The most powerful woman in the BBC was in the Welsh capital yesterday to make a case that the BBC’s commitment to making its network programmes well beyond London has a cultural and not just economic purpose. She is Jana Bennett, the BBC’s Director of Vision, who in recent months has been grappling with what is known in the corporation as ‘portrayal.’
‘Portrayal’ is BBC shorthand for ensuring that its media city in Salford, its grandiose Pacific Quay glass box in Glasgow and the ‘drama village’ now being constructed in Cardiff Bay, not only distribute the BBC production pound widely but also genuinely reflect the UK’s diverse cultures. The full speech can be read here.
The audience – at an event organised by Cardiff and Co, the capital’s official boosters – was composed of the city’s creative classes and a wider business representation. The production community seemed in sceptical, not to say morose mood, and with some reason. Only last week they had heard that S4C – a more reliable source of commissions than the BBC’s networks for most of them – is likely to lose a quarter of its budget in the next few years, while BBC Wales’s budgets continue to tumble. Welsh independent producers are pre-occupied with the cloud rather than the silver lining.
On the other hand, everyone resisted the temptation to be churlish, and rightly so. Bennett could not only point to the bulldozers preparing the new BBC site across the dock from where she was speaking, but she was also able to relate that network production in the nations – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – has risen from 7.9 per cent to 11.7 percent between 2008 and 2009, on its way to the target of 17 per cent which the BBC is pledged to reach by 2016. Her core point was that
“…none of this transfer of investment will be entirely worth our while unless we gain a creative benefit. A creative benefit in terms of the voices we hear, the stories we tell, the pictures we paint. We want to tap more deeply, and more broadly, into the experiences of different communities across the UK, and bring our output even closer to their lives”.
She argued that this would produce a win-win situation. If the BBC moved its programmes from ‘nowhere to somewhere’ the people who live in the place will love the programme all the more, while those living elsewhere will smell the authenticity and enjoy the sense of discovery.
For anyone with even a passing knowledge of the metropolitan ethos of the BBC for the past 80 years this is nothing short of revolutionary, and there may some significance in the fact that this new statement of policy was uttered by an American-born executive. As always in an organisation of the size of the BBC, the trick will be to get commissioning executives right through the chain to implement it with a sense of conviction rather than as a grudging exercise in box-ticking. As Bennett conceded, “it will take more than bricks, mortar and JCBs to change the DNA of the BBC”.
There are worries that the BBC’s Cardiff drama village will be devoted primarily to what Bennett described as “keeping Wales’s reputation for regeneration of much loved brands intact” – Dr Who is to be followed by Casualty and a new version of the ITV hit Upstairs Downstairs. But genuine though those worries may be it is no reason to look this gift horse in the mouth. Bricks and mortar do make the policy commitment about as solid as it can get in these uncertain days, and it is up to creative forces in Wales to take the twin commitments to production levels and a deeper portrayal at their face value, and respond with ideas that particularly challenge the latter.
To illustrate past frustrations at being ignored – strongly felt in the smaller nations – Bennett quoted Van Gogh: “One may have a blazing hearth in one’s soul and yet no one ever comes to sit by it. Passers by see only a wisp of smoke from the chimney and continue on the way”. She listed many programmes – and not only Gavin and Stacey – to prove that things had changed.
But there remains a danger that in its implementation a new approach to portrayal could end up being superficial, unless it is also willing to liberate quite different ways of seeing things, and, in doing so, to take risks. It was the broadcaster and academic Anthony Smith who said, thirty years ago, that “to be imprisoned within the misunderstanding of others can be a withering form of incarceration”. It is a release from incarceration that that many seek.
The one paradox that Jana Bennett could not explain was why at the very moment when the BBC could grapple systematically, perhaps for the first time in its history, with the fundamental issue of cultural representation, that, in its recently published Strategy Review, it could so comprehensively ignore its own services within Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. But that is for another day.