BBC – the Cultural Tollbooth


The proposition: BBC runs a toll through which Scottish culture has to pass. BBC Scotland has two standard excuses for turning you down: BBC London controls schedules and purse strings. That’s the equivalent of, “a big boy done it an’ ran away”. Secondly, in-house commissioning staff will tell you, ad nauseam, independent producers have the choice of going straight to BBC London. Terrific.

Do they think we are stupid?

Why would a small production company of whatever specialism – news & current affairs, sport, reality shows, documentary, entertainment, or drama – why would it travel to BBC London to pitch against vastly increased competition in London of greater experience in closing deals, well interconnect pals, taking Scottish originated material and placing it up against English preferred cultural material?

We are outnumbered. Empire building London-based companies drop an ‘outpost’ into Glasgow to monopolise what little BBC Scotland cash is available, and of course easily impress commissioning editors with their long list of productions.

Why would a small company, or a large one for that matter, inflate its costs by taking its proposals to London? Why would a Scottish-based company risk the time, effort and money knowing their chances of success are low to nil? That way lies bankruptcy. The system is stacked heavily against our culture, and the development of independent production houses.

One other important point the general public is unaware of – the UK independent production world is a small world. Commissioning editors talk to each other a lot. If the BBC turns down your project the word gets around pretty quickly. Turned down by Channel Four and a project is pretty well dead in the water. Doesn’t matter if the proposal is well constructed, costed, staffed and innovative, it has very few doors to knock on before the others stay shut tight. It’s very costly for a small company to research and construct a brace of projects to offer a wide chance one will be accepted.

Steal a good idea

Does the BBC think outsiders have forgotten the unethical policy of entertaining programme proposals from independent companies but rejecting them, while “ensuring any good ideas are passed up to your head of department”? That was theft. Do BBC executives feel that betrayal imbues freelancers with confidence and trust?

Does the BBC think independent companies are in the business of self-inflicted humiliation and disappointment? By creating an open door policy to any of their headquarters all BBC Scotland has done is quadruple the chance of rejection.

BBC Scotland is unable to cope with proposals

The answer is, it does not want to. There are good reasons for its resistance.

a. It does not have open access to the UK schedules.
b. It is starved of programme finance and investment.
c. It does not have staff enough to cope with multi-commissions.
d. BBC London decides how much and what will be accepted from the “provinces.”

Whatever is BBC London’s policy on programme content, whatever BBC London deems is “commercial” – that is what BBC Scotland follows to the letter. London sets the standard by which the rest of us must live.

A commercial decision not a cultural one

BBC London considers English idiomatic material “has legs,” that is, it has the potential of sales abroad. And why not? It has controlled the means of distribution since television was invented. Their expressed attitude to Scottish material is, in language it doesn’t travel. It will need subtitled or dubbed. They should try claiming that to Icon Productions and Warner Brothers, makers of Braveheart, and Paramount Pictures the distributor.

Kenneth’s Branagh’s English edition of “Wallander” – much of its budget paid for from BBC Scotland’s drama funds – was far less successful than Sweden’s own recorded in Swedish and subtitled.

And here’s the rub, annual allocation of funds not taken up by Scottish companies can be switched to London or Wales.

Your nation is a sub-species

The final instruction from one highly successful British television executive I worked with a few months back asked that I ensure “two-thirds of the programme content is English, and only one-third Scottish.

This was in spite of the fact the material was Scottish originated, in total, and presented by a Scot. As it had strong European elements and links it came already garlanded in sales possibilities outside Scotland. Nevertheless, he looked straight at me and repeated the mantra: “Two-thirds England, one-third Scotland.

The remark is more stupid than insulting.

DIRECTOR: Harry, have I got a project for you! An epic drama – a saga of humanity – the Tay Road Bridge disaster. Titanic on rails. We follow the lives of a dozen characters all of whom perish in the collapse of the bridge into the freezing waters of winter’s night.
PRODUCER: Love it! But I want one-third Tay Bridge, and two-thirds Severn Bridge.

(English readers should reverse that mise-en-scene to see how well you accept the insult.)

And there’s more

His instruction reminded me of another. It was uttered by the head of finance at Channel Four Television. I had my £2.5 million project agreed and endorsed, and was about to leave to begin creating the production team when he turned to me at the door and blithely said, “I suggest you team up with a London company; do a co-production.”

“London? Why? It’s all set in Glasgow?”

“We prefer to work with a company with offices down the road. It’s easier that way.”

The slippery slope

It took quite a battle to form a Scottish company but I managed it. From then on the head of finance cold-shouldered to the extent of blocking access to meetings at Channel Four. He had that much power.

Lucky I had a London lawyer more powerful than him. But the naive and the inexperienced, fearing unknown recrimination or rebuke, are likely to do his bidding and join forces with a London-based company. It takes a lot of courage to flip the finger at the money men. A lot. And for the sceptical reader let me assure them, my experiences are the rule, not the unusual.

And the others say nay

To some extent Channel Four is as much a cultural toll gate as BBC Scotland. It claims to be short of cash – insiders in the know say that is false, contrived to convince Westminster to allot it more capital.

In its plodding way STV is a non-starter for the freelance producer, writer or director. It too is dependent for its schedules on other broadcasters. Against all competition rules it has been allowed to gobble up smaller Scottish broadcasters, such as Grampian Television, reducing opportunities even more. It does, however, get a feather in its cap for making its nightly news UK-international inclusive, stealing a march from BBC Scotland that refused the idea outright.

STV has little capital to invest in outside productions, for far too long investing in the increasingly tired, “Taggart.” STV’s argument is the detective series sold and made money. That is true. It also offered consistent work to Scottish writers and actors. That is also true, actors who made a career out of playing a single character, or were able to get decent exposure and move on to other things. But there’s no denying it was looking decidedly frayed at the edges and moth-eaten by the start of the millennium.

“Taggart” is so old I half-expect a new series to carry the sub-heading, “in modern dress.”

Door in, door out

Channel Four and STV aside, Scotland has always looked to BBC Scotland for a portal to the wider world. It does, after all, also have a thriving radio department, and it covers all of Scotland and the Islands. Why should it not embrace all that is indigenous, and if something requires great investment know that BBC London will provide the extra? The licence fee BBC takes from Scotland is returned in programme only by a third. We are robbed blind.

“Borgen,” “The Killing,” “Wallander,” the luscious backdrops, passion, and complex plots of “Inspector Montalbano” – we thoroughly enjoy fine drama series, praise them too, have we not, subtitles and all?

We love to see how and where others live, their traditions and politics. Scots like foreign productions. Where are the Scottish productions?

It is surely time to dismantle the tollbooth of cultural imperialism!



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2 Responses to BBC – the Cultural Tollbooth

  1. Helena Brown says:

    Boy isn’t making television programmes tough in Scotland, who would know, unless you look at the schedules. No content reflects my interests therefore I am absent from the ratings for the BBC. I have Sky and it may have given me access to more channels but still nothing which reflects my interests in things Scottish. Oh the BBC used to do the odd thing Scots. Lewis Crassic Gibbons, the odd Robert Louis Stevenson, Water Scot, preferably Ivanhoe, I mean you must not given food to nationalism.
    So I have to agree with all you say. We have watched the delightful Montalbano, we have bought the discs for the Nordic Noir, missed them on the TV.
    One thing most Scots are crying out for is a leavening of all the “English”/” British” programmes thrust down our throats, and I dearly want something to get me out of crime drama, regardless of any countries production.

  2. Grouse Beater says:

    I agree.
    Opponents of self-governance depict our wish for a Scottish broadcasting service as tartanalia every day – a slur on the Scots intellect.
    Our issue is that lack of facility to PROMOTE our programmes and drama. So long as London standards and commercial imperatives control that, so long will Scottish culture and values be treated as subsiduary or unwanted.

    I am reminded of Morgan Freeman at the end of The Shawshank Redemption, raising his hand and asking the store boss where he works if he can go to the toilet. That’s Scotland now.

    We have subject matter just as international in application as any other nation.

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