Culture? Reach for the Remote

French TV may be dull, but it is unashamedly highbrow. Not so British broadcasting

Screen TV
Sexed-up: Bill Clinton (Dennis Quaid) and Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) in "The Special Relationship"

In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens’s Mr Podsnap harangues a foreigner on the marvels of Britain.

“Our Constitution, Sir. We Englishmen are Very Proud of our Constitution, Sir. It Was Bestowed Upon Us By Providence. No Other Country is so Favoured as This Country.”

“And other countries,” said the foreign gentleman. “They do how?”

“They do, Sir,” returned Mr Podsnap, gravely shaking his head; “they do — I am sorry to be obliged to say it — AS they do.”

The pride of the Podsnaps has deserted the British. In his address to the Edinburgh television festival, Mark Thompson, the BBC’s director-general, revealed that market researchers had questioned hundreds of Britons when they returned from foreign holidays and found that they were not happy to be home.

The returning tourists said that the climate, scenery, transport system and customer service were all better abroad. There was only one significant area of national life that they still thanked Providence for bestowing on the British. “Of all the topics covered in a survey this summer,” said Mr Thompson with a note of triumph, “it was British TV that scored the highest. Sixty-two per cent who had watched TV abroad as well as in the UK said they thought television was better here. Only eight per cent disagreed.”

How many British tourists could understand Spanish or Greek television is a question he left unanswered. But having watched French television for a fortnight, I can see why Thompson was euphoric. British journalists complain about the space-filling on the rolling news channels and the tricksiness of Newsnight. They would stop if they saw the shallow and dull reports on French television. France cannot match the sharp, smart satire of Britain and America, either. Instead of David Mitchell and Paul Merton, there are dumb sitcoms which would not have been made for British television in the 1970s, let alone the 2010s.

For all that, on consecutive nights I watched a film adaptation of Les Misérables starring Gérard Depardieu. The writer and director made no attempt to inject sex or violence. When the story called for long scenes filled only with dialogue, that is what they shot without fast cuts or switches in camera angles. The same was true for an adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s Le Château de ma Mère, which admittedly the most permissive director in the world could not sex up. 

A respect for history characterises French drama documentaries as well. I saw a reconstruction of the downfall of Roger Salengro, a minister in Leon Blum’s Popular Front government in the 1930s. In an anticipation of Vichy, the French far-Right used false allegations that he had been a coward in the First World War to drive him to suicide. The night before that I watched a dramatisation of the life of Françoise Sagan, who awoke to find herself famous after her teenage novel Bonjour Tristesse had become a sensation. Sagan had many lovers, male and female, and took large amounts of drugs but the film did not dwell on the sex or the cocaine.

The controllers of French cinema and television thought that the French ought to know their history, and should see adaptations of the classics. As French producers, they had a duty to continue the best traditions of French culture, and the audience had an obligation to watch because watching would make them better citizens. 

Try using “ought”, “should”, “duty” and “obligation” in front of modern media managers and you would bewilder them. True, occasionally Andrew Davies does classic adaptations and the BBC has just released The Special Relationship, a drama-documentary account of Blair’s relationship with Clinton. (It is as sexed-up as an Iraq war dossier, according to Alastair Campbell.) 

But no writer would think of proposing making a drama-documentary about how the Great Depression destroyed Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government in 1931 for all the contemporary echoes, or a biopic on the life of Kingsley Amis, Sagan’s contemporary, while downplaying his affairs, just because he was a great British writer.

Once the British media did see themselves as guardians of the culture. The divide between Britain and France is also a divide between Britain’s present and past. The only media organisation that now feels the old obligation to promote British literature and history is Radio 4, which is why it should be forgiven its political bias and supported. 

Elsewhere, the changes of the 1980s left behind old conservative patriots and liberal believers in the importance of high culture — who have more in common than they imagine. No French media grandee is going to grow rich making a biopic of Sagan, but their British counterparts can grow very rich by dismissing the old cultural standards as elitist impositions. Rupert Murdoch has been the great beneficiary. Successive governments have exempted BSkyB from EU rules that would have compelled it to make British programmes for a British audience. The richest network in Britain produces a mere handful of original dramas and comedies, almost as an afterthought. 

The canny Murdoch used the Sun to gain business favours from client politicians. But even if he had not, I doubt Tony Blair or David Cameron would understand if you tried to explain why it was important to care for British culture and pass it on to the next generation. If people wanted serious drama, they would reply, the market would surely provide it.

As luck would have it, Gibson Square has republished George Walden’s The New Elites, the best analysis of the cultural shift of the past generation. The masses are kept in their place, he writes, not as before by poverty or impotence, but by wealthy men and women who feed them a diet of continuous pap. If the elite is criticised, it can turn round and accuse its critics of being the real elitists who are turning up their dainty noses at the democratic choices of the sovereign people.

On the front cover of the new edition is a picture of David Cameron. His only job outside politics was as the excessively well-rewarded head of PR for Carlton, one of the worst stations in British television history. It took the franchise from Thames, which had produced serious documentaries and dramas, and whose best staff clung to the old idea that education should not stop at school but be continued in the wider culture. Carlton replaced its worthy efforts with such shows as A Woman’s Guide to Adultery. After a few years, Cameron moved from a station that celebrated adultery into politics, where he announced his belief in the importance of marriage.

Mark Thompson should be less euphoric. A culture that allows privileged men to make money by pimping trash, and does not laugh them to scorn when they complain about “the broken society”, is having it every which way except the right way.