The Industry of Nostalgia: The Responsibilities of Cheap TV

Anniversaries are TV gold. They trade in nostalgia, a light entertainment producer’s secret weapon; and they’re relatively cheap to celebrate, (often using miles of archive footage and some talking heads, many of them happy to have a camera pointed at them for the first time in years, or wheel a presenter out in front of a public event). Channel Four paid its lecky bill with list programmes of nostaliga porn for several Christmases, before the airing of One Hundred Best Ever One Hundred Best Ever Lists proved the serpent can eat its own tail even in the perennially regurgitating world of mainstream television.

It would be interesting to see what percentage of air time is given over to the celebration or commemoration of things past in any given year – the schedulers holding the madeleine biscuit of soporific torpor like a floppy sword. Whatever the percentage, 2014 will be a spike in the graph, an anomaly that may prove the end of this type of entertainment as the BBC goes into reflective overdrive and kills off the public appetite, or may prove the opposite, and we end up losing Strictly Come Dancing for re-runs of Angela Rippon doing the pasodoble at 6pm every Saturday night, spinning and spangling on every screen in the country, like the time vortex in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Which brings me to the BBC’s dry run for next year’s onslaught of nostalgia. If you have not noticed that we have recently been celebrating the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who then you must be trapped in another time, frankly. As someone who is neither a fan nor a detractor of the Timelord’s adventures, I came to the 50th anniversary episode, The Day of the Doctor, which aired last weekend, without any preconceptions. (Also without any press release or any notion that the fact it is filmed in Cardiff makes Doctor Who part of the national psyche of Wales). The programme itself was trash, expensive cheap trash, with the production values of a Tracy Beaker dream sequence. John Hurt spent most of his time looking bewildered as Matt Smith and David Tennant tried to murder each other with fistfuls of ham for the attention of the kids watching. It would have been entertaining had it not been so dreadfully dull. The nostalgic element was, oddly, all but ignored, but for a roll call of CGI past doctors toward the end and Billie Piper hopping about like Puck the Prostitute in The Secret Diary of a Midsummer Night’s Dream. The only thing to remind anyone of a pre-Russell T. Davies universe was the employment of Zoe Ball to patronise former Dr Who companions at the aftershow party.

I understand fully that the Doctor is not someone who gets old and fat, so it would have been tricky to incorporate former incarnations of the role; but The Five Doctors managed it in 1983 without CGI and William Hartnell had been dead for eight years. This was nostalgia without the kitsch, and even those whom the Gallifreyan has not enchanted over the years know that Doctor Who is all about the kitsch.

The other doctors did get a B-movie of their own, available on the BBC website, and penned by Peter Davison, where Sylvester McCoy, Davison, and Colin Baker try to smuggle their way in to the programme and eventually do so disguised as Daleks. It is pleasantly self-deprecating, fun, and kitschy, and, one suspects, made with a great deal more humour than the main attraction has been for some years.  

The celebration of this anniversary has been pretty intense. BBC Radio Wales gave over an entire day to Doctor Who recently, making it feel more like the ‘regional’ station it is billed as rather than the ‘national’ station it is supposed to be. And this is where part of the problem lies; on such occasions the BBC shifts into marketing mode, not creative mode. Creative mode went out when Chequebook Checkland came in in 1992, stuffed into the pockets of the BBC’s greatest ever dramatists, Potter and Bleasdale.

It is undeniable what the moving of Doctor Who to Cardiff has done for the reputation of Wales’ creative industries, not to mention the economy of the area. And Doctor Who has a special place in the hearts of many. Nothing wrong with that. And it has kept coming back, regenerating at the tip of the passions of some impressive televisual auteurs who have convinced successive beancounters at the top to give it another go. So what has the BBC been celebrating? The icon of Doctor Who, or the balance sheet? The programme deserved fanfare – for lonegevity alone, perhaps. But throwing the kitchen sink at a programme that once used to try and make aliens out of plumbing materials is perhaps missing the point somewhat.

But if I seem a little curmudgeonly about this it’s because in Wales we are just about to have a very special, and potentially profitable, relationship with our own recent mythologies. The celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dylan Thomas began last week with several launch events, including an exhibition of the twenty-five-year-and-counting-long project of Sir Peter Blake to visualise Under Milk Wood at Cardiff’s National Museum (not ‘regional’ museum, you’ll notice). The BBC has marked this important exhibition with a half hour documentary about Blake’s ‘obsession’ with Thomas’ play for voices. The morning after the programme was aired, I received an email from Wales Arts Review critic Adam Somerset, in which he gave me a six pointed review under an ominous title. Here it is:


BBC1 Wales 25th November


How to Make the Worst Arts Feature of the Year in Six Easy Lessons


  1. Don’t waste your budget on an informed presenter or writer. When it comes to describing the art of Sir Peter Blake the old ‘defined a generation’ will do.
  2. Don’t bother about any literary experts or professionals to comment on the poetry or the painting. Whoops – Damien Hurst has somehow got in to speak with authority about the art!
  3. Mention the name of village setting for Under Milk Wood repeatedly.
  4. Hop around between cuts of real life interviews, snippets of biography, and visits to the artist’s studio. He’s a painter so include lots of close-ups of his paintbrush at work.
  5. Edit at speed. Smother the whole lot in distracting music; if that‘s what half the other documentaries on television do it must be right.
  6. Send email of condolence to the producers of Great Welsh Writers. It’s a late entry in the year but you’ve lost the accolade of Worst Arts Feature of 2013.

Apart from the fact I didn’t hate Great Welsh Writers as much as Adam did (I did reviewed it here), I could only, with downcast eyes, agree with the points he makes. There is, in fact, little else to say on the content of the programme. It is yet another example of the current nadir in British mainstream television documentary making.

What I will say is that it does not bode well for the deluge of ‘celebrations’ we are promised next year on the subject of Thomas. His work was discussed with no authority whatsoever in the 30 minutes, and although Peter Blake was sitting in front of the camera frequently, at no point did anybody even attempt to figure out from where his obsession with Under Milk Wood comes. What exactly is it about the characters and the language that appeal to Blake’s creative self? Shall we ask Blake? Or a professor of art history? Or a literature critic? Or someone who has written books on the connection between language and visual imagery? Or maybe Natalie Rudd, a curator at the South Bank Centre in London who has written a book about the work of Blake? Or shall we just get an intern to open the roller-deck-of-one for all matters Welsh and get Cerys Matthews to fling her opinions into the screen like a platitude woodchipper? A no-brainer, really. As far as Blake’s connection to the work of Thomas goes, it was enough to keep repeating it was and is an ‘obsession’, it seems.

Of course none of this really matters, I suppose. It is just pop culture. And there is always much more fluff and detritus in that sphere as there is gravitas and profundity. So the documentaries are lightweight, superficial, stuck together like the home-made decorations of the Why Don’t You? ADHD Christmas Special. Who cares? Well, next year documentary-makers and television schedulers are going to have to pull their programmes out of the nadir because the BBC will be marking the anniversary to end all anniversaries, and superficiality and facetiousness of any kind will simply not do.

2014 marks a hundred years since the shot rang out that was heard across the globe, and the First World War began. How will an institution that is so incapable of making intelligent, subtle, considerate and respectful documentaries about the arts handle the apocalyptic slaughter of young men in the trenches? (They have already come under criticism for suggestions that next year’s schedule might amount to a ‘celebration’ of the start of the War and not the blatantly more appropriate ‘commemoration’). How will BBC Wales tell the story of the Royal Welch Fusiliers? Will John Hartson be narrating the story of the battalion’s legendary football match in No Man’s Land with German gunners on Christmas Day 1914? Are we to be treated to Charlotte Church lecturing us on their heavy losses in the bogs of Passchendaele while Holst’s ‘Mars’ shudders through shaky-cam re-enactments?Or might we hope for a tribute to the brave and tragic men of the Fusiliers through the words of the great writers who fought with them, served under them, and wrote about them with adulatory respect; writers such as Ford Maddox Ford, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves? Or is there even anybody at the BBC who has any idea what I’m talking about? Is there anybody out there who doesn’t think we’re all morons?

Television is one of modern civilisation’s greatest achievements, and with it we can pay real tribute to human sacrifice; be it suffragettes, Alabama school children, or the millions who died on the Western Front. It is not only there to scream to the world we managed to sell Doctor Who to the Americans, or that Ronnie Wood has read Dylan Thomas. It is there to educate, to beam edifying knowledge into the living rooms of every person. Next year is a test for the dignity of the BBC, and it has a lot of work to do.