Friday 28 October 2011

For unfussy intelligence

Great Thinkers: In Their Own Words, BBC Four, August 2011

BBC Four’s recent series, Great Thinkers: In Their Own Words, should have been on BBC1. Comprised of archive footage showing influential thinkers talking about their work - and interspersed with commentary from contemporary figures - these three one-hour programmes aimed high to explore choice cultural themes from the last century. Despite over-pegging the role of television in general the BBC in particular, this was a thought-provoking if shaky attempt at something serious and intellectual.

The series begins with a strangely never-aired clip of a thick-accented Sigmund Freud being interviewed about psychoanalysis, and goes onto explore the emergence of ‘a new breed of thinker’ around the turn of the century. The series illustrates a (very) rough turn away from the certainties and assumptions underpinning nineteenth century thought, the rise of psychology and genetics and all they implied, touching on the impact of the two world wars, and ending with the cultural contestation of the 1960s.

After the turn of the century, more noticeably individualised explanations for what became thought of as ‘human behaviour’ became prominent. Non-rational, even unconscious forces were found to be shaping people’s choices and experiences: hidden drives, childhood trauma and even ‘the selfish gene’. Throughout this period more widely, various forces were working to decentre the human being from his accustomed place at the centre of the social and natural world – and of history. At the same time, there were important debates to be had about the economy, politics, culture. Mass communication in the form of radio and later television brought all these things to a massive audience, calling forth thinkers who could bend the medium to their message. 

Of course, it wasn’t as simple as all that – and this programme doesn’t pretend it was. Advances in human science were no bad thing in themselves: the discovery of the gene was a move forwards, as was the extension of a more scientific approach to the human mind. What the series does neglect to explore more insightfully is the cultural context that shaped the ideas it presents. Instead, it focuses in a superficial way on how thinkers came to television to popularise their ideas, following the construction of magnetic on-screen personalities: the Glaswegian psychiatrist RD Laing, known for challenging conventional thinking on schizophrenia, is a particular example.

An obvious practical influence on Great Thinkers is Adam Curtis, whose idiosyncratic work covers some roughly related ground. His recent All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace disappointed fans and led to several mock-ups on YouTube micky-taking the film-maker’s tendency to make tenuous-seeming links between disparate people and events. This was unfortunate, as his work is actually very good. BBC Four’s attempt is here more grounded in its subject matter and sedate in scope, yet falls short of the insight and distinctiveness that marks out Curtis as a pioneer in a still too-small field. This intellectual documentary form has yet to be perfected in a way that brings the past into clearer focus for us in the present. Yet the fact of homage is most telling – the Beeb is here absorbing and taking off Curtis’ rough edges (arguably his draw), dampening the more cranky-seeming aspects of his approach.

Quibbles aside, what is immediately striking is not so much the content but the world conjured up on screen. For example, the leading Cambridge logical positivist Bertrand Russell makes an appearance as a conscientious objector during the First World War. Russell played out most of this period locked up in a cell for his pacifism, though as a Lord had access to his books. Here, he looks out of place in his neat suit and characteristic bright white hair, sitting on a London pavement with others more unkempt, but at this time principle rode roughshod over such things.

His sentiment and posh tones reveal his aristocratic origins as he explains, in a way that seems faintly ridiculous today, how his conscience just can’t bear it that men are being sent off to die. It is fascinating to see a (more or less) genuine aristocrat on screen. As with the brief and unfair reference to Cambridge critic FR Leavis in the third episode, these last representatives of a fading aristocracy asserted a real and too easily forgotten influence on British cultural life as it unfolded through the early part of the twentieth century.

It is further engrossing to watch footage from the 1930s onwards, showing people very much like ourselves, dressed not too differently, but so direct, simple, straightforward and seemingly unselfconscious on screen. There is no obvious speaking down to viewers, little awkwardness, any forced putting on a show or making a scene. There are no outpourings of emotion, daft questions or attempts to patronise viewers, but rather a soothing sense of self-control and clarity of purpose. In fact, the overall atmosphere in footage shown throughout the series is noticeably unburdened compared with today. Interviews make sense rather than sounding over-rehearsed or superficial, there are genuine discussions between people who sit in a semi-circle without clunky tables and studio furniture between them – the discussions sound real, developing naturally out of themselves in a considered, even-handed way. The unfussy intelligence and well-meaning conviction is compelling.

This point is particularly true of primatologist Jane Goodall, an odd but compelling individual, who went off abroad to study chimpanzees. She was the first to discover that they used tools – something at the time considered the unique preserve of human beings, distinguishing us from lesser animals. What seems remarkable now though, is the way she first took off on her own, without any qualifications or complex wad of forms and official permissions, simply following in an inner compulsion to be close to the chimps. The sense of felt freedom and movement, coupled with her obvious vigour, is infectious.

Indeed, it is more generally a shame that this kind of original, historical footage is not used more innovatively and more often, and that when it is gets safely tucked away on BBC Four: going for a broader audience might have led to more meaningful framing and substantially critical responses. In fact, watching these episodes brings out just how much today’s programmes tend towards the dumbed-down, patronising or downright silly. It would be unfair to solely blame broadcasters for constricted intellectual horizons and confusion over how to make sense of them more broadly – but they do shoulder some of the responsibility.

In this, two clips stick out. The first features William Beveridge – architect of the postwar British welfare state – giving an interview on American television. The interviewers, drawling somewhat sceptically, ask if the whole idea of welfare isn’t turning lazy people away from pursuing a job and allowing them to simply live on taxpayers’ money. No, says Beveridge, quite evenly, no man would want to live on so little: his welfare state is a safety net, not a permanent measure, based on a sense of aspiration: people prefer to work, to earn for themselves. Nobody would want to live on welfare. The second clip is of a modest-sounding Lord Reith, often seen as the father of the BBC, being asked by an interviewer if it isn’t rather insensitive to air programmes in received pronunciation rather than representing regional accents. No, he says simply, ordinary people deserve the best stuff, and that’s what they will get. 

What these two clips unwittingly illustrate is something quite topical: how far the welfare state of today has moved from the principle and aspiration that underscored it historically. Welfare payments were a necessary respite: it was more properly the responsibility of society to provide well-paying jobs. Similarly, public service broadcasting – the BBC – was a serious matter with a heartfelt civilising mission, bringing ordinary people closer to the best of culture, intellectual discussion and debate. Despite the welfare state ultimately representing a compromise with more radical sections of the working class, the aspiration underpinning it represented at least some sense of what was important in life - and why.

What comes out on reflection is the relative absence of that same mood of aspiration and muted seriousness today, not least, the downsizing of the BBC’s intellectual ambitions as an institution more widely. In this, the final episode on the culture war of the 1960s is noticeable in its awkward foregrounding the role of television in the dispute. It is nevertheless fascinating episode, picking up on the television battle between Kenneth Clarke’s landmark series Civilisation and the response of self-defining Marxist critic John Berger in Ways of Seeing.

There is a telling clip of a common working man, watching protesting students in 1968, commenting words of the tune that if they’re so bored they should go out and get a job; likewise, ordinary people are shown complaining that the BBC is giving them some weird American talking about popular culture rather than a serious historical programme educating them about the art of the past. Whilst it would be wrong to expect too nuanced a look at the complexities of the 1960s period from a one-hour episode, this does a good job that ultimately bears out the still ambivalent legacy of that period.

The final observation, though, must go to the vacillation of the BBC. Public service broadcasting is something more than a system of social taxation: historically, it was given moral authority by a real sense of intellectual direction and confidence. Today the BBC is not the pioneer of insightful programs it could be, and any more thorough-going intellectual and civilising aspiration has mostly shrivelled away or else seems to hide in embarrassment. This is wrong. The development of niche channels – BBC Three for youth and BBC Four for the highbrow stuff - is not an entirely good move. The allocation of public funds to the more ‘popular’ (mostly with teens) Channel Four should be seen in a similarly critical light.

In fact, the whole idea of BBC Four seems to imply that highbrow programmes are the niche preserve of the highbrow people – whilst the rest of society can make do with bog-standard trivial fare on the mainstream channels. This keeping the intellectual, more difficult stuff out of the mainstream looks like exactly the sort of narrow-minded elitism the BBC once sought to challenge with its more egalitarian, highbrow and more substantially public orientation. 

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