Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The Fuss About Five Women: The Radio Times position, Jan 1969

In the Radio Times, January 16th, 1969 (p4), an anonymous essay, Keeping Faith with the Viewer, was printed under the heading 'Talking Point'. It was not made explicit that it touched on the ban on Five Women, but in the next week, the letter from Tony Garnett et al made clear what the underlying argument was really about.  I found both the essay and the letter in the BFI archive, on the microfilm, and have typed them out here for easier reference. Here is the anonymous piece from the Radio Times, quoted in full, the reply is linked here and above:

"Television is a demanding medium in the way that it compels the viewer to move more quickly in place, mood, and indeed emotion, than could ever be possible in real life; and because it can confuse him by the rapid succession of varying images presented on the screen. At one moment the viewer may be watching a fictional drama, at another a factual wartime scene in Nigeria or Vietnam, at another a sporting event unfolding as it happened, the result of which he can already have read about in  his newspaper.

As television techniques develop what are the safeguards for the public? What confidence can the viewer have that what he is watching is what it appears to be? The answer is that the BBC bears the responsibility for ensuring that whatever happens the viewer is not tricked. Bearing in mind that every kind of programme has to appear on the same screen, what he sees must be true to fact or true to art.

Over the years the viewer has learned to distinguish between those programmes which he knows to be fact and those he knows to be fiction by means of a series of conventions which he has come to respect. The first and in many ways the most important indication of the nature of a programme is given in RADIO TIMES. Aside from that, when the set is switched on, the signature tune and a related set of captions indicate whether a news bulletin is about to be shown or a current affairs programme, a documentary, a play, or a light entertainment show.

In a news or current affairs programme the viewer will see a selection of events that have really happened with comments about them by real people. If any world event is shown he knows that this really has taken place and has not been fabricated as were - say - the sequences in Eisenstein's film about the 1917 Revolution in Russia. These are great pieces of film-making, but they were not shots of what actually happened.

Through a different set of conventions the viewer knows that in plays, series or serials what he will see will be true to art: a good story or one episode in a continuing piece of fiction. He knows that this kind of programme will not be a photographic record of real events. It will be art presented as art.

In recent years this simple situation has been complicated by the emergence of many different variations in programme formula and the development of a new tradition of realistic writing. In fictional series great trouble has been taken by writers like Elwyn Jones in 'Softly Softly' to create brilliantly down-to-earth stories, which they have set in a most convincing framework. Elwyn Jones has made a special study of police cases, and he has talked at length to policemen. The result is a credible set of adventures, which can on occasion even startle the audience with their realism, as when one episode which dealt with a major disaster was felt by some viewers to be too close to the recent and real Aberfan tragedy.

Such realism in dramatic writing graphically illustrates how people behave in given situations in a way that a factual programme can never quite achieve. The viewer knows very well that what he is watching is only a story, but a series like 'The Troubleshooters' or 'Champion House' can illuminate, for instance, what it really feels like to be an industrial executive under pressure in a competitive world.

In a creative medium like television, experiments are always taking place, and new programmes are being devised with formulae that are slightly different from anything ever done before. Wednesday Plays like 'Cathy Come Home,' 'Golden Vision,' and 'Mrs. Lawrence Will Look After It' were experimental in the sense that although all three were well-acted dramas, each made a deliberate comment on an important social problem. And it was known that actual real-life material had been used to shape their preparation. This was the essential ingredient that made their impact so outstanding.

Can these new programme techniques be carried too far? Is there any danger that they will lead to confusion in the mind of the viewer, so that he is uncertain whether he is watching a play or a documentary - a criticism which was made of 'Cathy Come Home' by one or two panellists in a recent edition of 'Talkback'? This is in fact one of the problems with which the BBC has to grapple every day as part of its overall task of editorial control. Many factors are involved. Among these are professional judgement and contemporary taste. In order to provide a constant opportunity for development and variety in programme style it is important that both authors and programme makers should be left reasonably free. A work of fiction may borrow some of the techniques of a factual programme. 'Up the Junction' was a programme which did this, and one television critic praised it as a 'fiction which had the immediacy of real life, the raucousness, the feel, the smell of documented life, without being a documentary. It was the realistic convention heightened to the nth degree, and very exciting it was.'

As Christopher Ralling wrote in a recent article in The Listener:
"Many of the things worth discussing in human life are never going to happen of their own accord in front of a camera. This has led people working in films and television to move further away from the old ground rules ..."
But obviously there are limits beyond which experimental techniques ought not to trespass. All the time the BBC is walking a tightrope, but even in its most experimental programmes it seeks to keep faith with the viewers. People like and have a right to know what it is they are looking at. In the history of protest about broadcasting trouble has most frequently been caused when the audience got  - not what it did not want - but what it did not expect." 

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