This series of articles traces a particular history of BBC comedy – of the shows over the past one hundred years that have poked fun at the Corporation itself.
It’s all about the BBC eating itself – and colleagues sacrificing one another on the high alter of satire. Well, at least it makes the audience members who happen to be “in the know” chuckle, at the very least.
In this piece I’ll think about the self-mockery of the past twenty years or so. And let’s be frank, in this time since the dawn of the new millennium, the Beeb had found itself in some scrapes: some self-inflicted, others accidental, but each of them political – with either a small or a big “p” – in every case.
So, just to recap: part 1 had shows from the 1920s and early 30s.
The second episode considered the years before, during and after the Second World War.
Next, it was the turn of the baby-boomers and the comedy they created about the Corporation.
Now, I want to draw this discussion (almost) to a close with some more recent comedy and satire.
So, let’s start with Matthew Bannister, an experienced journalist and presenter, who took charge of BBC Radio 1 in the early to mid 1990s. This is an interesting piece in the Grauniad.
Bannister has never, as far as I’m aware, ever worked in stand-up. Instead, his time as the boss of the pop hits station was quickly remembered as an era of Blood on the Carpet. Indeed, that was the name of a TV documentary made at the time.
The anachronism of Radio 1 in the early 1990s was made even more painful with the station being satirised by Paul Whitehouse and Harry Enfield.
This was the age when elderly DJs wore satin bomber jackets, had limited mental agility, and carried nicknames like Smashie and Nicey. Whitehouse and Enfield didn’t have to make it up.
However, in the wake of the Saville revelations, the characters soon lost their humorous appeal.
Down The Line, on BBC Radio 4 (2006–13) was a comic satire created by Paul Whitehouse (again) and Charlie Higson, and featuring a fictional radio phone-in host called Gary Bellamy (played by Rhys Thomas). It was so realistic that the semi-improvised banter became somewhat depressing to listen to for a whole half-hour.
That was when you realised that many callers to phone-ins really were bigots. I know: I’ve briefly both produced and presented local radio phone-ins.
Short extracts of Down the Line are available here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qy1y
And there’s a episode here:
The John Birt era spawned a number of parodies and satires. A black comedy, In the Red, exposed some of the macho posturing of the BBC’s journalism of the 1990s.
It was originally a novel by Mark Tavener, then a Radio 4 series in 1995 co-written with Peter Baynham, and later a BBC2 TV series in 1998 adapted by Malcolm Bradbury.
You can find episodes of the radio series out there on the web if you look. It featured a fictional BBC crime reporter who exasperated his Radio 4 editors with his drinking and insubordination, faced repeated disciplinary actions, but always managed to bring the exclusives to air.
Is there a theme of radio and alcohol about to emerge…?
Ed Reardon’s Week (2005–20), always one of my favourites, has variously poked fun at the publishing and freelance writing world.
One of Reardon’s girlfriends was an alcoholic Radio 4 producer, who told him she was so lonely and overworked that she felt like ‘the bride of Auntie’.
It was an in-joke about the increasing number of work-life balance surveys carried out within the Corporation.
The Beeb’s programme page is here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006r5ck There are also some posts on the web worth investigating.
A portrayal of a confused sense of professional ability in the post-Birt era was shown in a mockumentary W1A (2014–17). Some critics thought that it was a little too revealing: Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian thought it was ‘slightly self-sabotaging.’ , and the media commentator Raymond Snoddy called it a satire of ‘The toe-curling BBC reality.’
In one episode, from March 2014, Hugh Bonneville’s character Ian Fletcher took a train from London to Manchester, at the end of a busy week, to appear live on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour and be interviewed by the real (Dame) Jenni Murray. Fletcher travelled with his BBC press officer (Tracey Pritchard, played by Monica Dolan).
Fletcher: Why is Woman’s Hour from Manchester on a Friday?
Pritchard: OK, that’s a good question, Ian. I’m not being funny or anything, but I’m not sure anyone knows that.
Which captured some of the idiosyncrasies of the Corporation, where custom and practice could be lost in the midst of time.
By the way, shortly after that episode was first broadcast the Beeb announced it was moving the Woman’s Hour programme back to London – and ending the one-day-a-week in the North. I’m not sure reality and fiction were connected.
And in a simulacrum (look it up) of events involving a Leicester-born footballer, comments on social media, the Beeb, and Match of the Day in the early weeks of March 2023 here’s a clip from W1A – first broadcast in September 2017 on BBC2 – and so prescient. When the problem is you don’t know what to do…
So, across these four pieces I’ve shown that what started as self-referential jokes in the 1920s, developed in the 1930s and 40s to poking fun at the pomposity of a rapidly growing institution. From the seventies onwards, and into the 21st century, comedians were taking aim variously at continuity announcers, Local Radio, rolling news, DJs, and Auntie’s own bureaucratic management styles.
I detect no underlying policy or high-level decision-making that links these examples. There is no conspiracy theory. Which rather makes a change to be able to read such a sentence on the internet…
But, to conclude; I consider that comedy writers employed by the BBC have enjoyed making fun of the Corporation for five reasons.
1. It’s a sign of a mature and confident large cultural institution. The BBC has allowed such satire like this over many decades – in public. Other large institutions which form part of our public life include the machinery of Politics, collectively known as Westminster, as well as the Church of England, and the judiciary. Political parties tend only to satirise themselves at private late-night sessions at the end of their conferences. The Church rarely does so; instead attempting to remain straight-faced. Judges only sometimes have a laugh; I’m thinking Rumpole of the Bailey by John Mortimer, or the wry sideways glances of the highly entertaining Judge John Deed starring Martin Shaw.
2. Self-referential satire has a long and ancient literary tradition. It serves to flatter the knowing audience (See David Hendy’s (2007), Life On Air: A History of Radio Four, OUP, p. 373). The special ones in the audience are the select few who “get” the joke. One example is Dead Ringers and the past impersonations of such as Radio 4 continuity announcer Charlotte Green and sports journalist John Motson in particular. It’s an example of reinforcing the “Our BBC” message.
3. The satire can at times become a reflection of the institution’s own assertiveness. For example, On the Hour – and the development by the BBC of rolling news formats.
4. Or, at times it can be a measure of the anxiety caused by changing programme and management techniques. For example, W1A.
5. It can also be a means of defence. Self-parody can be a way to deflect criticism by getting in first with the jokes and thereby avoid some of the pointed barbs aimed in your direction.
Overall, these programmes document – I think – one of the BBC’s enduring qualities – its ability to laugh at itself. That is a distinction sorely needed right now.
In the final part of this mini-series I’ll share some films, short stories, and novels that have put the BBC in a comic light – satirising and ridiculing the Corporation in sometimes less than complimentary ways.
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In the meantime, this article is based on my current research. If you want to read more, these radio programmes are discussed in my book: Martin Cooper (2022), Radio’s Legacy in Popular Culture: The Sounds of British Broadcasting over the Decades, New York: Bloomsbury
You can read about my methods in chapter 1 – which is available to look at for free online here: https://bloomsburycp3.codemantra.com/viewer/61c091c75f150300016f10af
And you can pre-order the paperback edition of my book here: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/radios-legacy-in-popular-culture-9781501388231/
Enjoy. And in the meantime, let me know your favourite radio satire shows. Drop your thoughts in the comment box below. Happy listening.
2 thoughts on “The art of radio self-satire | Part 4…”
Thanks Martin. I loved W1A, and you’ve encouraged me to check out more of Ed Reardon’s week, which I never quite locked on to. Dead Ringers a perennial favourite. Great 5 points about the value of self-satire, and you spur me to get involved in helping the church loosen up on this front…!