Tuesday, March 01, 2022

A Survey of Television, by Stuart Hood

I mentioned Stuart Hood in my last post because I recently saw him in an episode of the BBC's Talkback from 7 November 1967, with six members of the public - including Mary Whitehouse - responding to this passage from his then recently published book:

"If one works in television one most reconcile oneself to the fact that the bulk of audience reaction is from cranks, from the unstable, the hysterical and sick." (p. 38)

For all the caustic tone, Hood's point was that those making television for a mass popular audience really need a sense of that audience's responses, but the means of gauging a reaction are limited. Viewing figures, audience surveys and correspondence can rarely explain the success or otherwise of a programme, let alone offer practical advice on how to improve. Programme makers are more often led by instinct. Committees of public opinion only resulted in bland television no one wanted to watch.

"Committees are uncreative." (p. 49)

Hood was Controller of BBC Television between 1961 and 1964, then moved to the ITV franchise Rediffusion. His survey of the medium is full of fascinating detail and more of that caustic wit. 

"Scottish Television serves the 4 million people of the Scottish industrial belt, which contains - to judge by the programmes they watch - the most uncritical body of viewers in the British Isles." (p. 25).

On the facts, it's interesting to read that there were, he thought in 1967, 

"some one hundred and ten countries with television service (p. 4),

up from four in 1946. He details how these were, at the time of writing, organised in groups: the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) with associate members from the American networks, Australia and South Africa plus new nations such as Malawi, Chad and Congo; its mirror opposite International Radio and Television Organisation (OIRT) comprising East European countries, Cuba, the Republic of Mali, the Korean People's Republic, China, the United Arab Emirates and the People's Democratic Republic of Vietnam; the Asian Broadcasting Union (ABU); the African Radio and Television Organisation (URNTA). Seeing the members helped me understand why, for example, Doctor Who sold to particular countries and not to others.

Sales could also be affected by cultural differences.

"Maigret was judged unacceptable by the [American] networks not because of the English accents (although they are a stumbling block) nor because of the foreign setting, but because of little incidents which betrayed a different set of television mores. Thus when Maigret had occasion to cross-examine a girl in a maison de passe it was found surprising that no moral attitude was taken towards the little tart. Nymphomania, lesbianism, drug addiction were touched on and accepted as facts of life, neither swept under the carpet nor magnified out of proportion in the context of the plot. Added to all these was the incident in which Maigret and Lucas stood in a courtyard, saw a light come on in a window, watched and waited to be rewarded by hearing the cistern of a lavatory flush." (p. 139)

Hood is even more withering of programmes that do sell to the US: he thought The Saint and The Avengers "anodyne" mid-Atlantic fare, the "triumph" of selling to the American networks,

“only slightly tarnished by the fact that these series have usually been used as cheap summer replacements.” (p. 140)

He's even less impressed by programmes coming the other way: Batman is "subliterate" (p. 160).

For all he is withering about shows he clearly doesn't like, he's good on the way that the structure, tone and content of programmes is set by the structures imposed on television by technology, politics and other forces. He begins with the physics of television itself and the varying methods of producing a moving picture at a distance, and how that dictated form. During the General Strike of 1926, the Government wished to "commandeer the BBC as an instrument of propaganda", which John Reith fiercely opposed.

"His victory was one of the crucial moments in the history of British broadcasting. Both BBC and ITV benefit from his stand to this day." (p. 168)

Then, of Hood's own time at the BBC, there's the way subtle differences between the Royal Charter and the Television Act 1954 dictated the output of the BBC and ITV respectively. Under the Act, the Independent Television Authority - overseeing ITV - had to ensure that,

"nothing is included in the programmes [of an ITV franchise] which offends against good taste or decency (a question-begging phrase) or is likely to encourage or incite crime or lead to disorder or to be offensive to public feeling or which contains any offensive representation of or reference to a living person." (p. 20)

The last part effectively meant that ITV could not engage in the satire craze of the early 1960s: the BBC could screen That Was The Week That Was; on ITV, "it would have been a breach of the Act."

Hood mentions TW3 eight times in the book, suggesting his own reckoning of its significance. There are multiple entries for police series Maigret and business drama The Plane Makers, and for sitcoms Steptoe and Son and Till Death Us Do Part. Surprisingly, there is no mention of other innovative and successful programmes created in Hood's time as Controller: Doctor WhoTop of the Pops and Play School. Perhaps he didn't think much of them; perhaps their significance only became clear when they'd been running for decades.

Hood has plenty to say about sitcoms. In his view, 

"the medium [of television] is a voracious consumer of talent and turns. A comic who might in the [music or variety] halls hope to maintain himself with a polished routine changing little over the years, embellished a little, spiced with topicality, finds that his material is used up in the course of a couple of television appearances. The comic requires a team of writers to supply him with gags, and invention" (p. 152)

The sitcom is a vehicle to enable this: effectively providing the comic performer with a structure for new material based on a familiar form. But whereas drama is innovative, sometimes uncomfortable or shocking, sitcom is part of a type of television altogether more safe. 

"Light entertainment is the most conservative department of television.” (p. 151)

He defines light entertainment as, 

“comedy, quiz games, light musical productions, pop programmes, outside broadcasts from night clubs and variety theatres. Its traditions are mainly drawn from the halls or from radio. They have been adopted television presentation but fundamentally the sequence of song, dance, spot comedian is unchanged.” (ibid)

Perhaps that's why he doesn't think Top of the Pops worthy of a mention. But I also think it's to do with his politics. He had been a member of the Communist Party and was later a member of the Workers Revolutionary Party, and Hood reviewed Asa Briggs' history of the BBC of this period for International Socialism. At the beginning of his Survey of Television, he suggests why a country such as apartheid South Africa may have been slow to embrace TV:
“Television is a great educator. Besides who knows what remarks the coloured citizens of the Republic might feel free to make in the privacy of their homes about the white people on the screen?”  (p. 5)
He's interested, then, in television as progressives, a medium of necessary change. And light entertainment,
“is a non-political tradition. Political satire has been traditionally avoided… It is more likely to be dictated by a determined political neutrality. Much of TV variety is of this inoffensive, traditional nature. It is popular and professionally presented and fundamentally unintellectual.” (p. 152)

This, I think, is why Hood devotes a lot to the advances in news and educational programming - the role of television in explaining politics and shaping the world. It's not that light entertainment couldn't be technically sophisticated - even groundbreaking. I've always heard The Black and White Minstrel Show spoken of in terms of embarrassment, a show that should have been cancelled long before 1978. It's odd to think of it as having been innovative and exciting.

"When The Black and White Minstrel Show won the Golden Rose of Montreux in 1959 there were some European representatives who doubted whether their audiences could follow the speedy cutting and rhythm of the camera work. Such sophistication is now general." (p. 169)

Compare that to the reactionary culture of the news:

"On one point only it seems unlikely that the BBC or ITN will take a step forward - by employing a woman to read the news. For one short period the BBC did employ a woman announcer who was at once intelligent and good looking; but the weight of masculine prejudice among her colleagues was too powerful and the experiment had to be discontinued. So too was ITN's experiment in the use of newscasters in the sense of men who write their own copy and then read it in front of the camera." (p. 108)

This all makes it sound like Hood's survey is of where television has been, but much of this is about where it is going next. He's concerned about TV schedules programmed not by humans but by "crystal clock and computer" (p. 84). There's stuff about the practicalities of 625-line television, brought in by the BBC the year Hood was writing, and the impact of more channels, of colour TV, of satellite broadcasting. The striking thing, in retrospect, and the irony given Hood's politics and predilections, is how conservative he was about the future we've seen come to pass.

Think of the BBC's new promo to mark its centenary this year, #ThisIsOurBBC: the rich variety of programming showcased, the social contract with the audience and nation, news and light entertainment mixed in with the drama, the whole thing posited as direct engagement with the audience, a two-way conversation. I think, from working on our documentary about Mary Whitehouse, that she had a media savvy understanding of the power of television. Ironically, Stuart Hood lacked the same faith.

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