by Kenneth Roy
The poor dears! I usually make it a rule to avoid exclamation marks – what Lord Beaverbrook called thunderstrikers – but the following extraordinary story makes their use unavoidable.
An employer, the BBC, wishes some of its staff – the poor dears in question – to relocate and many are refusing to go. Others, more compliant, are weeping into the corporation’s plastic cups. There are reports of lachrymose farewells in public houses, with drink taken. Household names – one of them is called Sian something – would rather disappear from our screens than contemplate the leaving of London. Across breakfast telly, children’s telly, footie telly, the three departments on the move, there is a mood of open revolt. Gary Lineker has made its displeasure felt and the BBC’s management is said to be in a state of shock. It hadn’t bargained for this.
You may be wondering – I sit here in wonder myself – which hell-hole of the dark planet these ultra-sensitive souls are being asked to repopulate, the exact location of the proposed missionary work. I will tell you. It is not Benghazi. It is not northeastern Japan. It is not even the murderous, damp Copenhagen of the incomparable Sarah Lund. Nah nah. It is Manchester. At the risk of repeating myself, I have decided to repeat myself. They are being asked to work in Manchester.
I have been to this northern outpost: quite a lot, as it happens. It was known as the ‘shock city’ of Victorian England. It has certainly come as a shock to the sort of people who work for the BBC.
Even its fans will admit that Manchester is a city with a dodgy past. Friedrich Engels’ experience of working in his father’s cotton factory helped to inspire the Communist manifesto. Engels wondered what would become of the city’s proletariat, ‘who owned nothing and consumed today what they earned yesterday’. Yet I bring reassuring intelligence for the latter-day proles who hang around Television Centre. Oop north, things have picked up ever so slightly.
Manchester is no longer a place where ‘civilised man is turned back almost to a savage’ – these days, that’s called ‘Match of the Day’. The producers of ‘Blue Peter’ will be relieved to hear that, although Manchester was once labelled ‘the chimney of the world’, its tender viewers are no longer expected to go up one. ‘Hell realised’ is no longer deepest Salford; it is more likely to be a celebrity interview on ‘Breakfast News’.
If Manchester is beyond the pale for BBC employees, what of Glasgow? That exhausted warhorse, ‘Question Time’ is moving to Pacific Quay with the same unhappy consequences.
On my last visit, I marvelled at the variety of the cultural life. I took a note of some of the many museums: the Ragged School Museum, the Museum of Transport, the Police Museum, the Courts of Justice Museum, the Jewish Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry. The Halle Orchestra was born here. Alex Ferguson chews gum here. Coleen Rooney shops here. Ena Sharples wore her hairnet with pride here. Yes, there is plenty to be said for Manchester. But if you would prefer to live ouside the city and travel to work, there are many delightful small towns and villages in lush Cheshire, including the birthplace of Mrs Gaskell, Knutsford. Derbyshire isn’t too far away either; a BBC type might take well to the spa town of Buxton with its literary festival.
It cannot be denied: Manchester has suffered from the pull of the metropolis. That glory of civilisation, the Manchester Guardian, was moved out of the city by my friend Alastair Hetherington, and the name dropped from the masthead, Alastair calculating that only a London base would save its declining fortunes. He was proved right. The other great provincial newspapers such as the Birmingham Post have become shadows of what they were, while the Guardian went on to prosper.
But the centralising tendencies which robbed English provincial life of much of its colour and vitality from the 1960s onwards, and sent its brightest young people south to the fleshpots of Islington and Notting Hill, are now recognised as profoundly damaging to the health of what we still call the United Kingdom. The concentration of wealth and talent in London ceased to be socially or economically tolerable long ago. Nor can it even be argued that it is necessary. New technology has made it obsolete.
The poor dears do not see it this way. They have faithfully reported the many pronouncements of the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan-Smith, on the need for social mobility, including his recent suggestion that if there is no work in town A they should up sticks to town B. Norman Tebbit put the same idea more coarsely during a previous Conservative administration. He told the workers to get on their bikes. No one is suggesting that the staff of the BBC should be treated in this rough manner; I understand that generous relocation packages are being offered. But it is clear from the reaction that, although BBC staff are happy to report the political demand for social mobility, it is not a cause to which they personally subscribe. They would much rather live in London because, well, they’d much rather live in London.
If Manchester is beyond the pale for BBC employees, what of Glasgow? That exhausted warhorse, ‘Question Time’ is moving to Pacific Quay with the same unhappy consequences. Its editor has resigned because he does not wish to live in Scotland; David Dimbleby, who has signed a contract to go on presenting the programme until he is 77 years old, is said to be unhappy. Critics of the move say that ‘Question Time’ will no longer attract the same quality of contributor once it is necessary for panellists to travel to Glasgow to take part. Since participation is a form of vanity publishing, I rather doubt that.
I do not give the BBC’s management credit for much, but I give it credit for this: unless production is dispersed – to Manchester, to Glasgow and to many other parts of the distintegrating kingdom – the BBC as a national institution is finished. If the staff won’t move, hire new staff.
Kenneth Roy is editor of the Scottish Review