Tales from Europe

Broken politics, broken society and a broken planet: a premise for a movie I don’t particularly want to see, let alone make. On TV there’s an air of unreality about the State of Things when charity ads compete with exhortations to spend and when some survive on less than a living wage while others don’t survive at all.

I’m not in the habit of making New Year resolutions but to mark 2020 my husband and I decided to give up live TV, sealed when the annual reminder for the TV Licence dropped on the mat. While debating whether or not to pay, I thought of my uncle who, when asked why he had no licence replied, “Ours works perfectly well without one.” Not that there was much threat of prosecution since he lived with his family on the fifteenth floor of a Castlemilk high-rise knowing the TV Detector Van, a harbinger of dread in every Glasgow housing scheme, couldn’t detect a device above one storey.

After a lifetime of watching BBC, ITV (and later Channels 4 and 5) to quit live TV seems an act of betrayal. Rationalising my decision, I weigh the reasons. During my recovery (see previous post) my husband kindly set up my editing monitor in our spare bedroom, from where I watched almost the entire content of MUBI, most of Netflix and a lot of All4. After two months of viewing on-demand I realised how little I missed live TV.

My decision was also informed by what I long perceived of as biased news reporting. Increasingly TV news – perhaps due to budget cuts, perhaps not – no longer offered analysis, only opinion because possibly it’s cheaper than practising actual journalism. During the General Election of December 2019, social media was awash with criticism of well-respected broadcast journalists whose enthusiastic quoting of ‘Downing Street sources’ became a worn-out joke. When Peter Oborne eats his own, I thought, something’s going down.

For the last three years, from the coverage of the 2016 Brexit vote to the recent passing of the EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill, there’s been a sense of magical thinking. Certainly there was little mention of Scotland’s vote to remain, the impact on Northern Ireland or the ways in which an already benighted Wales would suffer in the absence of EU subsidy despite their vote to leave. Indeed, since the Tory election win, rather than reward a compliant BBC with a licence fee rise and a gold-plated charter, the government wasted no time in issuing threats of cuts and closure. Why else has Tony Hall tossed in the towel?

Partiality aside, a perusal of any TV Guide offers enough justification for ditching the licence. Until recently my viewing habits comprised of two-thirds of Channel 4 News, (cutting out the London-centric PR fest at the end), the occasional BBC 4 documentary and old black and white movies on Talking Pictures TV whose success is predicated largely on an older demographic insatiable for nostalgia.

It’s fair to say I did a lot of growing up in front of a TV screen. In fact, TV, movies and books obtained from the local library were the sum of my cultural life. As a child I never visited a museum or art gallery because my parents never visited a museum or art gallery. They knew such places existed but never visited them because they felt they didn’t belong, in spite of their contribution through income tax, NI, VAT, local rates, council tax and later, the National Lottery.

Like millions of children raised in the UK’s de-industrialised cities during the 1960s and 70s, watching TV – mostly the BBC – wielded a profound influence. Watch with Mother, Blue Peter and Tales from Europe to Top of the Pops and any number of sitcoms kept me hostage to the same received nostalgia that informed my parent’s narrow worldview; the Light Programme on the radio, BBC 1 and right-wing tabloids.

During Thatcher’s salad days, after a couple of jobs ending in redundancy, in 1984 I was offered a job at BBC Television Centre, Wood Lane, London, an address so famous that every kid in the UK knew the postcode – W12 8QT – and hand on heart I didn’t need Google to complete this sentence. I recall sitting on the couch in the living room of my parent’s Pollok flat, anxious to tell my father I had just been offered a job at the BBC – in London, no less.

With low expectations of life in general and his offspring in particular when my father replied glibly, “Aye, you wish,” it was less his disparagement than a projection of his own defeat that left me crushed. To be dismissed as incapable of success or worse, a fantasist was cruel but sadly not unusual so in a less than celebratory mood I walked out. That I didn’t speak to my parents for several years and vice versa was typical of our family dysfunction.

Working at BBC Television was memorable, with exploits and encounters so strange and/or entertaining they could make for a racy memoir or two. As I negotiated the rules, written and unwritten, I learned there were three sackable offences: fighting on the premises, having sex on the premises and not having a TV licence. That I didn’t own a television exempted me from one of these sins, even though it was frowned upon by my bosses who insisted that anyone on a managerial grade was obliged to own a set, to which I responded, “No thanks, I get enough of it during the day.”

Fortunately what was meant to be a temp job turned into a permanent staff position. For the first three or so years I worked as an assistant in the Scenic Design department before graduating to Acting Designer until, in a sideways career move, I became an Assistant Producer/Director in the Music and Arts Department. Reading the runes and knowing the Corporation was about to make redundancies I chose to quit, by which time I was already moonlighting on commercial projects. I no longer wished to be based in London – for work, perhaps – but the idea of a fulfilling life there was unobtainable. Inevitably my resignation felt like an ending of sorts – there was no party, no celebration – simply that that part of my life had passed into history.

Today, Friday the 31st of January, the UK will leave the European Union after 47 years. It feels less the end of an era than an era of endings. The other day in a busy shopping street I was struck by a poster bearing a quote by Primo Levi – Every age has its own fascism. Why, I wondered, does this poster exist? Who paid for it? What is its purpose?

Watching people come and go I noticed that in the space of less than 50 yards, three men, presumably homeless, sat on the pavement begging. I saw too that several shops had closed down, including two charity shops. So why am I so offended to see a poster quoting Levi plastered on a wall in Glasgow? Because it normalises hate much in the same way that daubing shop windows with Nazi swastikas stakes a claim on neutral territory. Because it’s a piece of misdirection. Because there are bigger problems. In a crowded field it’s no more than a puerile gesture but even so, it’s remiss of those responsible not to include the rest of Levi’s quote.

“Every age has its own fascism… and we see the warning signs wherever the concentration of power denies citizens the possibility and the means of expressing and acting on their own free will. There are many ways of reaching this point, and not just through the terror of police intimidation, but by denying and distorting information, by undermining systems of justice, by paralyzing the education system, and by spreading in a myriad subtle ways nostalgia for a world where order reigned, and where the security of a privileged few depends on the forced labour and the forced silence of the many.”

Levi’s words remind how a trivial act – refusing to pay for a TV licence – stands for a loss of faith. In my gesture of defiance it seems I’m not alone. No one knows for sure, but figures range from 70,000 to 100,000 licence payers dropping out each month. Of Levi’s assertions, for me probably the most pernicious is the manipulation of culture and the creation of fake nostalgia exemplified by the term ‘Great British’ affixed to countless TV shows in an attempt to conjure up a cosy, very English portrait of shared purpose and principles that in fact never existed.

Do I miss live TV? No. If anything I’m more discerning what I give my time and money to. On social media recently I noticed one of those ‘be careful what you wish for’ tweets claiming how £12.90 a month for full access to BBC content is the best value for money broadcast deal one can buy and that scrapping the licence fee might be ill-judged. If that’s the case – and if the quality of the BBC’s output is THAT good – then let the market decide. After all, in some ways the BBC is an analogue of the UK in its self-declared exceptionalism. As another tweeter responded, “nothing you are forced to buy is good value.” Hard to argue with that.

The above image is of the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana or Colosseo Quadrato in the EUR, Rome taken by me a few years ago. It has featured in numerous films including, Rome, Open City, The Conformist and The Belly of an Architect. At the top of its facade is an inscription: “Un popolo di poeti, di artisti, di eroi, di santi, di pensatori, di scienziati, di navigatori, di trasmigratori.” In English it translates as “a nation of poets, of artists, of heroes, of saints, of thinkers, of scientists, of navigators, of transmigrators.