Friday, September 18, 2015

Three Old Men and a Stuffed Yeti


When I was a child, the Radio Times was my hero.

When I was a child, the release of the new Radio Times was an event of the greatest significance. This is no exaggeration: on a weekly basis, I'd be actively excited about the content and / or cover of the new edition, a feeling I now recognise as being akin to the way boring people feel about sport. My grandmother would bring the magazine back from the high street in her old-woman's tartan wheelie-bag, and inspecting it was a priority that even trumped checking the Space Travel collectors' card in the PG Tips box or artistically stacking the Oxo cubes in the kitchen cupboard (yeah, there was less to do in those days). Because in the late '70s and early '80s, the Radio Times could look like this:

Or this:

(You can, of course, click any of these for a better look.)

A word of explanation, for younger readers and other not-we. Until the early '90s, there was fierce regulation of TV and radio listings in the UK. Only the Radio Times provided a complete guide to the BBC; only the TV Times provided a complete guide to ITV and - from 1982 - Channel 4. Newspapers listed the schedules, but with minimum details. All decent middle-class households bought the Radio Times and the TV Times in order to cover all channels, but that seemed acceptable because they only cost 35p.

There was, however, a difference between the publications. While Radio Times covers might be like this...

...TV Times covers were almost always like this.

Yeah. If you can't read it, there's a banner in front of Cannon & Ball advertising Russell Grant's astrology column. The rightmost Radio Times, meanwhile, is the RT parodying itself at the behest of Not the Nine O'Clock News.

A general principle here, which should appeal to anyone interested in the traditions of old-school BBC telly: “democracy isn't giving people what they want, it's doing what you think is right and then letting people judge you for it”. For all its faults and misfires, the BBC has traditionally proved itself against commercial channels in this way, and the comparison between the Radio and TV timeses tells you everything. The mandate of the BBC was experiment, inquiry, and a cultural idealism that was best exemplified by David Attenborough (in his old role as controller of BBC2 rather than “just” a wildlife presenter-explorer) but is now routinely described as “elitist” by bottom-feeders in the employ of Rupert Murdoch. It worked for the BBC and it worked for the Radio Times. When deregulation came in 1991, and all channels appeared in all magazines, it still outsold the TV Times. A typical RT letter of that era would grumble about the interpretation of Iago in BBC2's version of Othello. A typical TVT letter would plead with Bet Lynch about the door policy of the Rovers Return as if she were a real person.

My favourite Radio Times cover of t'olden days, however, is this:

Three old men and a stuffed Yeti, advertising a comedy-drama about a zoo facing a nuclear war. (It was the '80s. The Old Men at the Zoo was scripted by Troy Kennedy Martin, who went on to write Edge of Darkness, a less jovial nuclear thriller which was nonetheless originally about a policeman turning into a tree.)

And here we have the nub of it. Look at all the covers I've shown you so far. Every one of them publicises either an unfamiliar series or a one-off special. A documentary about cosmology, when such a thing was still a novelty? Intriguing. Serious investigation into the consequences of digital technology, as illustrated by a TV Cyber-Samurai? Cutting edge. Three old men and a stuffed Yeti...? Cover material! At the time, no commercial channel would have risked making these programmes; no publication other than the Radio Times would have risked putting them on the cover; no other magazine would have made me-as-a-child feel so involved in the wider world.

This is a point that Doctor Who fandom tends to miss. No Tom Baker story made the cover of the RT (although some would argue that the interiors made up for this, given how we tend to think of Frank Bellamy's Skarasen as the Skarasen). I've heard fan-folk suggest that this was some form of snobbery, but the truth appears less cynical: Doctor Who never got cover status in the late '70s because it didn't need help, because it was accepted as part of the mainstream, because its return was inevitable. It made sense to keep reminding people of the series' existence in the '60s, when viewing figures were unstable and nobody was even sure if it could survive the absence of Hartnell. It made sense to hype the Barry Letts version throughout Pertwee's run, when the series was redefining itself as something colourful, dynamic, and occasionally even chic. Sort of. After 1974, though, the programme found its safe ground. Doctor Who could look after itself. It didn't get another cover until 1983, partly because the twentieth anniversary deserved a celebration, partly because 1983 was when it found itself in trouble again.

That was then. But it was an age when both the BBC and its inky right-hand-man were still reasonably idealistic.

Here are some covers from last year:

And from the year before that:

And before that:

TV Times triumphant.

This would have been unthinkable until relatively recently in the BBC's history. I freely admit to liking Bake Off, but the key point is that it shouldn't need advertising this way: it's a much-loved and highly-rated programme on BBC1, and twenty or thirty or forty years ago, the Radio Times would have accepted it as such while putting an obscure new project on the cover. Likewise The Apprentice, which personally I'd never watch in a hundred lifetimes. The third example here isn't even worth mentioning by name.

The cover of the Radio Times is now a statement of the familiar. “Well, Here's Something Interesting” is replaced by “LOOK! THAT SERIES YOU ALWAYS WATCH IS COMING BACK!”. This matches the hideous shift in the publication's whole nature, from an organ of curiosity to a banal Lifestyle Magazine. Its current TV editor, the abominable Alison Graham, is literally too thick to understand the plots of mainstream television dramas. Even as late as the '90s, all of this would have seemed ridiculous.

Still, it's different for us Doctor Who people, isn't it? One of the great joys of the series, when it was resurrected ten years ago, was that it made the covers of the Radio Times look like this:

Yeah, screw you, Alan Sugar!

Ahhh, but wait, though.

The most significant of these three is, of course, the Human Dalek that accompanied “Daleks in Manhattan”. It's notable because it's the first Radio Times cover to give away the sodding cliffhanger, but the real point is that Russell T. Davies knew this when he OK'd it: he explicitly said that he wasn't sure whether the cover or the cliffhanger was the bigger deal. With hindsight we like to think he made the wrong choice, but let's look at it with extra-hindisght. He thought about whether putting a half-human half-Dalek mutant on the cover would benefit the series, and made his decision based on that.

Bear this in mind when you look at these.

The most obvious point to make is that with the exception of the Dalek election issue (too good for them to resist), Doctor Who covers since 2010 have dedicated themselves to publicising Moffat-scripted episodes. I'm not going to suggest that this is because he's an awful, awful man who's lobotomised the series by turning it into his own personality cult, because if you haven't already worked that out then you're very stupid. But I will point out that - again, for all his faults - Russell T. Davies didn't play it this way, at least not in the beginning. On Davies' watch, we have covers that suggest the story rather than the people who make it, breaking the modern Radio Times norm and returning us to a more dynamic era. This starts to fall apart at the same time as the series itself, circa 2008, when the Celebrity Age of Doctor Who really kicks in and David Tennant's presence becomes more important than any of his adventures; the point when the coups of hiring John Simm or Catherine Tate or Kylie Minogue become bigger news than the content.

But by the time we get to Moffat's reign, it's faces (and, in the case of Karen Gillan, absurdly gratuitous thighs) all the way. Mug-shots of the actors he cast, in the stories he wrote, with anything else relegated to background. Given the showrunner's general contempt for science fiction - remember, this is a man whose distrust of the nerdishness of SF is such that despite liking the work of Iain Banks, he refuses to read anything by Iain M. Banks on principle - we'd hardly expect curiosity to be at the core of the show, but nor would anyone in 2005 have expected the publicity material to be about celebrity profiles rather than (say) monsters or alien planets. Monsters and alien planets would be far more likely to draw in non-fans, yet that's not the purpose here. This is brand reinforcement. Even Doctor Who becomes a Lifestyle product instead of an adventure. The fetishisation of the Doctor, the notion of the series being about the star rather than the worlds he visits, is only one aspect of this.

You'll note that I didn't include the most telling example. It's this one:

I'm putting my cards on the table now. I haven't watched Doctor Who since 2011, because it was just horrible and I don't like staring at things that make me feel bad. I've never criticised the content of the programme since then, because I'm simply not qualified: I can criticise the way it's marketed, but that's true of endless Hollywood blockbusters that I'll also never see. (My former flatmate, rather younger than myself and a Doctor Who fan for much of his early life, only bothered to watch about half of the last season and described it as “a waste of good Capaldi”. I'm inclined to trust him.) At around the same time that I finally gave up on the series, I stopped reading the Radio Times, for not dissimilar reasons.

So when the above issue came out in 2013, I walked past it several times in numerous supermarkets without having any idea that it was actually a Doctor Who cover. It could've been advertising Emmerdale for all I knew. I only realised the truth because I had to move a television set for an ancient relative, and was in the same room as her copy of the RT for long enough to notice the git with the bow-tie standing on the right.

A comparison with the past feels like a cheap shot, but that doesn't mean it isn't fair.

Does any of this really matter, though? It's just a listings magazine. Does it make any difference to what the BBC Proper actually produces...?

Hmm. Now, I don't know about you, but for me the BBC adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was the best television of this year. It was only halfway through that I found out the scriptwriter works on Doctor Who these days, and good for him, it's nice to know Moffat may have a successor who isn't terrible. However, let's consider the unlikeliness of Strange & Norrell's production. A vast, epic, hugely-budgeted, joint-American BBC production, shown in prime-time on a Sunday night! A sprawling, literate nineteenth-century fantasy requiring the creation of an entire alternate world, like nothing attempted in the Corporation's recent history! So obviously, the cover of the Radio Times in the week of the first episode is going to publicise...


Strange & Norrell wasn't reassuring enough, y'see. The RT approved of it on its “picks” page, but putting elemental parallel-universe magicians on the cover when it's not a tested series and doesn't have known celebrities as the stars...? Nah. In the middle of Strange & Norrell's run, Channel 4 started showing Humans during the same timeslot, a programme best summarised as Hollyoaks with robots. Channel 4 won this war, with a massively inferior series, because it actually bothered to advertise Humans. Whereas on the night of the final Norrell, one Twitter user with a TARDIS in his ruddy avatar told me that he'd "never even heard of it until tonight". The RT is meant to be one of the BBC's key publicity devices, yet it can't even sell a massive-scale drama production to a ready-made audience if the content involves imagination of any kind. The result is that any similar production becomes vastly less likely, especially with an appalling 10% budget cut on the way.

I think we all know that the BBC, however much we may slag it off for its transgressions, has historically been fantastically good at its job. My generation took this for granted, but it's now under threat. And though we (not unreasonably) see its key enemies as being right-wing fanatics – the government and the press, even though the Corporation's recent current affairs output has been ludicrously pro-Conservative – its greatest liability is its own fear of deviating from the modern commercial norm, despite the fact that deviating from the commercial norm is its entire purpose. The Radio Times is more culpable in this than any other single part of the operation.

Which brings us here.