Libby Purves: for better or worse, the BBC is a favourite elderly relative

"Our poor dear BBC has had a personal crisis lately - it can be hard to love her as we should, and as (remember!) the whole world does"


Our poor dear BBC has had a personal crisis lately, toxic uproar in her innards and dizziness round the head. It can make it hard to love her as we should, and as (remember!) the whole world does. But the closer you are to any family member, the more faults you see. She’s in every room, chatting out of speakers, popping up on the computer, never out. So, as the season of goodwill approaches, let’s think of her once more as what she once was: Auntie. Warts and all, aunts are always cut a bit of slack at Christmas.


The great thing about Auntie BBC is that she sometimes gives you fabulous surprise presents. Not just at Christmas or birthdays, but at random. She repeats herself a bit, and sometimes we don’t mind because her Dad’s Army stories are priceless. As an educated lady she knows quality and thinks you should, too, so will hand over a gift-wrapped Attenborough, an opera you weren’t expecting to like, or something special from Simon Russell Beale about church music.

In benign moods after a couple of sherries she’ll slip you a shiny new series of Miranda or Lead Balloon or, with a giggle (those liqueur chocolates can be heady stuff), Cuckoo. She wraps that in the special BBC3 paper, so you know not to be shocked. Actually, her taste can be quite racy when she loosens her stays a bit. That favourite nephew of hers, Armando Iannucci, gets away with murder on The Thick of It.

Of course, sometimes she’s a bit jaded and rewraps the familiar old bath salts that are losing their perfume, or a box of chocolates with a nasty white bloom on them. “Lovely,” you say through gritted teeth. “Walliams again! And Gervais, too! And wow, another celebrity world trip, in 13 very slow episodes!” Still, you’re grateful on balance, and don’t mind taking a whirl around the floor with her on Strictly night.

But face it – all aunts have irritating qualities. It’s always a shock when she suddenly decides she’s got behind the times and has to be “Hotter than My Daughter”, dyes her hair violent orange, squeezes into a leather miniskirt and embarrasses you with a game of “Snog Marry Avoid” so that you simply don’t know where to look.

In Glastonbury season she hits the cider and spliffs in a lumbering attempt to get down wi’ da kids, and is prone to unwholesome passions for younger men. Can’t keep her hands off that nice Stephen Fry, night or day. And because her real leisure tastes tend towards music-hall and merriment, she’s easily impressed by the charms of the blander sort of intellectual, and won’t hear a word against vain old Uncle Yentob, or let anyone else near the arts-and-crafts table.

She has tremendous skills, does Auntie. She’s been knitting intricately patterned beautiful radio since 1922, hardly dropping a stitch. She makes marvellous mosaic documentaries when she’s in the mood, and bakes up a storm for big weddings and parties like the Olympics and the Jubilee. Her one real blind spot is anything to do with boats: seasick, poor old dear, she turned her back on the Trafalgar Bicentenary and didn’t even bother to learn the names of the boats on the Thames Pageant.

And from time to time she grows bored with her old skills of intricacy and concentration, reads in a magazine about the trend for Reality, and attempts to make her presents “freestyle” with a borrowed welding-torch, dodgy MDF and the wrong size of screwdriver.


She’s a great lady, though. In earlier days, like Miss Marple rigorously training housemaids to dust china, she taught the most technically brilliant cameramen, editors and news reporters in the world. Now, as her family grows more unwieldy, she’s prone to buy skills off the shelf in a hurry, and not notice when bits fall off or explode. There’s a risk of blowing your own head off that way. We worry. Because we love her.