Has the BBC really been captured by a liberal, metropolitan elite? Andrew Marr begs to differ. “The BBC was much more ‘woke’ in the 60s – more culturally and liberally aggressive and assertive than it is today,” argues the broadcaster’s Sunday morning political interrogator.
An unabashed BBC cheerleader, who presents Radio 4’s Start The Week as well as numerous documentary series for the corporation, Marr offers a historical perspective.
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“When Hugh Carleton Greene was Director-General (from 1960), he was pushing a much more anti-conservative, anti-hierarchical agenda than anyone is today.”
Carleton Greene was accused of causing the nation’s “moral collapse” by “decency” campaigner Mary Whitehouse, not least for refusing to censor the word “knickers” from a broadcast.
Attenborough to Emin
The clash of values is captured in New Elizabethans, Marr’s latest BBC Two series, which looks at the seismic change in British society since the Queen ascended the throne in 1952, focusing on the individuals who shaped or reflected that transformation.
Sir David Attenborough, Diana Dors, Tracey Emin and Frank Crichlow, the “godfather of British black radicalism”, all feature in Marr’s account of a nation shaking off its rigid, class-bound past to embrace a more inclusive, egalitarian future.
So viewers might be surprised that Whitehouse herself is awarded the accolade of “great Elizabethan.”
Mary Whitehouse revisited
“She was widely mocked and undoubtedly homophobic,” says Marr.
“But she also campaigned vigorously against paedophilia and the exploitation of extreme and violent porn when nobody else was particularly interested.
“And today’s digital campaigners owe Mary Whitehouse a lot. She pioneered techniques of creating photo opportunities to get her campaigns on the front page.”
The BBC’s determination to portray the emerging “permissive society” on screen ultimately prevailed.
Bring on Fox News-style rivals
Today the corporation faces a new threat, from commercial services promising a “right-wing”, Fox News-style alternative to the BBC’s News.
Does Marr welcome the challenge from the Discovery-backed GB News and Rupert Murdoch’s new “opinionated” TV news venture, both set to launch next year?
“You bet,” he asserts. “All competition is good. I hope we’ll demonstrate quite quickly that whilst partisan TV is great fun for a short period, after a while you turn back with great relief to something that is at least trying to be impartial.”
Marr could be going head-to-head with Andrew Neil, his fellow Scottish former newspaper editor, set to present shows on GB News, which he also chairs.
“Andrew is a very good broadcaster. I wish he hadn’t left the BBC. But I don’t think the more politically partisan rivals to the BBC will find it easy.”
Threat to BBC from streaming
The BBC’s greatest threat “is not political but from the changing habits of the Netflix box-set generation. The BBC can’t match the sheer wall of money coming into production coming from the streaming giants.”
Dominic Cummings’ departure from Downing Street doesn’t mean hostilities towards the licence fee are over. “It’s written in the BBC’s Royal Charter, ‘the BBC shall be in a permanent state of crisis.’”
Perhaps surprisingly, Marr believes that a Britain, mired in the Covid crisis, needs to revisit the moral code of frugality and self-restraint, cast off during the Elizabethan era.
Return to 50s restraint
“A world in which self-expression, ‘me, me, me’, exhibitionism and voyeurism are the highest values suddenly looks a bit tawdry when you’re confronted by this massive wave of illness and death.”
Still semi-paralysed on his left side, Marr completed most of the series filming before Covid restrictions. He found space in the accompanying book for one more “great Elizabethan” in extra time.
“Marcus Rashford was a last-minute inclusion. I’m looking for people who see an opportunity or injustice others haven’t spotted, and create change.”
“He took the simple issue of child hunger and through a new form of campaigning via Twitter, and because he’s a popular and charismatic footballer, became the sort of person no government can afford to take on.”
Meghan culture clash inevitable
In the series, Marr suggests the monarchy itself now looks more like modern Britain. But the fate of Meghan Markle suggests that accommodation has its limits.
“She is used to the great American values of vivid self-expression and she comes into a family based on suppressing any political views and mumbling.”
“Meghan also comes from an American celebrity culture where you have lawyers and can cut deals with the media. Those protections aren’t possible over here, it’s no surprise she struggled.”
Testicle character fails to make the cut
Sadly, one prominent Elizabethan included in the accompanying book, failed to make the TV cut, Marr admits – Simon Donald, the Newcastle-based founder of Viz magazine.
“He used a grant from Margaret Thatcher’s Enterprise Allowance Scheme to found an absolutely scabrous, outrageous and very funny rip-off of The Beano. Presumably, that’s not what Mrs Thatcher intended,” Marr says.
“I’m disappointed he’s not in the series but there was a certain question over whether Buster Gonad (Viz character with “unfeasibly large testicles”) would make it onto prime-time television.”
Mumsnet founder a ‘new Elizabethan’
Andrew Marr’s prominent Elizabethans include Alan McGee, the record mogul who discovered Oasis, reforming politician Roy Jenkins and Jan Morris, the travel writer who became a gender-reassigned woman.
“I’ve made gambler’s choices,” Marr admits. “Nobody knows in 50 years times how Justine Roberts, founder of Mumsnet, will be remembered, that depends on what happens to the internet.”
“I hope that as long as people listen to pop music of some kind, Dusty Springfield’s will still be a voice they are enchanted by.”
Freddie Mercury is there too. “How many people know he was a Zoroastrian immigrant embarrassed by his racial background?”
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