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Race and Ratings in Tony Blair's Britain

How Britain’s Public TV Channel 4 Killed V.S. Naipaul’s Mr Biswas

by Tariq Ali

This is the story of why V.S. Naipaul’s comic masterpiece, A House for Mr Biswas, which won him the Nobel Prize for Literature a few weeks ago, was turned down in 1998 by an over-hyped inert mediocrity named Michael Jackson who had just usurped the top job at Britain’s Channel Four. (Channel Four is a special TV channel created by an Act of Parliament in 1982 to cater to minorities who were not being served by mainstream TV. In its early years it was a phenomenal success and coverage of Latin America, Asia and Africa quadrupled as a result. With the advent of Tony Blair’s New Labour government, the Channel went disastrously down-market.)

It was almost exactly five years ago that I suggested to Peter Ansorge, then Head of Drama at Channel Four, that A House for Mr Biswas could be made into a four-part serial. He went home and re-read the book and found it as exciting and even more amusing than the first time. Before he could do anything he was asked to vacate his post. Jackson–the Peter Mandelson of British TV– had taken over, evinced an interest in drama and wanted to appoint his own Commissioning Editor. That was, after all, the art of being boss. Villify the past and dump the people “tainted with too much experience.” He had learnt all this at the expensive management school in the United States to which Sir John Birt of the BBC had dispatched him so that he could become top-manager-material. Here you pick up management jargon: someone else’s bad ideas are stuffed, mounted and repeated like a mantra.

The new head of Drama was Gub Neal, a literate and cultured fellow who had not only read Naipaul, but told me that A House for Mr Biswas was his “favourite novel of all time”. Another plus sign was that he had lived in the West Indies. He commissioned four one-hour scripts. I established contact with the author and was invited to lunch. Naipaul spoke of how he had always hated the idea of his work being polluted by cinema and television. I heard of a dinner many years ago at “Mr Ford’s hacienda” on the West Coast. A dinner whose vulgarity had offended the writer. He left before the final course, unable to work with Hollywood. “Mr Ford” was Francis Ford Coppolla. That was a long time ago. He had changed his mind, partially under the influence of his new wife, Nadira. He was now ready to discuss possible dramatisations. Ismail Merchant had bought the rights to The Mystic Masseur but had asked Caryl Phillips to write the script. Naipaul was filled with foreboding. It might turn out to be awful. It did.

We agreed on Farrukh Dhondy as script-writer. This had been Dhondy’s profession before he was wrecked by an over-extended tour of duty as Multicultural Commissioning editor at Channel Four. Now he was out of the box and could work again. Peter Ansorge joined the team as a co-Producer and Script Editor (his old job at the BBC many moons ago). The scripts were written, carefully edited and approved by the author. He liked them because Ansorge had curbed Dhondy’s inventiveness and forced him to stay close to the original. Naipaul’s dialogue in the novel worked extremely well in the dramatization.

Gub Neal liked the scripts. We were in search of a Director. An ominous silence followed. Then a phone call. The project had been cancelled. Why? It later emerged that at the crucial meeting to discuss finance, the scheduler and the marketing men who now dominated the Channel had been told that all the main characters in the novel were Trinidadian Indians. This made it difficult to contract Hugh Grant or Denzil Washington to play Mr Biswas. In twisted logic this meant it could not be shown at prime-time and would have to be screened after 11.30 pm. The brave Michael Jackson shrugged his shoulders. A fox fears every minute for his skin. In that case, he is reported to have said, we can’t afford the project. The brave Gub Neal did not even put up a fight. Market-nihilism won that battle and many others because the creative people were too scared to fight back. Gub Neal, too, was dumped when he couldn’t produce a ratings hit. And so, poor Mr Biswas was killed. It wasn’t racism, but ratingism. Market-realism almost always kills creativity. No risks are taken. A television station that refuses to permit young directors the right to fail will wither and die. Its happened to BBC1 and Channel Four, where the only thing left worth watching is the news. Jackson used to hate the news and wanted John Snow to be more like the Channel Five newscaster, but I digress.

A Channel created by parliamentary remit to cater for the tastes of political, intellectual, ethnic minorities had been captured by the market. The only “minorities” permitted were sexual: women with big breasts, men with large willies, etc., etc. Anatomy superseded belles-lettres. This became the sum total of the remit. C4 became a brothel and if the short-list of those due to succeed Jackson is accurate, then his successor will be even worse than him and C4 will descend from the gutter into the sewage system. Jackson himself is off to the United States to work as the head of some entertainment channel or the other. As the late Daniel Singer used to say: plus ca change, plus ca le meme chose…

When I told the story of Mr Biswas to Jeremy Isaacs, the founding-father of old Channel Four, he looked sad. We recalled his watch at Channel Four. It seemed unimaginable now. New Labour, New Culture, Old Market. Once C4 had begun to sell its own advertising the end was nigh. Michael Grade was strong enough to defend his own instincts against the market-men, but Michael Jackson like his creator, Sir John Birt, was a man without instincts. There is an emptiness in their souls. What they and their clones lacked was supplied by focus-groups and other market devices. Similar focus-groups were used by the BBC and with similar results: a loss of diversity.

There is now an increasingly ignored minority in Britain–the intelligent viewer. This minority crosses every possible divide: class, gender, age, race and political affiliations. Over the last decade it has been increasingly ignored by the public service broadcasting networks for the simple reason that executives have been confident in the knowledge that intelligent viewers had no alternative. Nowhere else to go. They were prisoners, destined to languish in the only available facility. Instead many of them just switched off. That’s one reason that C4 confronts an advertising crisis. One feels like writing to Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown: “Put them out of their misery. Privatise the sods”, but then I know I’ll miss John Snow and the only serious news bulletin on TV and so the letter remains unwritten.

What can one say of a culture in which pride of place is often awarded to programs on home decor, cooking, hospitals, cruise liners, pets, mindless quiz shows presided over by brainless quiz-masters, etc. The youthful and self-consciously jokey tones of so many presenters is pure pastiche, the mimicry of styles imagined to be popular and, therefore, without any real sense of the comic. Contentless clowning only serves to emphasize the dead and stifling character of the new canon. An environment has been created where philistinism flourishes without serious restraints; where innovation usually means weightless iconoclasm and where complex issues tend to be avoided on principle except when there is a war. Then the executives confront their empty cupboards. No serious program on Afghanistan for a decade which can be plundered for footage!!

The desire to maximize ratings leads both private and public sectors in the same direction. Public service broadcasting was always conceived of as a mix that was both popular and often appealed to minority tastes. The overall shift in our culture has tended to swallow the latter. The trend is unremittingly towards a strictly hierarchical and celebrity-star-led media, where the more you watch, the less you know.

Over the last decade British culture has become increasingly self-referential, self-congratulatory and, as a consequence, shipwrecked. Here, as in other areas, New Labour has been worse than the Major/Clarke Tories. As we approach a common European currency, the dominant culture in Britain has swathed itself in a blanket of parochialism. TV, radio and newspaper coverage of the rest of the world has declined dramatically over the last five years. Though our citizens travel more than ever before, they are less informed than before. The result is an overall lowering of educational and cultural standards.

In most European Union countries there is regular coverage of the politics and culture of member-states and in Spain, France and Germany of the rest of the world.. In Britain, there is little coverage of EU, leave alone the rest of Europe or the world. Human-interest stories—life-politics—seem to be the only route to the rest of the world: natural or human disasters, sex-scandals, famines, assassinations, funerals of heads-of-state and, of course, wars.

A few weeks ago I received a phone-call from a senior Franco-German broadcaster. Could she please see the scripts of A House for Mr Biswas? CP

Tariq Ali, a frequent CounterPunch contributor, is the author of The Stone Woman, just published in paperback by Verso.