University of Ulster
The weekend of September 25th and 26th this year was a long-awaited one in the BBC’s TV viewing calendar. All over the country, millions of people1 were settling down with sighs of contentment and anticipation and, no doubt, large glasses of something refreshing, to watch the start of the new series of Strictly Come Dancing on BBC1. Strictly Come Dancing, now in its 13th season, has been somewhat problematic for neoliberal free marketeers, such as the new culture secretary John Whittingdale. As in this interview (https://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/jul/14/battle-for-the-bbc) people like Whittingdale want to argue that the BBC should only cater for specialist targeted audiences, that its role is to do serious educational programmes and not the fun stuff, that PSB serving a universal audience is outdated, that the BBC distorts the commercial market (which it doesn’t – see elsewhere in this edition of Three-D) – and so on and on.
Strictly is a sublime contradiction to this miserable Murdochian orthodoxy. It could have come straight out of the 1950s in bringing a large chunk of the nation together on a Saturday evening to watch a live entertainment show – a reminder of an era when all TV was live. But more importantly, as I argue in an article in Discover Society (https://discoversociety.org/2015/09/01/strictly-bbc/) it demonstrates ‘old-fashioned’ (i.e. never out of fashion) Reithian values in being informative (about an enduring form of popular performance art); in being educational (particularly to its initially struggling, and later triumphant participants, but also to its audience) and in being endlessly entertaining – amusing, colourful, energetic, creative and surprising. It’s helped in ticking all these boxes by its choice of art form, channeling (as its title suggests), the 1992 Baz Lurhman hit film Strictly Ballroom. Dance and the physical struggles of non-professional dancers learning how to do it, and surprisingly, to do it well, are watchable in a way which makes them perfect for television.
So Strictly reminds us of that ‘Golden Age’ of a happy nation united around the TV. (An era which is romanticized now, but which had severe critics of ‘the plug-in drug’ variety at the time.) However, unlike 1950s live television, or Strictly’s staid BBC precursor, Come Dancing (1949-1998), Strictly has 21st century technical expertise in its high-range production values and its behind-the-scenes craft skills, – which only a major broadcaster like the BBC has the scale to provide. It also uses new technology to generate the interactivity provided by the audience’s involvement in voting. This, too, exploits the liveness of the show in innovative ways. And you’d never get a prime-time Saturday night entertainment show in the 1950s hosted by two glamorous, sassy and authoritative women, Tess Daley and Claudia Winkelman – three if you count Zoe Ball on the weeknight behind-the-scenes series, BBC2’s It Takes Two.
It’s important that we don’t let Whittingdale’s puritanical views skew the debate about the public value of what’s often seen as less worthy genres of BBC programming, such as light entertainment – and my other primary scholarly interest: children’s. (See Jeanette Steemers elsewhere in this edition of Three-D for more about this). Children’s TV is another category for which it is hard to find influential defenders. The great and good will line up to defend children’s public libraries against cuts – and rightly so. But public service television for children, which serves similar purposes, does not attract such high-powered support. And yet, in defending children’s material, we can make the same case as the case for Strictly. That the playful can be educational. That a spirit of adventurousness, taking chances, light-heartedness, a joy in performance, open-ended surrealism (have a look at the latest Clangers, or Dip Dap on CBeebies if you don’t believe me) are essential for stimulating growing minds, and indeed grown-up ones. They are also essential for stimulating the skills, ingenuity and inspiration of the workers in the creative industries – an economic argument that might convince the policy makers, if other more qualitative arguments fail to do so. As Marshall McLuhan put it: “anyone who thinks there’s a difference between education and entertainment, doesn’t know the first thing about either.” Let us hope that the Secretary of State and his colleagues do not make this mistaken distinction in dealing with the fate of the BBC.
1 BARB audience figures for the first weekend show were nearly 8 million; the final last year had an audience of 11 million