In sync with the contemporary broadcasts for once, on December 13th last year BBC4 re-ran the edition of Top Of The Pops originally broadcast 35 years ago that day – December 13th 1979. Although edited for a 30 minute slot for its prime time airing, the show was rebroadcast later that evening in what was as usual billed as the “uncut” form.
Only it wasn’t. Missing from all editions of the show was a performance by Midlands parodists The Barron Knights of what at the time they hoped would be their third straight Christmas hit single Food For Thought, a romp through some comedic reworkings of some of the more memorable pop moments of the year. Their performance was gone from the show altogether. It was not hard to work out why.
The problem was a show which had been broadcast a month earlier by Channel 4 -“It Was Alright In the 70s”. The premise of the show was to cherry pick some of the more esoteric cultural moments of this bygone decade and replay them to a procession of comedy performers, all of whom were to play against type and express how shocked they were by representations of bygone attitudes towards women and racial sensitivities. In truth the show did end with the subtle note of the dangers, as I’ve so often noted myself in the past, of looking at the past through the prism of modern day prudery and morality, but this was done in such a throwaway nature at the end of the narration that most will not have spotted it. The show was simply a chance to sneer at the Black And White Minstrel Show and feel smug about it.
One of the “outrages” highlighted therein was indeed the Barron Knights performance of Food For Thought and in particular a section which re-imagines Pop Music by M as Chop Suey and featuring the group putting on exaggerated Chinese accents to sing songs about what was at the time the exotic world of the Chinese Takeaway. The clip was presented devoid of context, its origins as a comic rewrite of another record either ignored by the commentators or deemed irrelevant to their shock and outrage. But the mere fact that it featured naturally presented the BBC with a dilemma. Should they respect the artistic and historical integrity of their archive, be bold and show the performance in full context and to a loyal and self-selecting audience on a minority digital channel – or should they just take the path of least resistance and snip it out, hoping that not too many people notice. They naturally chose the latter.
Now in the grand scheme of things this is a minor wrinkle. Food For Thought stalled at Number 46 that year and brought to a shuddering halt the group’s run of Top 10 seasonal singles. Its loss to the show wasn’t something I was going to get particularly worked up about. However one or two people of my acquaintance felt strongly enough to request an explanation from the BBC for this unannounced edit. The reply they received was actually rather telling:
…when airing archive content we must think carefully about how the material is likely to be viewed by a modern audience … as the Top Of The Pops repeats are positioned primarily as entertainment rather than as a historical account, the decision was made not to air this particularly song…
Confirmation then that the BBC genuinely, truly, do not understand their audience. Leaving aside the nonsense of claiming to be presenting a show on an arts and documentary channel “primarily as entertainment” they are clearly clueless of the way people are engaging with this show. The repeats are followed, pored over and analysed both on live social media and on a variety of web forums as a fascinating historical snapshot, one which not only brings back memories for those there at the time but which presents the student of popular culture with a fascinating document of both popular music culture and social fashions. Yes, even when that involves putting on a comedy Chinese accent to talk about noodle based dishes. The BBC sees fit to cut out songs or skip entire editions altogether if they no longer approve of the personal life of the presenter because after all, it is only entertainment.
I bring this up simply to close the saga of my journey through the BBC complaints process as I attempted to escalate my dispute over the continual absence from the repeat schedules of Dave Lee Travis hosted editions of the show given he is no longer the subject of criminal proceedings or even penal sanction. Having failed to wrestle a satisfactory explanation from the standard complaints department I attempted to escalate the issue to the BBC Trust.
All credit to them, this stage of the process is done with care, respect and careful scrutiny. The considered reply to my submission took careful note of my now well-trodden arguments, ones which had clearly been noted and considered.
- The archive was significant and relevant, both historically and musically.
- Audience enjoyment was spoiled by withholding some editions.
- The only justifiable reason for not airing those editions would be if there was any legal or regulatory barrier to doing so, which did not apply in this case.
- He queried why a convicted criminal could appear on a prime time family show on BBC One but 35 year old editions of a music programme featuring Dave Lee Travis on BBC Four could not be shown.
- He believed this amounted to an extra-judicial punishment for the presenter and the BBC had no business acting in that manner.
The advisor assigned to my case:
noted that the selection of BBC programmes from the archive for repeat broadcast was a matter of editorial choice. The Royal Charter and the accompanying Agreement between the Secretary of State and the BBC drew a distinction between the role of the BBC Trust and that of the BBC Executive Board, led by the Director General. “The direction of the BBC’s editorial and creative output” was specifically defined in the Charter (Article 38, (1) (b)) as a duty that was the responsibility of the Executive Board, and one in which the Trust did not get involved unless, for example, it related to a breach of the BBC’s editorial standards which did not apply in this case. Decisions relating to the choice of programme content for broadcast on any BBC channel fell within the “editorial and creative output” of the BBC. The Adviser believed that Trustees would consider that the responsibility for such decisions rested with the BBC Executive rather than the Trust.
And there the matter rested. I could theoretically have pursued this further, have pressed the Trust to consider the serious issues this raised and the deep concern I and many other licence fee payers felt that archive programming was being withheld without good reason, but it seemed clear that all we would do was run into brick walls. The notion that the BBC Trust is not there to intervene in editorial matters sits alongside the ability of the BBC to avoid Freedom Of Information requests about its programming. As far as the shows it chooses to broadcast, the BBC is as unaccountable as any commercial broadcaster.
My good friend Steve Williams, editor of the funny and essential weekly TV Cream Creamguide mailout has noted a number of times that complaints about the skipping of editions of the show are irrelevant. “They don’t have to show anything they don’t want to,” he reasons, “and they never showed them before. Just be glad they are showing anything now.”
It is a fair point, but an incorrect one. Back in 2011 the BBC’s commitment to the repeat run of Top Of The Pops shows was such that it was determined to air as complete a run as possible. Hence the decision to start airing the series from 1976, the point at which it was nearly complete in the archives. This commitment even extended to inserting into the schedules a previously “lost” edition which had been supplied to them on a VHS tape owned by its host David Hamilton just a few weeks beforehand. When a performance by Jonathan King was excised from one edition the Director General personally intervened after a complaint to ensure that “history would no longer be rewritten” and that all remaining shows should be aired in full.
My desire for a detailed explanation as to why shows were being skipped was a genuine one, but I always knew I would never receive a straight answer, the true reason for the scheduling. The BBC has gone from being an organisation proud of its history and a defender of its output to one which is scared of its own shadow and utterly petrified of being the subject of negative gutter press attention. Creativity in both television and radio is being choked by an obsession with compliance and a fear that the Daily Mail will write something nasty about them. That’s an utter disgrace and an insult to every reasonable-minded licence fee payer. The corporation which once stood by its production of The Monocled Mutineer and faced down the government of the day when it attempted to suppress reports on matters which would embarrass them is now reduced to a pale shadow of itself, basing scheduling decisions on “will anyone be upset by this at all?”
Meanwhile logic fails to come into it. A few weeks before writing this piece the Graham Norton Show worshiped the talent of special guest Snoop Dogg. I like the rap star and am a big fan of his music. Yet his colourful past includes once being accused of accessory to murder after driving a car from which a man was shot and killed, producing pornographic video tapes in which he rapped to the scenes of explicit sexual intercourse, banned from Britain for several years following a disturbance at Heathrow Airport in 2006 during which seven police officers were injured and with long history of criminal convictions for drug and firearm possession. In spite of this he is a welcome guest on prime time entertainment shows. Meanwhile decades old performances of men from Birmingham putting on comedy Chinese accents and shows hosted by a man convicted of a minor misdemeanor which took place when he was not under contract to the corporation are banned for fear of upsetting our delicate sensibilities. No, I don’t get it either.
The only positive to take away is that the censors can never win. If you know where to look and whom to ask, bootleg versions of the “banned” Top Of The Pops shows circulate freely online. Some sourced from old satellite repeats, others directly from master tape copies as obtained by dedicated overseas collectors and which now surface via torrents and forums as if they were illicit contraband. But they aren’t. They are a silly pop music show, one whose legacy and historical importance is celebrated by people of taste, sense and above all the intelligence to judge everything in its proper context.
A typical BBC 4 audience you might say.