By Gerard Eastick*
In a couple of weeks’ time I shall board the Caledonian Sleeper in Edinburgh, sit in the lounge car and stare disconsolately at the miniature bottle of Gordon’s gin, wondering whether any of my fellow travellers secretly harbour the wish to buy two miniatures and thus enjoy a nightcap just like the one you would expect to have in the comfort of your own home. On the journey, I shall probably be reminded that the trains of a bygone age, The Coronation, in particular, carried its own Cocktail Bar, a ladies “retiring room” and a hairdressing salon.
Of course, it is no good lamenting the passing of a bygone era; those rose tinted glasses disguise the tinge of yellow-brown, not just on trains, but everywhere, due to the universal habit of smoking in public. We conveniently forget that in order to provide this degree of liveried, linen-lined chic, a dozen railway employees laboured, on slum-dweller wages to maintain the upper classes in passable, if not, dignified, comfort. The cocktail bar was added in 1923, coincidentally, or perhaps not, the same year that the BBC started broadcasting from Scotland.
On my way, ostensibly cocooned in my bunk I shall unconsciously pass over something that is going to form the main purpose of my visit to London. It is Hadrian’s Wall. I am going to the British Museum to see an exhibition entitled “Hadrian: Empire and Conflict”. The Wall fascinates me. I have walked along it. I have studied it. I have visited the ruins and imagined it in the days of the Roman Empire. And yet, the wall was almost an anachronism from the day the first stone was laid, leaving it to spend the majority of its operational life as a job creation scheme for soldiers who may otherwise have mutinied out of sheer boredom and dismay at filthy locals.
The monolith that is the BBC is today facing the challenge of being outmanoeuvred in an explosion of media innovation. But Mark Thompson its Director General has plans. A while ago, he came up with something called “Creative Future”. I am not going to attempt to explain it. To me it sounds as if two buzz words have been stuck together. He said, during the course of his talk to the assembled BBC staff, “We need 360 degree commissioning in knowledge content”. I mention it in passing because I am afraid I do not know what that means.
I have said before that the BBC’s major sins are, I think, sins of omission. The Thompson speech is morally neutral and not surprisingly liberal in tenor but bereft of humility and to me, vaguely sinister: “We're going to take diversity, onscreen and off-screen, far more seriously than we have,” he says. But nowhere in this (and you wouldn’t really expect it) does he respond to external criticism of bias.
The first Director General, John Reith, was a dour, brooding Scot. You may be familiar with the type. He was however, a man of principle. He told us that the BBC was to be “a drawn sword parting the darkness of ignorance”. Publius Aelius Hadrianus, I am certain, would have approved of the analogy. It has the tone of command and the military confidence needed to render shock and awe.
Today, Hadrian’s wall is a ruin. But it is also a major heritage site; a testimony to a bygone age. It is both an anachronism and a national treasure. I am inclined to ask if the same can be said of the BBC, and leave it at that.
* Gerard Eastick is better known on this blog as Wrinkled Weasel.