June 18, 2011 12:11 am

Thou shalt inform, educate and entertain

The BBC still grinds away to fulfil its founder’s first commandment

In a lecture in Oxford earlier this week, Mark Damazer, former controller of BBC Radio 4, described the corporation as an “elite organisation”. It should own to being so, he said, with conscious pride. It had a duty – for Damazer, enlightenment values and devotion to impartiality are an ideology close to a faith – to act on the first commandment of its founder, John Reith. That commandment is to inform, to educate and to entertain, and to infuse each of these aims with the pursuit of excellence – for without that pursuit, Damazer said, the BBC did not deserve its claim on the public’s money.

Damazer has left the BBC for academia now – more’s the pity – but its engines still grind away at the task. In the matter of entertainment, a new comedy series, In with the Flynns (BBC1 Wednesdays), presents an explicitly working class comedy – rarer on British TV than in the US. The laughs come from the struggle between generations: grandfather, parents and three kids share a small house on an estate. They revolve, too, round the figure of the father’s brother, a work-shy chancer, who trades his usefulness as a childminder for a life on the couch. Father drives a forklift, mother is a hotel receptionist; they work overtime to afford a Spanish holiday. Catholics, they are in some thrall to their faith, largely because their children’s school is run by nuns.

The show works because it allows the comedy to spring from the characters’ accommodating themselves to their situation. It tweaks tails, religious and secular, amusingly but it remains within firm boundaries of taste and decency, shown as it is just before the 9pm watershed. It is a league away from Shameless (E4 Thursdays) – which the political commentator Owen Jones, in his recent book Chavs, sees as one among many ways in which the media insult the working class.

In the information department, David Reynolds, one of the historians (along with Simon Schama, Niall Ferguson, Richard Miles) on whom television has conferred the mantle of re-interpreting our world, gave his version of Stalin at war (1941 and the Man of Steel, BBC4, Monday). A newsreel of 1942, put out as Churchill returned from his tense negotiations with the Soviet leader, described Stalin as “a great war chief ... blunt ... with a saving sense of humour”: the foreign office’s necessary homage to one who, as Reynolds insisted, saved Britain and its empire by refusing to submit to a seemingly inevitable German victory.

Much of it was shot in Stalin’s murky study, preserved in the Kremlin, with Reynolds playing the part of Churchill and Stalin. Tall, slim and austere, he resembled neither of his protagonists but he conveyed, a little over-emphatically, something of the ding-dong of three days of suspicious haggling underpinned by common dependence. In the end, his conclusion was that of the great novelist Vitaly Grossman (Life and Fate): that a genocidal (of race) dictatorship had been conquered by a genocidal (of class) dictatorship. Through that hideous route, we in the lucky postwar west have prospered for three generations.

Terry Pratchett’s Choosing to Die (BBC2 Monday) was an education – moving, melancholy, at times morosely comic. Pratchett, a novelist, has encroaching Alzheimer’s, which has led him towards a decision to end his life when he chooses with the aid of the Swiss company Dignitas – and to reflect publicly on his choice.

The programme followed several men with degenerative diseases, one of whom – Peter Smedley, a wealthy industrialist – allowed Pratchett and his crew to watch him die, with enormous courteous dignity, in the small, anonymous Dignitas building on a Zurich industrial estate, fulcrum of the great moral dilemma increasingly engaging our overcrowded attention.

Pratchett wants to proselytise this route out of helplessness and mindlessness. “I want to stay around as long as I can to see assisted dying in the UK,” he said. This is not just education. It is the BBC doing what it has done for decades: taking, implicitly, the vanguard of a cause seen as progressive, defying those – religious, conservative, fearful, professionally scandalised – who find it abhorrent. Steve Hewlett, the presenter of Radio 4’s Media Show, said at the Damazer lecture that he had counted five BBC programmes in favour of assisted dying to none against.

See, by contrast, what happens when broadcasters stray from the first commandment. The Canadian-Irish co-production Camelot (Channel 4 Sundays) is what tabloid newspapers call a romp, in this case, through the Arthurian legend, with Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower) presented as an indulged undergraduate, Merlin (Joseph Fiennes) as a medieval Machiavelli, Morgan le Fay (Eva Green) as a snake-eyed feminist vamp and Guinevere (Tamsin Egerton) as Lady Di.

There is wanton muddle between medievalism-lite and contemporary “relevance” – at one, low, point, Arthur says to Guinevere, “Enjoy!” – and there is a fair amount of light pornography, with bodies as clean, waxed and smooth as, we know, medieval bodies always were.

It’s fun but tedious, if you think about it. In Damazer’s BBC, people always think about it. The BBC does turn out mindless fun – but it worries about it.

john.lloyd@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/lloyd

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