I’m spending much of the first two months of the Forgotten Television Drama project in the BBC Written Archives in Caversham, taking the opportunity to systematically go through all of the files of Audience Research Reports that the BBC compiled between 1950 and 1982 (well over 500 per annum for most of those years!).
Although my primary aim in doing this is to come across forgotten dramas from the regions and to trace recurrent patterns of audience reaction to BBC regional drama. While I’m doing this, I keep on noticing the same forms of censure expressed at BBC dramas by exasperated viewers.
These take three forms. Even before the days of Mary Whitehouse Moral objections have been the dominant form of press condemnations of TV drama: Violence, sex, religion, swearing, politics. A different category, but a more frequently voiced one in the Audience Research reports is Emotional objections – viewers generally did not respond well, if they were expected to invest their time and attention to stories that they considered unduly “depressing”, “drab” or “dreary”. Of most interest to me, and probably the greatest inciter of viewer rage, were Formal objections – viewers could stick with depressing stories, or stories that they saw as having doctrinaire political messages, or violent and sexual stories, but were generally unprepared to accept stories that didn’t make narrative sense, or which seemed not to tell any story at all. Any TV play perceived by viewers as being “pretentious” or “experimental” would always draw the most vehement expressions of discontentment and condemnation from the BBC’s canvassed audience.
The authors of the Audience Research Reports (anonymous, save for their initials) displayed admirable artistry and craft in their work, managing to gather a carefully calibrated and structured argument (supported by statistics) from the questionnaires that the panel of viewers returned. They also had a very good eye for material that stuck in the memory, the concise complaints and enthusiasms of their viewers still wonderfully helpful for historians of television, forty or fifty years on. Reports complied into editions of Play for Today (BBC1, 1970-84), the BBC’s flagship drama series, always prove particularly fruitful for yielding choice viewer judgments, the contentious and experimental nature of many of the plays, often provoking strong responses. Reading the report for W. Stephen Gilbert’s long-lost and long-forgotten 1971 play Circle Line (BBC WAC/ VR/71/25) – a winner of the “BBCtv Student Play Competition”, no less – this afternoon, I was struck by the amount of exasperated viewer reactions, including elements of all three grounds for objection, that the compilers managed to include:
- “If this is how students carry on, no wonder the country is in such a mess; educating such as these is a waste of money.”
- “If this was the first prizewinner I shudder to think of what the others were like! I am heartily sick of weird plays with little or no plot and also with the almost perpetual “student image”. A stupid, pointless play.”
- “I am appalled that this type of programme was shown. We do know that these things do go on, but really, are there no areas of sordid behaviour that can remain unmentioned?”
- “When will writers of plays realise that the majority of viewers are sick of sex and drugs? If we want to see an “X” film we’ll go and see it, but I don’t want this rubbish shown in my home.”
- “A shocking idiotic hotchpotch of half-baked intellectual nonsense. If this is a play for today, God help today!”