The Debate: The "BBC policy police" make TV bland, says John Lloyd

The QI producer thinks it's time to lighten up before the watershed - do you agree?

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The Debate
John Lloyd
John Lloyd
The Debate: The "BBC policy police" make TV bland, says John Lloyd

On Friday 9 September, after an experimental three-year stint on the senior channel, QI is returning to its old slot at 10pm on BBC2. QI does not, and the BBC does not, view this as a demotion – quite the reverse, in fact. It’s a happy return. QI can be itself again, instead of masquerading as something else.

The programme did very well in the ratings on BBC1, especially as, in the interests of giving the viewer a genuine choice, the then BBC1 controller Jay Hunt had deliberately scheduled it against Coronation Street. Her daring (which was what convinced me to agree to the move) paid off. Last series, QI consistently knocked a million viewers a week off Corrie’s score.

Our relocation to BBC1 increased ratings, but there was a cost. It had to stop being what we had become – eclectic, uncompromising, slightly saucy. It wasn’t how QI was designed – the pilot is as clean as a whistle – but six years of a late-night slot on BBC2 had resulted in a different tone.

Sauciness is no longer allowed before 9pm anywhere on the BBC – particularly not on BBC1. The Commissioning, Legal, Compliance and Editorial Policy police hover over the scripts and the recordings, alert to the merest potential offence. There are blanket proscriptions, passed down from on high, which reduce everything to a bland vichyssoise that suits comedy programmes not at all. Heaven knows what they would have done to The Two Ronnies.

The BBC that I joined in 1974 was very different. Focus groups were confined to the advertising industry. Producers were hired, not so much for their talent – the writers and actors did that bit – as for their judgement. We were given extraordinary amounts of leeway, expected to make programmes that people liked and, if they didn’t like them, we had to carry the can.

If anyone complained, it was the producer – not the Complaints Department – who wrote to the enraged member of the public. Believe me, that way, you learn fast what the audience will and won’t accept.

Trying to make programmes by committee not only fails to create good radio and television, it even fails to create inoffensive radio and television. Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand were rightly sent to the naughty step for their antics on Andrew Sachs’s answerphone, but people seem to have forgotten that the compliance procedures were followed.

The 26-year-old BBC producer, Nic Philps, whom I know slightly, filled in the appropriate form, passed it up the line to his manager, who in turn, passed it to the controller. It was approved at every level. The manager and the controller felt obliged to resign and Philps (who’d protested that it was unbroadcastable) has since left the BBC to become a missionary in China.

The irony is that, if they had left the decision to the producer in the first place, no one would ever have heard a thing about it.

In the 80s, the Independent Broadcasting Authority did an interesting survey. They got a couple of thousand people to agree to have a camera inserted into their television, pointing outwards, so it could record the viewers’ reactions to the programmes. The results were unexpected.

Particularly at peak times, quite a high proportion of people were not actually looking at the set. Sometimes the room was empty. When it wasn’t, many people were eating, playing games, or asleep. To the embarrassment of the grandees of the IBA, two of the “viewers” were observed making passionate (and interminable) love.

If it’s a choice between a better programme that’s watched, or a programme with higher ratings that isn’t, I know which I’d have. To get the best out of QI, you don’t need a PhD, but it helps if you’re not totally unconscious.

Is the BBC's compliance culture ruining shows? Or are their pre-watershed rules right? Post a comment below and tell us what you think.