Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Ms Jowell?
Viner, Brian, The Independent (London, England)
A culture secretary calling for more repeats on BBC television is, like a turkey moaning that Christmas is too far away, altogether perverse. But that is what Tessa Jowell did in her speech at the Edinburgh Television Festival at the weekend, deflecting attention for almost a nanosecond from the more pressing issue preoccupying the Government in its dealings with the BBC, the death of the weapons expert Dr David Kelly.
To be fair to Ms Jowell, she did not say that she thinks Only Fools and Horses is an under-exploited resource and should probably be repeated more often, ie twice nightly on prime-time BBC1 rather than a frankly inadequate once. She did not say that she would like to see just a tad more frequently the Morecambe and Wise sketch in which Eric and Ernie prepare breakfast to the tune of "The Stripper", nor that she is developing withdrawal symptoms having not watched an episode of Dad's Army for very nearly a week.
What she did say - in an apparent swipe at her predecessor Chris Smith, who was outspoken in his criticism of repeats-heavy scheduling - was that "it's fashionable, almost compulsory, at the TV festival, to knock the number of repeats and blame the laziness of broadcasters. But I believe there is a real public service in keeping these memories alive just as much as in creating new memories by commissioning new programmes."
Among the memories she wants kept alive are Jacob Bronowski's 1973 series The Ascent of Man, Mike Leigh's 1976 comedy Nuts in May, and Cathy Come Home, the 1966 dramatised documentary about homelessness, directed by Ken Loach, which virtually overnight bankrolled the charity Shelter.
By citing these undeniably superb pieces of work, Ms Jowell commandeered the cultural high ground, which makes it hard to observe that she was talking poppycock. Nonetheless, she was talking poppycock. For what is tomorrow's excellent new drama, if not next year's repeat? If, in years gone by, the BBC had come under pressure to keep alive the memories of programmes made a generation earlier, with a Secretary of State insisting that doing so was just as important as commissioning new stuff, the memories she is so eager to preserve might never have been hatched. The BBC should be told, and told again, not least by the culture secretary, that nothing it does is so important as conceiving, commissioning, making and correctly scheduling a wide variety of original programmes. …