Entertaining Television: The BBC and Popular Television Culture in the 1950s

December 4, 2008

At a time when the BBC in particular, and public service broadcasting in general, are being defended primarily on the grounds of their cultural worthiness and attacked for paying high fees to controversial entertainers Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, this book takes a provocatively different view.

The case for the universal licence fee - debated recently in the Commons when Conservative MP Christopher Chope tabled a motion to abolish it - is that the BBC must serve all sections of the population. It does this through catering for all tastes, interests and pleasures: it has to "inform, educate and entertain" us all.

It is odd that the third term in this triad, entertainment, is so often seen, even by those defending the BBC, as unworthy and not part of the public service broadcasting remit. Yet, as Su Holmes describes in this forensically researched account of the early years of BBC television, this is a mistaken view. Entertainment and "popularity" were always part of the BBC's remit - and then, as now, this provoked soul-searching in the corporation and elsewhere. But Holmes argues, citing academic and author Dorothy Hobson, "it is in some of the most popular genres that public service is at its most powerful."

Holmes draws extensively on the BBC's written archives. Although she laments the lack of much early-programme archive material, and the inaccessibility to researchers of what there is, she has decided to make a virtue of these limitations and discusses the ways in which popular TV genres are defined by internal and public debate: the evidence for this lies in correspondence, production memos, scripts, press articles and letters to Radio Times. The austerely Reithian view of "Auntie BBC" that "pure entertainment such as jazz bands and sketches by humorists (are) a prostitution of the powers of broadcasting" is belied, argues Holmes, by some of the programmes being broadcast in the 1950s and the cases made for their production.

The main sections of the book look at four different genres in turn: soap opera ("the first in Britain"), as exemplified by The Grove Family (1954-47). The Groves were promoted as "neighbours to the nation", and despite some quite challenging storylines (for example, one about an axe murderer) they were still widely considered "cosy and smug".

Holmes next looks at quiz programmes and "give-away shows" - seen as suspect in much of the public debate, but actually quite common in the BBC, as in the relatively long-running Charlie Chester Show (1951-60). Next there were "problem shows", the early precursors of reality TV: Is This Your Problem? (1955-57) dealt with viewers' real-life difficulties.

Holmes' final section deals with "television fame" and celebrity, here exemplified by the long-running This is Your Life. It is hard for us, inured to Hello! magazine and Big Brother, to imagine how controversial this programme once appeared. In 1958, the Daily Herald demanded: "To what extent is television justified in poking into the private life of a person who has not given his or her permission to appear in a 'live' programme to be transmitted into millions of homes throughout the country?"

A useful reminder from Holmes is the major influence of BBC radio on early television, another echo of the Brand/Ross affair. As she says, there was "a strong Light Programme influence on it (TV) from the start", and TV was always going to be drawing on the populist rather than the elitist end of the BBC's radio output. A lively section describes the regional and cross-class appeal of Wilfred Pickles and his radio show Have a Go (1946-67), with its direct relationship with its audiences of factory workers around the country. Holmes argues that the BBC's populism was intrinsic and did not suddenly appear in response to the competition from ITV, which arrived in 1955.

This is primarily an academic book, intended for scholars and students, so there is an inevitable focus on aspects of class, genre theory, gender studies and the broader contextual issues of narrative realism, seriality and aesthetics. The key question of "value" runs throughout: both "cultural value" and the economic value of TV properties "within a competitive broadcasting ecology", which was already being recognised by senior BBC executives in the 1950s.

Despite the unfamiliarity of most of the programmes to contemporary readers, the study will be necessary reading to historians and students of British television, and it should also be fascinating to media workers. However, it should not be seen merely as a historical text; the issues raised about the contributions made by the BBC to all aspects of British cultural life, and the centrality of entertainment within these contributions, are as relevant now as they were in the 1950s.

Entertaining Television: The BBC and Popular Television Culture in the 1950s

By Su Holmes. Manchester University Press. 232pp, £50.00. ISBN 9780719077913. Published 1 September 2008

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