Book review: Tragedy of errors (Private Eye, 20 March 2015)

Book review: Tragedy of errors (Private Eye, 20 March 2015)

Pinkoes and Traitors: The BBC and the nation 1974-1987
Jean Seaton
(Profile, £30)

According to this, the sixth volume of the official history of the BBC, Blue Peter celebrated its 15th anniversary in 1979 (it was the 21st anniversary), the IRA hunger strikes took place in 1982 (1981) and, in the introduction, Live Aid happened in 1984 (1985), while the controversial 1980 documentary Death of a Princess is called a “Channel 4 programme” (it was ITV – Channel 4 did not exist until 1982).

For sheer concentration of nonsense, though, it’s hard to beat the single sentence where Seaton refers to “Sidney Newman, the American credited with reinvigorating British television drama at ATV and the BBC”. Sydney Newman was Canadian, and moved to the BBC from ABC TV, where he had created Armchair Theatre.

Seaton says “all that can be done is to tell as accurately…as possible”. However, this reads like an uncorrected proof. It is hard to believe an editor has been anywhere near it, not that the official historian of the BBC should be relying on others to pick up on so many terrible mistakes.

Brigadier Ronnie Stonham, the ‘security liaison officer’ responsible for marking the files of the ‘pinkoes and traitors’ of the Dear Bill-inspired title with a Christmas tree, is called ‘Stoneham’ throughout. Covering the 1980/1981 orchestral cuts, Seaton refers to the “BBC Light Music Orchestra” as having being under threat. There was no such band viagra vente libre en pharmacie.

She claims that “in 1976, Humphrey Burton was brought back to be television head of Arts by [Alan] Yentob”, quite a feat considering that Botney was only a young producer, not in any position to hire his own head of department. Can she possibly have meant Huw Wheldon, who enticed Burton back from LWT in, er, 1975?

It would be bad enough if a serious factual error on practically every page was Seaton’s only offence, but that’s not all. In the acknowledgements, she says that “It was a challenge to attempt to meet the BBC’s standards of hard impartiality”. It seems to have been so challenging that she gave up trying, and started editorialising like mad.

Seaton clearly believes in heroes and villains. Michael Checkland, a drab bean-counter of a DG, is named explicitly as a hero, while his predecessor, Alasdair Milne, is at best damned with faint praise. She writes of “the wonderful Paul Fox”, whom we learn later from the acknowledgements took Seaton to lunch twice and read the manuscript. That he let so many mistakes pass uncommented is probably because he was running Yorkshire Television for the entire period covered. By the way, the acknowledgements are nauseatingly precious. Numerous friends are thanked for having “lent me charming houses to write in”.

Despite being subtitled ‘The BBC and the Nation 1974-1987’, it’s more about Westminster and the BBC, in that order. Neither Scum, the banned 1977 Play for Today about a borstal, nor its director Alan Clarke rate a mention, but Alan Clark MP does. Jim Callaghan is mentioned several times, but none of them concerns him opening the new Manchester studios in 1976, which if you’re old fashioned is just the sort of thing you might expect from a history of the BBC.

Even when in her political comfort zone, Seaton isn’t safe. She says Margaret Thatcher “was so eager to appear on Jimmy Savile’s Jim’ll Fix It or his Radio 1 and 2 shows that the governors thought they ought to ‘ration’ her appearances”. In truth, she appeared on Jim’ll Fix It once, then refused numerous requests. Savile rarely broadcast on Radio 2, and never with Thatcher. Seaton appears to be confusing Savile with Jimmy Young.

There’s precious little in this rather slight volume – 326 pages compared to 1,200 in Asa Briggs’ last volume – about programmes or their makers, and even then, snobbery rears its ugly head. The achievements of David Attenborough are unarguable, but are they really worth 31 pages? Meanwhile, the whole genre of light entertainment is dispatched in 24 pages, four on Savile alone. Question Time is covered at length without mentioning that it was invented to fill a gap when the governors told Bill Cotton he couldn’t have Parkinson five nights a week. He got two and QT filled one of the gaps.

The book is littered with egregious howlers that wouldn’t last more than half an hour on Wikipedia. That it is the official history of a major institution, written by a supposedly respected academic, simply won’t do. She thanks the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust for funding her research. They should all ask for a refund.

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