Magazine article The Spectator

A Bit of Fun

Magazine article The Spectator

A Bit of Fun

Article excerpt


It is an indication of the secrecy and selfimportance of the BBC that it is trumpeting on radio its new television send-up of itself, In the Red. The radio trailers seem to be saying: Aren't we being daring by dramatising a novel about us? Aren't we brave? As the BBC happily satirises politicians, still the Tories for the most part despite their being out of office for over a year (Alistair Beaton's dismal Sunday night show on Radio Four The Beaton Generation is one example), you might wonder why it's so courageous of the Corporation to apply some gentle comedy to itself.

In The Red is hardly a searching satire of the John Birt years as director general and its somewhat surreal subplot distracts us from the comic bureaucratic trends in the BBC in recent years, the real point of any satire about the organisation. Having watched the first episode of In The Red, I opened the large envelope of radio cassettes the BBC sends me and discovered one marked In The Chair. This, it turned out, is the radio dramatisation in six parts of In The Red. The first episode began this week on Radio Four (Friday).

It differs from Malcolm Bradbury's television adaptation of Mark Taverner's novel in several respects. On television, the grizzled hard-drinking radio crime-reporter George Cragge is under threat from a new BBC management but survives by coming up with scoops on a serial bank manager killer. In the first episode of In The Chair on radio, Cragge (played by Michael Williams) has just taken early retirement but is allowed back to report on a serial killer of dentists.

I had never heard of the novel until the BBC began promoting its television series, but I read somewhere that Taverner began his novel in 1984, long before the Birt years. It was apparently published in 1990, just as the expensive management consultants were beginning to wreck the corporation. Taverner once worked at the BBC and he said in a newspaper interview that during a stint in the radio newsroom he befriended the radio (radio and television were separate then, not yet merged) home affairs correspondent, who became the inspiration for George Cragge.

This correspondent at the time was Chris Underwood who covered crime, as well as other Home Office policy. He was one of those wonderful characters who once sparkled in journalism as we knew it. Unlike Cragge, he was not under any disciplinary threat but simply took early retirement, largely out of discontent with the BBC. He was also a victim of the pernicious ageism that Birt implemented. …

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