Sunday, October 11, 2009

Hurrah for the failures of BBC4

As far as British tv goes, BBC4 is about the best that it can get. No wonder that turkey-faced Rupert Murdoch is always complaining about the BBC. While the Beeb has plenty of content that is populist, dumbed-down or cheapo, it can also do enlightening, sensible or minority shows as well - and BBC4 is full of them. They are always having little themed weeks, where they take a topic and devote their whole 6 months budget to making about 8 programmes (which of course then get repeated and repeated). Their themes are usually pretty good though, and when you tune into the channel it's a bit like popping into one of those Arts Cinemas (the Watershed in Bristol, the Tyneside in Newcastle or the Dukes in Lancaster) where all the patrons wear black square glasses and seem very intense.

I especially like it when BBC4 cannibalises its own history, and produces a biopic of one of its stars of yesteryear - usually blending comedy, drama and tragedy in equal proportions. These shows are invariably set in a version of the 1960s or 1970s where the colour has been turned right up. Everyone wears lurid lime green jump-suits, rooms are pine-panelled, carpets are white shag. They make the Austin Powers films appear rather restrained and shy by comparison. However, I get the impression that the (probably quite young) people who make these programmes have a wry passion for the period they're recreating.

The acid dropping Kenneth Williams and cooking monster Fanny Craddock have been perfect fodder for these scandlous stories. Julia Davis plays Fanny as a kind of piss-elegant, angry version of Jill from Nighty Night: "You could kill pigs with that menu." Poor Fanny was just ahead of her time though - had she been starting out now, Channel 4 (whose remit is to teach Britain how to bully other people), would have simply given her a ten year contract and a whip. In the BBC4 show though, it all ends in tears...

I expect that in 30 years time BBC4 will be recreating the lives of its current stars. Russell Brand would give them enough material for a mini-series. And Matt Lucas will be strait-jacketed as the Kenneth Halliwell of the current age. Not only did he have a disastrous high-profile gay relationship that ended tragically. Not only is he bald and fat. He was also playing Halliwell in a stage version of Prick Up Your Ears when his ex-partner committed suicide.

I suspect that BBC4 has got a bit bored of the 1970s though (or they ran out of avacado bathroom suites), and so they have now moved onto the 1980s with a new season on the Micro Age. At the heart of this season has been a documentary/dramatisation of a power struggle between two computer creators of the early 1980s, Clive Sinclair (Alexander Armstrong pretending to be Blackadder) and Chris Curry (Britain's favourite everyman: Martin Freeman). It is all played out against a backdrop of genteel Cambridge, and there is humour in the fact that these men are basically nerds acting like they're involved in something very important (in fact it was).

I had one of these when I were a lad.

It was always over-heating. You had to load in games via a tape deck. It took ages, and sometimes it just wouldn't work. The graphics were blocky, the sound annoying. The games themselves were often impossibly difficult (usually to hide the fact that there wasn't much content). I would sometimes spend hours typing in program code (in BASIC) from computer magazines, and the games rarely worked - usually due to misprints. But despite all that, I loved my little Spectrum with its funny-smelling rubber keys and its huge (for the time) 48K memory. I was/am such a Spectrum geek that I noticed an error in Micro Men when one of the characters talked about their son being on level 8 of Jet Set Willy (impossible as JSW didn't have levels).

The interesting thing about Micro Men (for me anyway), is that it explains how those early microcomputers and their associated games were conceived by somewhat autistic men who didn't really have much concept of usability. It is like they wanted to make them difficult to use. Because they were boffins themselves, they didn't seem very good at putting themselves in the shoes of the average consumer. If only they had used a few focus-groups or carried out more market research, the British computing industry could have been very different. As it was, it got swallowed up - first by "barrow boy" Alan Sugar (who, in the 1980s looked like a serial killer - now he just looks like the victim of one), then by Americans - who Got it Right.

It's a peculiarly tragic tale of British failure, as are most of the BBC4 biopics. Fortunately, as a nation, I think the British are very comfortable with failure. We are a nation of under-dog lovers, and failure gives you a chance to reflect and grow... or just become very bitter. It makes for much more interesting drama at least.

1 comment:

Adrian said...

Great blog. Really like BBC4 too. Very much enjoyed their "Women We Loved" season for the past few weeks.