in the way of detail and revelation to those who have a passing knowledge of the subject-matter.

Indeed, from my own experience, the series sometimes skimp on basic research, as with Marr’s show, when he claimed that the Hagia Sophia had been a mosque from the fall of Constantinople (1453) ignoring the fact that it was a secularised building* at the time of transmission.

Eventually getting a (begrudging) acknowledgement of the error from the History of the World producers was a tiresome process.

If history teaches us anything, it’s that so-called ‘niche’ documentaries can cross over to a larger audience – witness BBC4’s Bros: After the Screaming Stops, Tiger King on Netflix and other more esoteric documentaries (‘Slow TV’, Shock and Awe: The Life of Electricity, Holidays in the Axis of Evil, Storyville, Adam Curtis etc).

Davie’s arts-inclined predecessor Tony Hall (a former CEO of the Royal Opera House) of course had his own landmark vanity project with his long-cherished Civilisation reboot.

So maybe Davie will follow in his footsteps and green light a mammoth 15×60 series on The History of Marketing – from the pyramids of pharaonic Egypt to Snoop Dogg’s Just Eat adverts.

*1935-July 2020

Stephen Arnell

By Stephen Arnell