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How Lefty luvvies lost the plot The creative sector is now so woke and insular that it’s incapable even of recognising an oppositional voice

Hugh Grant knocking on doors with Chuka Umunna. Credit: Nicola Tree / Getty

Hugh Grant knocking on doors with Chuka Umunna. Credit: Nicola Tree / Getty

December 20, 2019   5 mins

It’s striking how an insignificant thing can sometimes bring the truth to light. A final straw. An epiphany. For me this was, of all things, a BBC Four documentary about the crooner Matt Monro. A segment was devoted to ‘square’ Matt’s 1970 hit, “We’re Gonna Change the World”. Various talking heads and the narration explained how amazing it was that such an old stick-in-the-mud had, somehow, produced this inspirational, progressive song about a political demonstration.

Just one problem. Anyone who’s paid the slightest attention to the song can tell it’s ironic. This was apparent to me (and, I assumed, everybody else) as a child, when it was a mainstay of the Radio 2 playlist. It’s beautifully observed, intelligent and very, very funny. An irresistibly jaunty — slightly too jaunty — arrangement backs a lyric that tells how the demonstrators “harried busy shopping wives” to “put some fire into their wretched lives”. The despised ordinary people will be “so amazed, full of praise when we’ve rearranged your world!”

It’s a small example that illustrates a much larger phenomenon. The creative sector has a world view of such insularity that it’s incapable of processing — crucially, even of recognising — an oppositional voice. Herd thinking is ingrained. It’s inconceivable that any ‘creatives’ could hold a different opinion to the apparent norm.

Some years on, and we have the reaction of creatives to the general election and its result. The very public, very funny displays from star names like Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan and Lily Allen are extreme examples of a rigid mindset that I’ve experienced first-hand over the past 20 years as a television writer. Over that time it’s got more pronounced, and further and further removed from the observable world. This perhaps explains the resultant hysteria when it gets drenched in a bucket of reality such as the election result. I imagine most laypeople think the TV industry is skewed a bit leftish. They’re wrong. It’s much more extreme than that.

Public meltdowns are one thing, but some of the stuff I’ve heard behind closed doors, in the normal run of conversation, from some of my fellow creatives, would make your hair curl.

Here’s a round-up — Israel should be ‘nuked’; 9/11 was an inside job; the cure for cancer has been suppressed for decades by big pharma.

Those are extreme examples, but what surprised me when they were uttered was that each went unchallenged. People, including me, just smiled and nodded. And everyone just carried on.

What throws this into relief is the reaction when I’ve dipped a little toe in the water and said something fairly innocuous like “I’m not absolutely sure NGOs are always entirely honourable” or “multiculturalism might be a doctrine that divides rather than unites”. The horror, the horror. I once happened to have a copy of the Daily Telegraph under my arm as I attended an early morning production meeting and it was as if I’d walked in in Klan robes. Funnily enough, I was the only state-educated person in the room.

No Remain-voting Tory-hating actor or writer need ever worry that anything they say, however angry, rude or bizarre, in public or private, might ever be turned or used against them. People who don’t believe these things either clam up completely or risk being marked with the stamp BAD PERSON.

I rolled along with this for a long time — there is pleasure to be taken from how funny it is — but the past few years have ripped off the Band-Aid of my denial. Brexit, Trump and now the Boris victory have sent the creative sector openly barmy. The BBC has served up World on Fire, a particularly excruciating World War II drama with brick-subtle ‘relevant’ takes on ‘issues’ delivered in the style of a 14-year-old who has just read half-way down Karl Marx’s Wikipedia page. Equally hilarious are the recent Agatha Christie adaptations in which pre-war Britain is a grey disgusting place away with bigotry and all coppers are bastards. The ham-fisted allusions to Brexit in The ABC Murders were physically painful.

Another good example is the American legal drama The Good Wife. For seven years it was a nuanced, intelligent series that often went into tricky areas with maturity and equanimity. In 2016 it transformed into The Good Fight, a nonsensical toddler tantrum that portrays contemporary America as a country having an open, violent race war.

Another good example closer to home is the BBC Twitter account. There are many specific BBC accounts, but @BBC is the big one, with 1.6 million followers (and, rather oddly, almost no replies, retweets or likes). This is as close to the ‘voice’ of the BBC as we can get, outside its nerve-shreddingly chummy continuity announcers. It does a little standard promotional stuff, as you might expect. But it also has ‘Our Planet Matters’ as its banner (bravely standing up against the hordes who think the planet Mongo matters more and Earth really should be obliterated) and it churns out almost nothing but chippy identity gripes and awareness-raising HR platitudes, as if that were the completely neutral, value-free position.

A little recent rattle of sabres from the Tories about the licence-fee model has got some on the Right excited that this might mean a realignment with reality, or at least more diversity of opinion, in the UK cultural sector. I’m afraid to tell them this is for the birds. The only thing canning the licence fee would do is to remove the compulsion to pay for some of it. You only have to look at America, where this problem might even be worse, to see the outcome. And the leftish bias in Current Affairs is as nothing to the massive skew in drama and comedy, which now seem mainly there to tell us all off or to make dreary and often excruciatingly crass woke points.

The problem goes far deeper than funding models. The BBC and our other media outlets can only work with what’s on the table, and the talent pool is overwhelmingly bien pensant. One begins to wonder if there’s a temperamental difference — the few non-Left people I’ve met in the industry are not keen to express opinions in either their work or their workplace, not wholly from trepidation but because didacticism produces bad art, reducing characters to tribal cheerleaders or villains. And imagine the hassle! A lot of recent TV drama is written by people who would rightly scoff at “my country right or wrong” but have “the Tories are baddies” running perpetually as an unexamined sub-routine in their mental program.

There is no certainly no active suppression of alternative voices because there are no alternative voices. We haven’t had a culture war in the UK. We had a culture rout, but it was a slow motion rout so nobody even noticed.

It wasn’t always thus. There was more variety. I’ve just pulled up a few old TV listings mags from the 1970s and 1980s, and there we have Howard Schumann’s girl-band pop drama Rock Follies, which featured smart, funny political discussions and characters ranging from Corbyn-style agitators to record mogul hyper-capitalists, none of whom felt like mouthing ciphers. Edge of Darkness and Boys from the Blackstuff were good lefty fare, but alongside them we have fantastic righty stuff like Callan and Secret Army. It was possible for a clearly conservative writer such as George Markstein (The Prisoner and Mr Palfrey of Westminster) to have a long and prolific TV career. What’s striking is that these writers were informed by their politics, of whatever kind, but not dictated to or defined by them, and happy to laugh at themselves and their opponents.

The current situation, with the creative sector divorced from wider public opinion and often in opposition to it, is not healthy.

Perhaps creatives should bear in mind that haranguing the dumb proles who watch and listen to their content might not be producing the results — electoral or otherwise — that they would prefer.

Gareth Roberts is a screenwriter and novelist, best known for his work on Doctor Who.


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Richard Norris
Richard Norris
3 years ago

I totally agree with this, and I’m on the left. I don’t want to be preached at, and there is something really annoying about being preached at by someone who assumes they know, and are, better than you, particularly if they are telling you stuff you thought of first! Also, I find talking to people with different political views interesting. Demonising people you disagree with is just infantile. Talking about edgy more right wing stuff from the 70s, what about Clockwork Orange? I was too young to see the film when it came out, so I bought the book instead, and always found that a stimulating counter-challenge to my own political instincts.