Mozart and the Dormouse: On BBC4 Documentaries

The BBC don’t do book shows, at least not on TV, was a recent (and justified) complaint.

Oh, yes we do! they were quick to retort. What about Wolf Hall?

It was an interesting rebuttal, positing adaptation as literary critique. What, then, is one to make of the Guy Ritchie-fied The Musketeers as a critique of Dumas’s novel? It’s not hard to fathom why the BBC focuses on books as televion drama. Adaptations guarantee an audience, foreign rights sales, repeats ad infinitum, merchandise spin-offs such as DVDs, and ubiquitous media coverage, especially if your cast finds room for a Cumberbatch. How could a show of spoken literary opinion possibly hope to compete?

Furthermore, the once isolating event of viewing television is becoming increasingly communal through social media. Programmes are now hashtagged in media res on Twitter with the viewing public’s extemporaneous punditry. Post-broadcast, these viewers then flock to a newspaper’s episode-by-episode blog to post their long-form opinion BTL.[1] The standard TV critic’s job must now feel rather precarious, at risk of endangerment from the sheer volume and immediacy of ‘citizen criticism’.

A round-table TV show of critics discussing books must, I suppose, be seen as a massive turn-off for viewers by the BBC’s commissioning editors. It’s not something our French cousins have a problem with, not in other European countries. But there the noun ‘intellectual’ is not a dirty word. If its documentaries are anything to go by, BBC TV seems terrified of appearing intellectual or high-brow (not so, Radios 3 and 4, with the gloriously intelligent In Our Time and Free Thinking). I presume they perceive intellectual discourse as being antithetical to its modern-day striving for some wholly arbitrary and artificial notion of ‘balance’ and ‘inclusivity’. Even on BBC4, where anything even remotely challenging to the cerebral faculties gets shipped off to nowadays, the cookie-cutter documentaries all feature Brian Sewell’s much-loathed ‘arm-waggling presenters. The BBC’s film show replaced its serious-minded jumper-wearing critic, Barry Norman, with a slew of increasingly youthful Pretty Young Things (Ross, Winkelman), pop-culture savvy and designed to appeal to some imaginary audience which is always decreasing in age. Perhaps the dream is that, one day, the CBeebies and Arts programme audiences will somehow merge.

Infants certainly stand a better chance of understanding Tom Service’s inane babble in his recent ‘arm-waggling’ Mozart doc, The Joy of Mozart (BBC4). Service was guilty of the very hagiography and hyperbole he lamented in his opening gambit. Highlighting emphatically the hyperbole showered on the Austrian – ‘other-worldly genius!’, ‘divine gift from god!’ – Service sought to remind us dummies that Mozart was a human being, ‘just like you and me’ (thanks, Tom, because I had my doubts). He continues:

‘except he could express the pain and pleasure, the joy and darkness of being human, more completely, and more humanly, than any other composer’.

We are 42 seconds into the programme and after this breathtakingly banal statement, hyperbolic and hagiographic in the extreme, I want to turn it off. Add to this the fact that as he’s saying this piece to camera, a Salzburg waiter is trying to serve him coffee, only underscores the amateur quality of this production.

There were experts in there somewhere – a minute or two of Sir Nicholas Kenyon, the Mozart scholar Ulrich Leisinger – but they were competing with the over-excitable presenter, who even hounded one expert at the British Library until he half-concurred with Service’s intransigent point of view. Banality plumbed new depths with Service using the License Fee to eat a Mozart-emblazoned chocolate in Salzburg, and then speaking with his mouth full, as if this would in any way help to elucidate Mozart for us. The nadir, though, was the accompaniment of the word ‘billiards’ with the sound effect of balls clacking together: a bafflingly infantile addition.

Presenters weren’t always loudly bland arm-wagglers. One pines for Kenneth Clark and Sister Wendy: serious-minded, quiet-voiced, unaccompanied by bombastic soundtrack, given the time to speak at length as opposed to in 30-second sound bites. 2014’s ‘where is she now?’ documentary of Sister Wendy reminded me of how pleasant it is to spoken to, not bawled at, as in those aforementioned carbon-copy documentaries. Scroll through the TV listings and you can’t help but trip up over several. The titles usually employ lists of three – Maps: Power, Plunder, and Possession; Harlots, Housewives, and Heroines – which the producer learnt were good things during their GCSE English Language class, and have stuck to this credo ever since. What we get is some telegenic, hip academic mooning up at cathedral ceilings in exotic locales, or yawping blandishments and hyperbole over bombastically emotive soundtracks, instructing the dunderhead viewer how he/she should be reacting at this point: SPOOKY! EXCITING! DANGEROUS!

All of which brings me to the recent bookish documentary fronted by Martha Kearney, The Secret World of Lewis Carroll (BBC4), which again displayed the downward trajectory of documentary making at the BBC. In the post-Savile era, this was always going to be interesting and came with a stentorian warning: contains adult themes.

Having thus established that only adults should be watching because of the paedophilia content, we were soon watching cartoon rabbits bounding along a river bank in Oxford and a cartoon Cheshire cat smiling up a tree. It could have been a Chris Morris sketch. Although one could see the point of revisiting the riverbank where Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was conjured up on a summer’s day, the addition of the cartoons surely only made sense for a children’s audience.

Then there were the repetitions, as if the audience were suffering from short-term memory loss and had to be constantly reminded of the documentary’s thesis statement: Dodgson might have been a paedophile, we just don’t know, because Victorians had different values to ours. The French refer to all this as allonger la sauce: diluting the story down, stringing it out to make up the format length and, one presumes, keep us on tenterhooks for the only new evidence the story had to present: a nude photograph of Alice’s sister, Lydia, aged 13, which required a visit to the South of France with an expert. [2] Such false suspense appended to the end was clumsy. Why not subvert this tediously formulaic narrative frame and work backwards from this revelation at the start, if only for novelty’s sake?

‘It’s a problem when someone writes a great book and they’re not a great person.’ Will Self

The programme reflected all possible views of Dodgson’s proclivity for photographing nymph-like females, fulfilling that essential BBC ‘balance’. It all felt like so much fence-sitting, awkward justifications for liking Carroll’s work but suspecting the man’s peccadilloes, terrified to take a stance. The nub seemed to be Self’s pertinent comment quoted above and Kearney’s questionable journalistic ethics: ‘I’m such a big fan of his work that I’m quite resistant to the idea of any possible dark side.’ The ‘shocking new evidence’ was not set in the context of a Victorian age of consent, ‘within the range of 10 to 12, but in 1875 the age was raised to 13‘, and again seemed to revert to ahistorical indignation in spite of its professed objectivity.

With all the expense lavished on these mish-mash historico-travel documentaries, and their failure to deliver anything like a coherent argument, one rather pines for the simplicity a round-table book review programme with someone restrained, eloquent, and intelligent chairing it would provide. Is Sister Wendy available?

[1] Below-the-line.
[2] In Kearney’s defence, she did say that the photograph was not allowed to leave the museum.

The Mad Hatter and the March Hare putting the Dormouse in the Teapot, illustration by John Tenniel


The Content of Content

The first in a series of short essays in which a word, concept, subject examines itself. Inspired by the title of C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards’s The Meaning of Meaning.

Type in the word ‘writer’ into an online jobs portal and most results will have ‘content’ in the title. Content Editor. Content Manager. Content Developer. Digital content is everywhere in the Age of the Internet, where blogs, micro-blogs, social media, and websites proliferate and hypertrophy like irradiated giant squid in Japanese B-Movies, seeking to attract, entrance and cling on to the end user in the 24/7 digital content cycle.

Content needs to be managed, its performance measured and optimised, as it moves through its various distribution streams and channels. Fluvial euphemisms pile up like terminal moraines of gibberish. A knowledge of Content Management Systems, Search Engine Optimisation and Information Architecture is generally essential. And, of course, you’ll be happy communicating with internal and external stakeholders. The latter always makes me think of butchers.

Notice how the job advert addresses you directly – you’ll be happy. Oh, I will, will I? Naturally, all this content will be part of a 360 content strategy. 360 what? Degrees? Do they require circumferentially-correct content? Could it be days? If so, the maths is a little off. I suppose they assume that, if you have to ask, then you – you who were so happy to communicate with internal and external stakeholders – are not really right for the job.

In all these adverts, in which the above italicised metaphors appear with a consistency that suggests the writers have all either attended the same Optimal Content Management course, or use the same advert template, one thing remains consistently elusive: no one seems to want to say what all this optimised, managed, edited, manicured and pedicured content consists of. This content has no content. Very occasionally a reference is made to blog posts, social media feeds (content-enriched, no doubt, to strain the metaphor yet further), sometimes articles or newsletters are listed. But the subject and topics of these content formats remain absent.

Content, then, is an empty sign, a signifier which has no referent, and is the perfect metaphor for an age of proliferating text in which the thing being piped from screen to tablet to smartphone, flushed down a digital sewage system of streams and outlet channels, to an ‘end user’, not a reader, is ultimately of no consequence. The content of this content is of such little importance that it does not merit a mention in the adverts seeking someone to create it. What matters is the ‘end user’, the things they click on the page, and the amount of time they spend there. This data is usable, it has value, for advertisers and justifying marketing budgets, for creating content about the effectiveness of the contentless content that lured in the ‘end user’ in the first place. The secondary content not only has more substance than the original content, it both defines it and usurps it. Content finds its substance ex post facto: it only comes to have content in its second order of being. Some feat.

Content is king, the mantra goes. All, any. Those text boxes have to get filled somehow. The invisible reader, a statistical figure who costs so much time and effort to find the ideal content writer to create the contentless content, in order to provide the secondary data-driven content to define and supplant the empty first lot, is the grail at the end of every streamed channel. In its turn, the secondary content will become defined and supplanted through third-order manipulations, and so on in an infinite regress, as contentless content generates ever more content-filled content, until one day a PhD student will sit down to pen her thesis, Content and its Discontents.