The BBC presenter's success would be near impossible today
If Frank Bough had been born half a century later, we almost certainly would never have heard of him. The former TV presenter, whose death at the age of 87 was announced at the weekend, lived the early part of his life in a two-up, two-down terraced house in a working-class area of Stoke-on-Trent, the son of an upholsterer. After winning a scholarship to Oxford, where he read history, Bough completed his national service before forging a career at the BBC.
In an era when a seemingly ready supply of distinguished presenters hailing from genuinely working-class backgrounds trundled off the production line at the Beeb, Bough’s path to the top wasn’t especially unusual. His fellow Grandstand hosts David Coleman and Des Lynam (both of Irish immigrant stock) followed a similar trajectory, as did a number of big-name BBC newsreaders of the time, among them Richard Baker (son of a Willesden plasterer), Angela Rippon (grew up in a Plymouth council house) and John Humphrys (raised in a poor district of Cardiff).
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It would be wrong to say there was no ceiling at the BBC in those days — a ceiling has always existed — but there were at least hatches through which budding working-class journalists and presenters could find their way to the apex of the corporation. Look around the BBC today, however, and you will see that these hatches have been all but shut off.
Working-class voices are occasionally given airtime on the BBC, but — let’s be brutally honest about this — they often belong to individuals with certain identity characteristics that just happen to serve a purpose in helping the corporation demonstrate its commitment to ‘diversity’. The idea of a working-class kid living in a small terraced home in Stoke getting to Oxford and then enjoying a glittering career at the Beeb entirely of his or her own efforts is, in today’s world, almost inconceivable.
The BBC must take its share of responsibility for this state of affairs. What Andrew Marr once described as its ‘cultural liberal bias’ has meant the elevation of identity politics over anything else, including any strategy to provide openings for the least privileged in terms of class and wealth.
Wider society must also take the blame for the decline in social mobility since the days when the likes of Bough and co. were able to reach the top of the ladder.
A point of note is that every name listed above was the product of a state grammar school. It’s a question that few of my colleagues on the Left ever wish to entertain, but could it be that in dismantling a system that offered at least some kids from working-class backgrounds a chance to break through the ceiling, we inadvertently helped to embed the very class prejudice we were seeking to overcome? We need to start talking about it.