Tag Archives: BBC

Rhod Gilbert and Tartan Do Not Mix

Blog 04 Tartan

‘Dubious’ is putting it kindly.

Last month, BBC2 showed a programme called Spinning a Yarn: The Dubious History of Scottish Tartan. It promised to explore “tartan’s murky past and colourful present, taking in the Englishmen who forged a guide to clan tartans, Walter Scott’s tartan pageant of 1822 and the 21st-century Scottish Register of Tartans”. What’s not to love?

Now some of you may be thinking, “What? I didn’t hear about that!” The reason for this is that, sadly, this gem was unavailable to 90% of the British population because it was showing on BBC2 Scotland. The very existence of a BBC2 channel specifically for those living north of the border may come as a mild surprise to those living in England, though Welsh and Northern Irish TV viewers may be less bewildered, since they too have their own regional versions of BBC channels; plus Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own versions of ITV (STV and UTV respectively) and Wales didn’t show the usual version of Channel 4 as standard until 2010. What’s more, all three non-English UK countries each have an additional channel that shows programmes in their respective minority languages: BBC Alba for Gaelic programmes in Scotland, S4C for Welsh programmes in Wales, and TG4 for Irish in Northern Ireland.

Extinct? Yes. Having it large? Yes.

Extinct? Yes. Having it large? Yes.

Now in many ways this is a Good Thing. First, regional TV channels mean regional news. This applies to regions of England as well, of course: everyone gets the big stories, of course, but it’s always a delight to hear, for the last few minutes of the programme, the particular eccentric exploits going on in your own personal part of the world. Without regional news programming, for example, those living in Oxfordshire would have no idea that models of a dinosaur and a dodo are taking a holiday from the University Museum of Natural History and popping up in shops in Oxford city centre. Likewise, the residents of North-West Wales would never have discovered that the British Sub-Aqua Club was having an underwater party near Holyhead, while people in Foyle and the West of Northern Ireland would have no idea that a rare dolphin’s body had been discovered two miles from the sea in Country Donegal. Regional stories bring the news closer to home – plus they tend to be more uplifting than what’s going with bankers, the NHS or Syria (apart from the dolphin story, obviously).

It’s also great that there are opportunities for minority language programming. The movements to keep traditional British languages alive and thriving are perhaps viewed with some scepticism in Anglophone quarters: for example, some time ago a professor of Sociology from the University of Reading has argued that “the Welsh language will, should and must die out” (the last sixteen years, it should be noted, have failed to fulfill her prophecy). But neither Welsh nor the other still-spoken Celtic languages are dead yet (that’s sort of the definition): 562,000 people speak Welsh, 58,600 speak Gaelic and 167,500 speak Irish (in Northern Ireland). Though the percentage of those speaking it as their first language is small, to many others, learning the language of their parents or grandparents is an essential part of learning about their heritage and identity. So the fact that British TV has room for languages other than English is definitely a positive.

Top: Irish yacht. Bottom: English yacht.

Top: Irish yacht. Bottom: English yacht.

Plus, having regional channels means that you get programmes of what one might call ‘special interest’. Take Spinning a Yarn, for example – it’s unlikely that a set of broadcasters operating entirely out of London would ever have come up with such an idea, let alone developed it into an hour-long programme. Nor, probably, would they have commissioned The Legenderrys, a fantastically-named documentary about a (London)Derry lad setting sail with “16 total strangers” on a round-the-world yacht race, shown in Northern Ireland as a three-part series. Neither of these topics – fabrics or yacht racing – is one I personally am particularly interested in, but there are obviously people who are, and, with regional programming, they can make the most of that interest.

They can, that is, provided they live in the correct constituent country – and that is the major problem with BBC1 Scotland, UTV and the rest. Implicit in the notion of regional programming is that certain programmes can only be interesting to certain viewers, based on those viewers’ nationality. Tartan is obviously an enthralling topic for Scottish people, but it is a Scottish topic, and therefore it only needs to be available to Scottish viewers – heaven forbid it should be attractive to viewers in Portsmouth, Newcastle, Swansea or Armagh. Often, the assumption appears to be that Scottish (or Welsh or Northern Irish) issues are simply not worth paying attention to if you live anywhere else.

Rhod Gilbert: a disconcerting Scout Master in any country.

Rhod Gilbert: a disconcerting Scout Master in any country.

And this is sometimes taken to absurd levels. The new series of Rhod Gilbert’s Work Experience finished last week on BBC1 Wales – not available on the BBC in England, Scotland or Northern Ireland. I wasn’t privy to the discussion that preceded the decision to broadcast it on a Wales-only channel, but I can only imagine that a programme presented by a Welsh comedian, set in a series of Welsh towns, was judged just too damn Welsh for the population at large. Never mind that Gilbert is an internationally known comedian, and that the jobs he’s trying out (this series, he’s been a wedding planner, a scout master, a tour guide and a male model) are pretty universal: you can only watch him mooch around making gruff, cynical, hilarious comments about everything he encounters if you live in Wales. I hesitate to use the word ‘ghettoisation’ – but it’s kind of like ghettoisation, isn’t it? Especially since the standard, non-specific versions of BBC and ITV are the English ones. Apparently programmes about English people are more universally interesting than programmes about Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish people.

To an extent, of course, this is becoming less of an issue as TV channels become accessible in different ways. People with satellite TV can get all the regional channels as standard options, and most programmes are available online through the various catch-up players (though I was cruelly rejected by ITV Player when trying to access one of the early episodes of Broadchurch because I was in the STV region); so if there’s a regional programme you really want to watch, you can probably find it somewhere. That’s assuming you’ve heard of it at all, given that most people don’t spend hours trawling through the listings for regional channels other than their own in order to find programmes they might have missed.

On the other hand, maybe it’s best that regional programmes stay regional and don’t stray across the borders. After all, there’s always the risk that you might learn about the invention of a talking cigarette packet in Stirling or a horse stuck in a bog in Shropshire – and why would you be interested in that?

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Who’s the New Who?

The Interwebs have been a-buzz for the last few weeks over the news that Matt Smith is leaving Doctor Who. ‘Tis certainly a trying time for those who’ve spent the last four years waiting with Amy Pond, curling their hair like River Song and smiling at strangers in the street simply because they’re wearing a bow tie. But I am managing to hold it together because (and I make this confession somewhat hesitantly) Smith has been my least favourite modern Doctor. Like many Whovians, I can firmly state that Number Ten – the dashing, cheeky, passionate David Tennant – is my Doctor; but I am among the comparatively few who would say that Christopher Eccleston, Number Nine, comes a close second. Eccleston’s Doctor felt like a thousand-year-old: determined but playful, browbeaten, lonely, yet still fighting the good fight.

So although Matt Smith’s Number Eleven has been fun, I don’t believe he’s the be-all-and-end-all of the character. Which is why I’m intrigued by the debate over who should be the New Who.

The fans were naturally the first to weigh into the discussion with their own thoughts on who should be cast in the role. A poll by the Radio Times concluded that Colin Morgan (of Merlin fame) should be the Twelfth Doctor, readers of The Guardian chose Chiwetel Ejiofor (recently Louis Lester in Dancing on the Edge), while IGN’s respondents, clearly unable to let go of the past, chose David Tennant. Other suggestions have included Rory Kinnear (Quantum of Solace and Skyfall), Tom Hiddleston (War Horse), Ben Whishaw (Richard II), Idris Elba (The Wire), Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock), Stephen Mangan and Julian Rhind-Tutt (respectively Guy and Mac from Green Wing), Russell Tovey (Being Human) and, perhaps my favourite out-of-the-box proposal, Rupert Grint (Harry Potter).

Many of these suggestions are, to put it bluntly, uninspired. Benedict Cumberbatch, for example, is doing a fantastic job as Sherlock in a programme produced by many of the same people as Doctor Who, so it’s natural that he would spring to mind, but much as I love him (and I do) I’m not convinced that he’s the right person for the job. But what I like about some of the quirkier suggestions is that they make you reconsider not just who, but what, the Doctor should be.

First, a number of fans have wondered whether John Hurt, who appeared in the series finale credited as ‘The Doctor’ and who was implied to be a past incarnation, will in fact be the Twelfth Doctor. I think that the writers will be sneakier than that, and that John Hurt is actually the Doctor from a parallel universe, or the Doctor before he called himself ‘The Doctor’, or even someone else called ‘The Doctor’ who is not actually our Doctor. But the mere possibility of John Hurt being the next Doctor underlines the fact that the last three – that is, all the Doctors of the modern era – have been under forty-five.

Actually, this isn’t such a break with the original version of the show. An  interesting blog post by The Reinvigorated Programmer reveals that the majority of Doctors were in their thirties or forties when they took the role; Peter Davison, the Fourth Doctor, was only two years older than the youthful Matt Smith when he began, while the First and oldest doctor, William Hartnell, was only 55. An interesting pattern, given that the character is somewhere around a millennium old – surely even a modern Doctor doesn’t have to be a slip of a lad? How about a Doctor who really looks and behaves as if he’s lived through a Time War, the loss of several wives, girlfriends, children and siblings, the sinking of the Titanic, the destruction of Pompeii and myriad other catastrophic events? Assuming that Clara makes it into the next series (and I hope she does), the relationship between her and the Doctor doesn’t need to be one of dashing hero and the young woman swept off her feet. Why not father-daughter, or teacher-apprentice, or just plain partners? Granted, the sexual tension between Numbers Nine, Ten and Eleven and their companions was fun to watch (except, of course, when it was heartbreaking), but the more paternal role of the doctor in some the earlier series didn’t seem to do the shows popularity any harm. In any case, there are only so many ways a man can react to young women falling in love with him without things getting repetitive.

Which brings us to the next general suggestion about the next Doctor: that he, or rather she, should be a woman. Specific actresses who’ve been mooted are Miranda Hart, Billie Piper (of course), Olivia Colman, Sheridan Smith, Sue Perkins and Helen Mirren, who would apparently be more than happy to oblige.

Now I’m all for strong, interesting female leads on TV, and, certainly, having a female Doctor would shake up the traditional Doctor-companion dynamic. Bearing in mind that all of the Doctor’s recent love interests (Rose, Madame de Pompadour, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (or so we hear) and of course River Song) have been female, maybe we could see the first gay Doctor? Wishful thinking, perhaps: although other planets in the known universe seem to produce more variety in their interpersonal relationships – as indicated, for example, by the lovely Vastra and Jenny (also an example of an interspecies relationship), and of course by Captain Jack, the epitome of pansexual – Gallifrey stills appears to operate under a one-man-one-woman system that’s sufficiently safe for the BBC at teatime on a Saturday. But a female Doctor-female companion friendship would also be very different ground to tread: bitch-fest followed by bonding over awful men, anyone?

And yet I’m not sure that casting a female Doctor is the right way to go. For one thing, from an in-universe perspective, it’s not at all clear whether this is even possible. All previous Doctors have been male, just as all of River Song’s incarnations (at least, those shown on screen) were female; indeed, the official BBC website suggests simply that some Time Lords are men and some (AKA ‘Time Ladies’) are women. True, there seems some flexibility (The Guardian points out that the Eleventh Doctor, on feeling his new long hair for the first time, thought he was a girl) but to my mind it’s a stretch, and one that I feel is only being considered to make a point. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Doctor being a man. It works. He isn’t defined by his gender, but by his decisions and his personality (and occasionally the fact he has two hearts). You could make him a woman, but why bother? The feminist cause would be much better furthered by original female characters who are fun, interesting and intelligent in their own right, not ones who are ‘made’ female for the sake of it.

So I am inclined to agree, finally, with YouGov’s poll, which asked not for possible actors but ideal attributes. By far the biggest items of agreement were that the new Doctor should be (a) British and (b) a man. Race and age were less of a concern, and being straight was important to only 15% of people. So, bearing in made that the public wants a home-grown actor in the role, the production team is definitely free to change tack, with an elderly Doctor, a child Doctor, a black Doctor, a gay Doctor… Or, you know, they could go with Rupert Grint – after all, the Doctor has always wanted to be ginger.