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Great Britain: Auntie Adjusts Her Skirts

3 minute read

For generations the BBC, known affectionately to all Britons as “Auntie BBC,” has been — first via radio, then television — the sonorous, serious, slightly stuffy voice of England’s Oxbridge-accented Establishment. Until, that is, the siren of commercial television sauntered on the scene nine years ago swinging her pocketbook in the guise of the ITV network and luring away the BBC’s viewers. Auntie retaliated by taking on in 1960 a new leading man to spruce up her image: Hugh Carleton Greene, now 54, brother of Novelist Graham Greene, as director general. Greene brought in fresh—and often brash—young men, gave them a free hand to teach Auntie how to twist. One of the brightest results was a free-swinging satiric show called That Was the Week That Was, which lampooned everything in sight, most particularly the then ruling Tories. It proved such a dose of acid and old lace that as last year’s elections approached, Greene felt it prudent to close it down.

Shortly afterward, Greene got a knighthood from the Queen, but he was roundly criticized by others. The BBC was again losing ground in the ratings race to ITV (latest BBC surveys give rival ITV typically 55% of the British viewing audience of 48 million). So to help get things swinging again, the BBC went back into the satire business five months ago with an entry called Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life.

It turned out to be not so much a program as a pogrom. A skit depicting a priest lewdly opposing contraception so offended the nation’s Catholics that the BBC was forced to apologize publicly. Fortnight ago, Panelist Bernard Levin called Tory Leader Sir Alec Douglas-Home “a cretin.” When Guest Panelist and onetime Tory Cabinet Minister Iain Macleod rebuked him for such “crude, vulgar words of abuse,” a grinning Levin agreed to change “cretin” to “imbecile.”

The BBC’s telephone switchboards were still jammed with protesting callers when the very next night Not So Much put on a tasteless skit turning the love story of the Duke of Windsor’s 1937 marriage to Wallis Warfield Simpson into a sentimental-silly comic operetta. Unluckily it happened to coincide with the sudden death of the Duke’s sister, the Princess Royal, and the nation was outraged. With that last straw, Sir Hugh quietly announced that Not So Much a Programme would be, as of next week, not one at all.

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