Archive for July 9th, 2008

‘Anybody here that is any good goes to London.’
That was the line that got the best laugh at a discussion on BBC arts programming last week. The BBC Trust had organised an “engagement” between members of the arts community in Northern Ireland and senior BBC staff, including the controller.
I was invited as a guest speaker on my own appraisal of BBC arts coverage. And, since I was being paid by the BBC Trust to say plainly what I thought about arts programming, I said that I thought it was hampered by a bad ethos which devalued local work, devalued the audience (because really, much of the BBC would prefer that it was catering for a younger cooler crowd than those who tune in) and devalued the arts, by concentrating more on artists lives than on their work.
You can read the whole thing on my blog: www.malachiodoherty.com.
So what was so funny, after this, about a man in the audience saying, ‘anybody here that is any good goes to London’?
Well, it sounded like such a naive thing to say.
He was speaking in a room full of Northern Ireland artists and writers who mostly work here. Effectively he was telling them that they – we – were second rate.
But a good joke has many layers, and I suspect that another layer to this one, in people’s minds, was that it disclosed the secret thinking of many in the BBC who make arts programmes.
Traditionally the BBC regards the centre, London, as the top of its pyramid. Programmes made there have bigger budgets, broadcasters pull higher fees. But isn’t there something intrinsically odd about allowing a city hundreds of miles away to be the arbiter of the work we do in and about our own place? London will never have it the other way round.
Of course, we cannot blame those artists and producers who want to address the bigger UK audience, of course. But the temptation then will be to measure success in programme-making by its appeal to London rather than by its grasp of Northern Ireland.
And work that is understood and appreciated across the whole UK is not necessarily better work for that. It may, in fact, be more shallow work. That certainly has been my experience in television. When I worked on documentaries for Channel 4 I felt that I had to shed my intimate understanding of Northern Ireland and start thinking like an English person looking at it from a distance.
True, outside journalists did fantastic investigative work here that was not done locally, but the credibility and sincerity of the best writing and broadcasting on Northern Ireland can only ever be tested by a local audience.
If the people I meet on the street think what I write is crud then no good review in London is going to make it any more plausible.
And if London is the judge of what is good, it can also stifle good work that it doesn’t want, which is why we get no Northern Ireland Troubles drama on the BBC, for instance. It is nothing to do with whether the experience of the Troubles produces good stories; of course it does.
It has much to do with a sense that we are mad an unintelligible and that when outsiders try to promnounce on us they cause offence where they don’t expect to. better then just to leave it alone.
There is a feeling after the troubles that what is native to Northern Ireland is tawdry and part of a past that is best forgotten. So we get dramas filmed in Belfast in which Belfast plays the part of an unnamed British city. And locally, many think that is wonderful because it is creating work for artists and winning us acceptance on the network. But I wonder if Bristol and Glasgow have to pay such a high price and disguise themselves.
We should not be in awe of London. It is not better than here; there is just more of it.
And if it hasn’t the confidence to engage Northern Ireland, that should just be its own problem; not ours.

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