They Say… Maurice Wiggin


Frank comment from an outsider

Cover of 'Fusion' 4
From Fusion 4 in 1958

How would you take it if I said that Associated-Rediffusion was the most BBC-like of all the programme contractors? As a compliment or as an insult? I suspect that some of you would take it one way and some the other, and if this suspicion is well-founded, then surely it tells us something interesting about Associated-Rediffusion.

I do say it, and I mean it as a compliment. The BBC have their funny little ways, and I, for one, have not been exactly bashful in pointing out what have seemed to be their errors of judgment. But, somewhere, submerged beneath the attitudinizing and the patronage and the rather pathetic intermittent yearning to be all things to all men, there is a solid stratum of nineteenth-century progressiveness and its invariable concomitant, integrity.

The BBC’s earnest wish to improve our shining hour is, to me, the permanently splendid thing about it, the British miracle; a fundamentally benevolent institutional integrity which survives the indifference of its beneficiaries, the variable quality of its servants, the derision and malevolence of its enemies. Some of this unquenchable nineteenth-century belief in the perfectibility of mankind and the entire rightness of ‘improvement’ rubbed off on to Associated-Rediffusion. I get a strong impression of it – not least when I talk to people who pride themselves on being free from it. Several of the veteran programme companies have their streak of nervous quasi-didacticism. Uneasily they slip in a few things plainly designed to ‘improve’, rather like a pickpocket slipping a contrite farthing into the collection box.

But whereas Granada are pickled in old-fashioned North Country radicalism diluted by modern scepticism, and ATV find it difficult to dissociate merit from money, Associated-Rediffusion are still without a characteristic corporate posture, and give an impression of benevolent amorphousness which suggests a rather deep-seated case of committee-ism.

This is common knowledge, perhaps. But is it a bad thing? I think not. Vagueness is itself a characteristic, and it can even be a useful and a healthy one. I do not belong to the school of cultural neo-fascists who scream for a dictator to impose his will on the organization (any organization). God forbid that a cult of Caesarism should encourage ‘strong men’ and their inevitable sycophants. I do not subscribe to the cult of the ‘strong man’, which is disturbingly widespread. The fuhrer principle is abominable wherever it is met, and the most disturbing of all current manifestations of defeatism is this pitiful urge to be marshalled, the almost pathological desire to conform. It is indistinguishable from the death wish.

Associated-Rediffusion gives the impression of being a civil organization, in which the individual voice is given a hearing. This is so very much preferable to the para-military set-up, dominated by one will, that I freely forgive a certain lack of definition, a touch of fuzziness, which can sometimes be discerned in the end-product. Time is on the side of Associated-Rediffusion. Over the long haul the inherent reasonableness of Associated-Rediffusion’s way of doing things will prevail, when we have become a little tired of the power-dominated approach, which makes a clearer-cut, stronger short-term impact, but of which one tires so soon. At least, I hope that this will be so.

Maurice Wiggin
MAURICE WIGGIN Has been Television Critic of The Sunday Times for more than seven years, columnist of the Sunday Graphic for nine. Since coming down in 1934 from Oxford, where he was a history scholar, he has done every executive job in newspapers, excepting only that of sports editor. Has written several books about fishing, an autobiography, an adventure novel, and a book about the metropolitan magistrates’ courts.

Whatever the shortcomings of this almost metaphysical approach to the mechanics of corporate responsibility, in terms of day-by-day programme output Associated-Rediffusion holds its own pretty well. Your school programmes are, to my mind, uniformly good, and when you turn schoolmaster in the evening you rarely put a foot wrong. Most, if not all of your features, are informed by a spirit of pure reasonableness worthy of the BBC at its best: responsible television-making on the conscientious or above-navel level.

‘This Week’ is somehow permanently one pace behind ‘Panorama’ – not at all because you just can’t do it, but simply (I think) because ‘This Week’ tries so desperately hard, as if over-conscious of its massive rival, and just misses the calm certitude which comes of relaxing. Your drama is in the same boat as everybody else’s – that is to say, always on the lookout for capable writing, of which it finds its fair share if not a bit more – and in the weird twilight region of light entertainment you just about hold your own. Associated-Rediffusion television always reminds me of the London Evening News. No one would call that a boulevardier’s paper. It lacks that shine of smartness.

But it goes into a great many homes precisely because it is somehow homely, the product of slightly but not conspicuously above-average minds and spirits. It is essentially suburban. It reflects the average householder’s outlook quite faithfully. It can be corny but it is always comfortable. In fact, it is comfortably corny. It gives you the illusion of being in the swim, but you never feel out of your depth.

There is nothing contemptible about this. The avantgarde is very important, but not all-important. An organization devoted to mass-communications need not be ashamed if it acts as a sort of filter, straining off what is palatable to the average palate. Averageness is a fact of life, as inescapable as straight hair, and as blameless. So long as you remember that practically everyone aspires, and keep on the right side of complacency, I don’t think you will go far wrong.

Maurice Wiggin

About the author

Maurice Wiggin was television critic of the Sunday Times

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