If you want to make a living as a comedy or drama writer, sooner or later you’re going to expect to spend some time working for the BBC.
It’s as true now as it was when I began my comedy writing career writing jokes for BBC shows in 1983. There are no other organisations in the UK that offer the kind of help and training for new and upcoming talent that you’ll find at the BBC.
Despite shrinking budgets they still invite members of the public to write for their shows. They run free competitions to train new writers of comedy and drama, offer seed money to talented new performers and bring dozens of new people into the system every year. Channel 4 do a little bit of this, odd bursaries up and down the country help students from poorer backgrounds to take creative writing university courses. But when it comes to developing new comedy there is nothing else in the UK that comes close to the Beeb.
There has always been an uneasy tension between the taxpayer-funded corporation and governments who haven’t always enjoyed its news service holding power to account. There’s never been a shortage of crises from one decade to the next. But this time, for the first time in my life, I can say with reasonable confidence mixed with boiling anger that there’s a very real possibility that within the next five years the BBC will no longer exist.
What always saves the BBC is the fact that as an institution it is loved by the vast majority of people in the country. Not surprising when you consider that for the price of two niche streaming channel subscriptions a year you get an incredible range of informative and entertaining TV shows, the only ad-free radio stations in the world, interactive educational content, hours of old favourite shows available for free, regional news, a massive body of online information and the latest news and current affairs. And more new comedy than from any other broadcasting company in the world.
Last summer when the government should have been spending every waking moment developing policies to ensure the health of its people through a winter crisis only they couldn’t see coming, they were energised instead concocting a nonsensical row about a single piece of classical music. Even then the message came back loud and clear: people still love the BBC.
In other times the BBC would have delivered a cringing apology despite having done nothing wrong and life would have continued. But this latest humiliation to the government only made them more determined to attack the corporation more.
By the way this is not an anti-Tory rant. This kind of abject behaviour towards the BBC is not confined to the Tory party. Indeed the reason the BBC is in such a desperate position is because it is now surrounded on all sides by powerful enemies.
Rupert Murdoch’s businesses have always looked enviously on the world’s most prolific broadcasting company, desperate for a slice of their enviable successes – but he’s mostly been kept in abeyance by government legislation.
It was Tony Blair’s government that punished the BBC 15 years ago for daring to run a story about the Iraq war that was largely proved to be true. More recently the last Labour leadership picked fights with the BBC on an almost daily basis, usually on some unfounded half-rumour.
Meanwhile since 2016 Brexiters have been screaming that the BBC is pro-Remain while Remainers have been screaming that it’s pro-Brexit. In gentler times Barry Took would have reported these opposing views on Points of View and would have chuckled “ha ha well you know what, that means we must have got it just about right.”
The great tragedy is that the BBC is being destroyed by a tiny clique of people who long to return to a great Great Britain of Victorian empire that no longer exists, unable to see, right in front of them, that the BBC is one of the greatest achievements of Our Sovereign Nation of the last hundred years.
The problem nowadays is that too many people are convinced their opinions are the same as facts. You only need to read one pro Brexit report to confirm the BBC is biased against Remain, you only need to see one black comedian on a panel show to convince yourself the BBC is now racist against white people.
There are some really important discussions the BBC needs to be having now. As the original subscription channel, is there a future model that transitions cleverly from tax on the public to world broadcasting giant that can also provide some free services with much reduced government help? Is Britbox that model? And look at iPlayer, years ahead of its time, might they be able to develop that model to help introduce more creative programming? The world of broadcasting is changing massively right now, and the BBC is potentially one of the best-placed companies to be a part of it.
But as far as I can see, the people they need to be talking to about this, the government, are those most engaged in trying to kill them off.
What relevance you may ask does this have to you? The answer is what I said at the beginning. It doesn’t get any easier to break into writing for TV and radio, and for sure the world doesn’t owe you a living, but without the BBC bringing in new talent it’s going to get a hell of a lot harder.
Getting any job at all in the arts is already an increasingly difficult option unless you have a healthy balance at the bank of mum and dad. The BBC is the last remaining entry point for people without money, or unable to quit their day jobs.
2021 is a crucial year for the BBC, by the end of it we’ll have a better idea just how precarious things are. If you want to be a comedy or drama writer, apart from everything else I talk about here you’re going to have to start helping in the battle to save the corporation.
Write to your MP, you’ll be surprised what a difference that can make. Don’t be afraid to be selfish, this is your future and these are the people who are trying to take it away from you. We still might not win, but we need to die trying.