They Say… Kenneth Bailey


Frank comment from an outsider

Cover of 'Fusion' issue 1
From Fusion issue 1, May/June 1958

At the start it is necessary, I think, to say this: there are TV critics whose sole job is criticism from off the screen; there are others whose work incorporates in addition the duties of “TV Correspondent”. The latter types, of whom I am one, inevitably bring to their viewing a great deal of inside knowledge about the organisations and people behind the programmes. As with most circumstances in life this can be an advantage or not. It can breed prejudices in criticism; or it can rear understanding of what is involved in TV programming.

But because of this, when I am asked what I think of A-R I cannot honestly attempt an assessment based on screen output alone. I know a great deal more about A-R than meets the viewer’s eye. You inside can lament this, or be glad about it. It’s just a fact nobody can now change. Hence inevitably I recall those first impressions gained when A-R opened its doors to the newspapermen. I think most of us, reared on the BBC beat, expected the commercialism of independent TV to avoid the development of glossy offices occupied by legions of suave and arty young men and luscious young women, all chattering intellectual snobbism about “the medium”. But not a bit of it; A-R handed us this same story all over again!

The old stock BBC jokes about admin types running the decks, with the able-bodied producers and creative types battened down in the hold, all came up again. A-R looked more precious than it was. It could never have survived if it had lived up to its original chi-chi attitudes.

Even discounting these things as weaknesses of human organisation, the Fleet Street hunch that a lot of people had been appointed for no precise programme jobs inevitably sharpened the screen critic’s teeth. Unfortunately, the screen output to start with did nothing to remove this hunch.

But much which caused our early amusement with A-R has been sensibly and efficiently cleaned up. It is rapidly putting away childish things. But as it grows up there is one thing I keep seeking in A-R but still do not find. This is its own distinctive flavour; its one, main, undeniable contribution to TV. I think it undeniable that the other companies of the first four in ITV have developed a kind of “brand” quality. A-R’s screen output inevitably ranges through all and no degrees of quality and achievement. It has done some very fine programmes; some atrociously bad ones; and kept up a middling standard of competent TV entertainment and interest bravely. But what has it developed as nobody else has developed? Where is its major impact?

Kenneth Bailey
KENNETH BAILEY Trained on provincial newspapers; came to London to write about broadcasting and for it. Freelance scriptwriter BBC radio and TV; radio correspondent Evening News; TV critic Sunday Referee; TV columnist Evening Standard; magazine writer on TV subjects; editor The TV Annual; TV executive Illustrated; TV critic The People.

It is my belief that A-R has so far missed the one big opportunity in commercial TV which all other companies have missed, but which A-R is peculiarly suited to taking and using well. This is the extension beyond what the BBC has done in documentary programming, using outside broadcasting as well as studio and film.

The next leap-forward in TV documentary has got to tailor outside broadcasting techniques into the others. I know the BBC is aware of this, and is making steps; but A-R could have gone ahead by now, and got a lead. You can be justly proud of Dan Farson’s programmes. “This Week” is painfully erratic, always raising hopes of out-doing “Panorama” but taking so long to find the way.

But all these ventures, often stirring and good, arc set in too narrow a vision of TV documentary. The tools of the game arc not being used; the field of programme subjects is not really being extended. It is here, I think, that A-R could really make a major and lasting contribution. “USSR Now” was a peak—but one which by its nature must stand alone as an occasional triumph.

On the light entertainment side it seems to me that A-R has at times touched the exciting verge of new uses of TV in comedy work. The Tommy Cooper series promised this; the Alfred Marks series has established a good, solid and worthwhile new-kind melange of light entertainment. But where is the new A-R comedy-writing team?

A great deal of publicity was originally devoted to creating glamour stars for A-R. Two or three young actresses were treated to the build-up works. Where are they now? With my most gallant regrets to them, I have to say that their names do not today electrify the populace.

Of course the “TV star” business has been overdone. Indeed I believe “TV stardom” as such to be possible only by absolute exclusivity to one programme company. To-day the most popular TV performers swap channels regularly; and there is a free market for bookers. This is a good thing. But if A-R wants to breed “stars” of its very own, it can only be done by keeping its pets strictly to itself; the public will then know that it must shop at A-R to see its idols. Personally, I don’t think this is worth the trouble—and probably A-R has come to the same conclusion.

I have left to last the programme department which has received most of the glossy publicity, and let’s admit it, most of the chi-chi talk—drama. I happen to believe that TV plays are over-publicised and surrounded by a great deal of window dressing which matters not at all. All viewers like a good story. A competent play will always be popular. Drama experiment is worthy and useful, but Joe Public rarely recognises it.

A-R’s plays seem to me to oscillate between the very fine and the competent time-passers every bit as much as do the BBC’s. In fact, in TV, whoever is producing it, I doubt whether drama can ever be anything more than this.

There is always the chance that some TV company will find a new play with a new actor or actress in it, which will not merely cause us TV critics to rave, but will set the whole world of drama afire. That will be the day — and some day it will happen.

Kenneth Bailey

About the author

Kenneth Bailey was TV critic for 'The People'

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