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.
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.
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.
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?