Tuesday, 5 March 2013
According to broadcaster Jeremy Paxman, the trouble all started with "an influx of people from a very, very different culture."
How is that man still in a job? At the BBC of all places!
He hadn't gone bananas and started ranting about jobs being taken by unskilled Eastern European immigrants, the connection between sex grooming rings and young Islamic men, or even Romanian horses in the food supply.
What he was talking about, however, was something much more interesting: the threat to society posed by disc-jockeys.
He wouldn’t have put it quite like that, of course, and I’m sure his account of what he did mean would fall far short of what I intend suggesting it means.
But it’s interesting all the same.
I was about to expound now on the subject of disc-jockeys, only to find by chance, typing finger poised and about to go crazeeee, that I have already done so.
What I said, ages back, was this:
I'm assuming that like the rest of us, you know how to put a record on. Being a pop star, making the kind of rubbish you all listen to and then being senselessly adored just for existing, may be one of the cushiest jobs out there, but it pales beside those who earn their fortunes by taking that music, putting it on a turntable, playing it, and - here's where their special contribution comes in, apparently - saying what it is called before playing the next one.
There's no equivalent in any other art form. Film fans don't make named, lavishly rewarded heroes out of projectionists, for instance. And what's more, if they had a loudspeaker and interspersed each reel with "okay, that was the trailers there, some good stuff coming up, I think you'll agree, main feature follows in just a few minutes but first here's one of those hilarious Orange 'turn off your phone' quickies" I suspect they'd venerate them less rather than more.
So to get back to Paxo. He was talking on record to the Pollard enquiry about the BBC’s lack of internal accountability, clogged arteries of inter-departmental communication, and specifically how these problems led to his own programme Newsnight squelching a report on Jimmy Savile’s molestation of children.
But he also makes the following sweeping but fascinating shot at the underlying ethos of the entire institution:
What was the BBC doing promoting this absurd figure, this absurd and malign figure? And I think that has to do with the fact of the BBC having been aloof from popular culture for so long. Suddenly pirate radio comes along and all these people in metaphorical cardigans suddenly have to deal with an influx - once pirate radio, once pop radio is legalised, they suddenly have to deal with an influx of people from a very, very different culture and they never got control of them and I'm not sure even now they have.
What indeed was the BBC doing promoting this absurd figure? A good question.
That's not to say that his malignity should necessarily have been inferred from his absurdity, of course (though it should have come as no massive surprise either).
But it's relevant to note that his absurdity was not enough to have kept him from the airwaves anyway, as it surely would have been before the pop culture revolution of the late 1950s.
Savile was a poseur and a buffoon of a sort the British people were once profoundly adept at seeing through, simultaneously vapid and pompous, and a revolutionary who helped reinvent an organisation that had hitherto identified itself as a bastion of sobriety and seriousness. When you abandon sobriety and seriousness, and hallow in its place superficiality and incontinence, of course you end up wallowing at the shallow end with fools like Savile.
I'm pleased to say that I distanced myself from the man in print - just enough - long before the bubble burst. In a 2011 post on 'Britain's Unloveable Eccentrics' (way back when I, like most of us, had not yet seen his surname in print anything like often enough to realise it only had one 'l' in it), I used him as an example of those who "try a bit too hard, or else are just that little bit too alienatingly weird, to ever inspire that bemused tolerance in the British breast that turns, through the passage of time and the reassurance of familiarity, into something like love":
Jimmy Saville, for instance. I mean no disrespect to the man, but I think the majority would agree that he's just a bit too peculiar, in ways you can't precisely put your finger on, and a bit too aware of his own idiosyncrasies, and pleased with them, to measure up to true loveable eccentric status.
Okay, not the stinging dismissal I wish it was with hindsight, and the "no disrespect" leaps out somewhat disagreeably now, but I could have been further from the truth with the bit about his being "peculiar, in ways you can't precisely put your finger on". I'm happy enough with that.
Paxman is absolutely right to lay the blame for Savile's uninterrupted rampage on a BBC that had been "aloof from popular culture for so long."
But the problem was not the fact of that aloofness so much as its subsequent high-speed relaxation, and capitulation to a self-congratulating triviality and excess that, as Paxman notes, the institution was almost uniquely incapable of reconciling itself with.
As a result it simply indulged it, which was far worse. And so the mindless cult of youth rebounded on its own acolytes, its own children.
Priestly child abuse is much in the news, too, but it is interesting that while the broad trend is to indict the Catholic church generally and institutionally, when it comes to the discarded altar boys of popular culture the tendency is to be vastly less sweeping, and instead make individual monsters of specific priests, but leave the church and its doctrines still standing.
I'd be inclined to reverse those attitudes, myself.
The Savile outrages are its most unequivocally malevolent consequences, but any positive effects of the pop revolution seem pretty thin on the ground to me.
The "people in metaphorical cardigans" that Paxman identifies (with, I think, a clear trace of mockery, as if even now he sees something preferable in Savile's world) were in truth a line of defence against the pollution of popular culture by self-indulgence, hedonism and that bizarre pretentiousness that insists on making grandiose claims for trivial product inversely relative to merit. (The less deserving the praise, the more grandiose it tends to be, so for instance the lyrics of Bob Dylan, which are uniquely terrible even by the standards of pop lyrics, are hailed by the pundits, including former poet laureate Andrew Motion, as masterly even by the standards of pop lyrics.)
And the simple, basic, fundamental truth that Paxman is inadvertently pointing to, and yet would fight so shy of conceding even now, is that the pop culture revolution of the 1960s was a profound disaster.
It was a disaster for the extant culture, even (indeed especially) for the extant popular culture, and it was a disaster for the society that imbibed it, and assumed its attitudes in blissful ignorance of the fact that decadence and intense superficiality are only sustainable as lifestyles when pursued within the securest imaginable bubble of undeserved wealth and privilege, and are especially useless as replacements for the patience, compromise and respect for contrary opinion that is the only means of oiling a truly efficient oppositional democracy.
In a 1967 Punch article beautifully entitled 'The Weasels of Pop' Anthony Burgess had this to say about disc-jockeys:
Do they merit vitriol, even a drop of it? Yes, because they corrupt the young, persuading them that the mature world, which produced Beethoven and Schweitzer, sets an even higher value on the transient anodynes of youth than does youth itself. For this they stink to heaven... They are electronic lice.
Burgess was one of the heroic few who saw through the bubble. He wasn't alone, but he was in a definite minority, as counter-revolutionaries so often are.
Who were the men who gave their knighthoods back in protest at the awarding of MBEs to The Beatles?
We all know they did it, but I bet you don't know their names. I don't know their names.
There should be statues of them.