BBC: ‘bastion of mediocrity’

BBC: ‘bastion of mediocrity’

I have been reading the late Tony Richardson‘s memoir Long Distance Runner. (I know I promised a Julius Caesar update, but that waits on a RSC press release – tomorrow, I hope.) It is not clear whether Richardson’s book, which was published posthumously by Faber and Faber in 1993, was intended for publication, for his daughter Natasha discovered it hidden away in a cupboard on the day he died. It was probably written around 1985, perhaps – as Natasha Richardson suggests in the Foreword – at the time┬áthat he was first diagnosed as HIV positive. It is a compelling, seemingly honest, sometimes angry, often very funny book about theatre and about cinema. What it is not – although this is what I hoped it might be – is a book about television, even though Richardson made a number of distinctive dramas for the BBC in the mid-1950s. It is typical of his attitude towards the small screen that the best he can say about his television output is that ‘this work was better than doing nothing [but] I was dreaming of other things.’

I am interested in Richardson’s memories because I have been watching a tele-recording of a production of Othello that he produced for the BBC in 1955. This is the earliest British television Shakespeare to survive and it is interesting partly because Richardson cast the American Black actor Gordon Heath as the moor. I will blog about the production on the Screen Plays site in the next couple of days, but I have found Richardson’s attitude towards television so interesting that I thought it might warrant a post here.

Before his production of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court in 1956 catapaulted him to fame, Tony Richardson was taken on as one of the BBC’s first television trainees. Richardson would go on to direct classics of the British ‘new wave’ like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and Tom Jones (1963). He also had a very distinguished career in the theatre with Osborne’s The Entertainer (1957) and Luther (1961) and a notable Hamlet in 1969 with Nicol Williamson (which was also filmed).

All of these film and theatre productions, and many more, are detailed with comparatively full credits in the book’s Appendix. But it is typical of Richardson’s sense of television and its (lack of) importance in his professional life that there are no such listings for his television dramas. ‘Nothing much seemed to be happening to me – creatively,’ he writes of the time when he was working regularly as a director for the BBC.

Not more than three of the three hundred-plus pages even mention television – and somehow this dismissal seems typical of the attitude of a generation of creative figures, which also included Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz. They were happy enough to have the work from the upstart medium (Anderson directed some episodes of The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1955-60) but they seem not, at least in retrospect, to have taken television at all seriously – and certainly not to recognise it as in any sense the equal of the theatre or the cinema.

The book does, however, feature one splendid diatribe against the BBC of the time, which I am happy to reproduce here.

Outside the UK, many have a very erroneous view of what the BBC is and was. Because of its supposedly independent character, it is often seen as ‘the Fourth Estate’ itself – especially in America, where there is also a typical self-abasement at its ‘quality’. In reality the BBC has always been an out-front-and-proud-of-it bastion of mediocrity and its pensioners: an aggressively complacent and Philistine bureaucracy; the lowest common multiple of talent and intelligence; a world of the self-congratulating, the would-bes – whether they’re journalists or politicians or interviewers or directors who think they’re the ace.

Attending the meetings of the Drama Department was to me totally disillusioning – none of the directors ever saw a movie or a play, but they talked about their own middlebrow productions as if they were discussing the Festival of Ephesus, though they were, of course, more interested in whether a particular rehearsal had adequate lavatories or catering facilities. I knew straight away the BBC wasn’t for me. So did the BBC.

Needless to say this bears absolutely no relationship to the BBC or its Drama Department today.

Image: a scene from Tony Richardson’s original production of Look Back in Anger, photographed for LIFE magazine in October 1957 in New York by Joseph Scherschel.