Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Bias at the BBC

No surprise in that, of course, but one doesn't usually expect it to rear its ugly head in the Drama department.

Anyone who, like me, considers 'The Cruel Sea' to be one of the finest pieces of fiction on the subject of WWII, will surely have been appalled at what Radio 4 has seen fit to do to the book in today's Classic Serial.

Not content with shearing it of every vestige of the subtlety and dry wit that permeates Nicholas Monsarrat's prose and replacing the carefully-drawn relationships between characters with crude soap-opera sensationalism, the adaptation has managed to shoe-horn in a startling amount of 'original' material, including some distinctly pointed social comment.

Among the glaring examples, when a sailor finds his wife is pregnant as the result of an affair, the adaptation includes a lengthy and unlikely dialogue in which the wronged seaman discusses with an officer whether the child needs the love of two parents if it is to thrive. This intrusion completely contradicts the rather less emotionally incontinent novel, in which the unhappy man simply answers an unspoken question with terse and pathetic dignity, "The kid'll be mine, sir, and that's all there is to it."

In the book, the sailor goes AWOL so he can stay at home to guard his wife until her lover leaves the country a week later. This attitude obviously doesn't suit the dramatist, who rewrites the story to have the seaman miss his ship's departure - potential desertion with severe penalties attached - in order to to change and feed the baby until he thinks his young wife has learnt to care for it properly.

Worst of all, though, is the piece on oil tankers. Writing from the heart - the heart of an experienced Naval Officer rather than a media luvvie with an axe to grind - Monsarrat's narrative voice comments on the men who crew the flammable ships:
'Aboard Compass Rose, as in every escort that crossed the Atlantic, there had developed an unstinting admiration of the men who sailed in oil-tankers.[...] The stuff they carried - the life-blood of the whole war - was the most treacherous cargo of all; a single torpedo, a single small bomb, even a stray shot from a machine-gun could transform their ship into a torch.[...]
It was these expendable seamen who were the real 'petrol coupons' - the things one could wangle from the garage on the corner; and whenever sailors saw or read of petrol being wasted or stolen, they saw the cost in lives as well, peeping from behind the headlines or the music-hall joke, feeding their anger and disgust.'
In the BBC's version of the same piece, the spivs and Flash Harries of the music-hall jokes have vanished, replaced by more fashionable hate figures for the benefit of today's listeners. The reaction to the waste of petrol, completely rewritten to a new agenda, now runs thus:
'I recall those letters to our more upmarket papers, such as the Times, from readers, almost invariably snug in the Home Counties, vociferously denouncing the Government for their 'socialistic' policy of petrol rationing, demanding their perfect right to drive in their fat, fast cars to whatever race track or pheasant shoot they chose to attend.'
If, as A. A. Milne once said, dramatising another writer's work is leaving your own fingermarks in someone else's bread and butter, the BBC has thrown the plate on the floor and trodden the lot into the carpet with muddy boots.

Update: Turns out I wasn't the only one to spot this and think it deserved a post; the perceptive Paul Marks at Counting Cats has documented and commented on several of the other instances in that episode of what he rightly calls 'socialist propaganda'.


  1. We all know Holywood has been doing this kind of thing for years, but somehow it feels more sinister from the BBC. Like discovering a cancer has spread.

  2. Ah, but the Beeb has been incubating this disease for at least as long as Hollywood..

  3. Leftist bias would have the character saying: "The kid does not need two parents, he can have two gays or a single mother on benefits - just as good." That it said "two parents" is a sign that it wasn't completely socialist.

  4. JH, it's a little more complicated than I could explain clearly in the post; the dramatist conflated two sections of the story from before and after the birth, allowing him to portray the sailor as an anachronistically hands-on father without whose help the young and irresponsible mother would not have been able to care for the baby.

  5. Thanks for correcting me on the BBC car thing - I remembered it as going off to golf club, but the BBC actually broadcast something about going off to races or to a shooting weekend (still - "the rich are evil" of course).

    The BBC really are vile. I remember trying to complain to them (over blatent errors of fact in their series "A Story of England").

    Yet all they would do is say that "leading scholars" had said that the Act of 1834 (the Workhouse Act that was in fact about reducing the cost to the ratepayers of supporting the poor in England and Wales) was the "origin of the Welfare State" (and the start of government provision for the poor - which ignores a couple of centuries of our history).

    And (according to episode one of the same series) the Roman Empire in Britain collapsed because of "Imperial expansion" (the Empire had been on the defensive for centuries), "greedy bankers" (there was no system of fractional reserve banking in the Roman Empire), and "climate change" (Dr Woods said these words with a backdrop of burned out motor cars, I was unaware the Romans had the internal combustion engine).

    Watching "A Story of England" I felt I was watching something from another universe. The BBC really is dreadful - which is why I watch and listen to the BBC so little.

  6. Feh!
    Does anyone remember that utterly crass BBC version of 'Day of the Triffids' from just a few years ago?

    The 'Triffid Liberation Front' set the ball rolling in protest - I thought Wyndham had an escaping Soviet scientist being shot down in his plane while carrying a box of seeds that, carried by the wind, caused the outbreak?

  7. Paul, I never saw the series to which you refer, but I can well believe that they defended substantial inaccuracies; it goes with the contempt in which they seem to hold the intelligence of their viewers.

    I think they see us as some sort of homogeneous mass; if the populace enjoys the bread and circuses of Saturday night broadcasting, then the Beeb can merrily dish out an idiots' guide to their version of history and no-one will be any the wiser.

    In fact, some of my brushes with theatrical types give me the distinct impression that they feel they are realising some kind of general emotional truth even when they deviate drastically from the recorded facts.

    I suspect that had much to do with whatthey did to to 'The Cruel Sea' - and 'The Day of the Triffids'. Since both books feature in my desert island top ten, I have found this more than a little annoying.

    Eddie, you're spot on about the scientist; irresponsible plant-breeding for commercial advantage was obviously not exciting enough. Wyndham's master-stroke, however, which I think the series ignored or botched (I stopped watching) is his explanation of the disaster that blinds the entire human race - or nearly - destroying Man's superiority in a literal flash.

    I won't spoil it further for anyone who hasn't read the original; both of these books are a damn' good read and, if you haven't yet done so, you should go out and get yourself a copy forthwith.

    (If you really must know about Day of the Triffids without reading the book, the plot twist is explained in this post.)

  8. JH, it should be noted that a seaman, IMHO, would never say "two parents", he'd say a mum and dad. The absence of this 'normal' phrase does tend to suggest socialistic interference.