A less preachy BBC: praise be

I read that a new David Attenborough series is coming to the Beeb, which is always a great event: Green Planet. The name may strike dread into the hearts of those used to throwing bricks at the screen whenever another lecture on climate change is delivered, but it is a description of the subject, plant-life (just as Blue Planet was about the seas, not the worldwide success of Thatcherism).

We should still worry. Sir David’s more recent outing in Our Planet was one big lecture on how naughty we all are, with facts skewed and altered to fit the narrative of climate change being behind everything. (It isn’t; only some things.) That series was sponsored by a campaigning organisation and was so blatant that even the BBC rejected it. That sort of thing does not enhance the reputation of the broadcaster, nor the narrator.

This time we are promised a production that is more positive and less preachy. That will be a welcome change.

Mankind does tread upon the face of the Earth with giant boots, ill-regarding what is underfoot. An occasional reminder is welcome and it may help more of us in a solipsistic, screen-dominated society to appreciate what is there and to wish to care for it. However being told that all plastic bags are evil because one ended up in the stomach of a cute porpoise is untruthful and economically damaging (unless you actually throw your bags in the sea, in which case you deserve all those curses).

We can look beneath our big feet and appreciate the wonders of nature and that may be the better way to start mending it. Even in the concrete jungle there are persistent weeds breaking through the tarmac and through any flaw in the concrete, and that is a reminder of how limited is man’s dominion over the Earth in the face of nature. I think how hard it is to get a particular plant to grow in a particular spot in my garden, and then I see a burst of herb-Robert growing out exuberantly between the salt-scoured stones of a harbour wall in the Arctic Ocean and realise that nature is stronger and stranger than we could imagine.

The positive message we are promised in Green Planet is an active one: not just ‘look how beautiful’ but ‘this is what you can do personally’. That is only a bit preachy, but in an encouraging way. When the message is ‘write to politicians as they are all to blame’ or ‘every light left on drowns a polar bear’ that is displacement activity and discrediting science, but a personal positive with a to-do list that will actually have an improving effect, however small; that it exactly what the BBC should be doing.

It is the positive and practical message which Prince William has adopted in framing his ‘EarthShot Prize’, and that goes beyond the headline-grabber of ‘global warming’ to wider issues that are more important.

Yes, do show us the clumsy tread of mankind: we can see how the perennial floods in Bengal are worsened by the loss of forests upstream, or how the Communists poisoned the Aral Sea and turned Ethiopia into desert, and yes, we can see that corrupt practices in some countries leaves plastic waste dumped in the Pacific Ocean, but there is nothing realistically we can do but pray. We can however plant plants, and bee-friendly plants. Anyone can then get out in the country and learn to use their feet while they take in the glories of creation. That way you stop relying so much on electricity and heating and plastic comfort, and to tread more lightsome upon the face of the Earth.

Maybe that normalisation of a natural life will inspire those creative entrepreneurs who are popping up with greater frequency to find that less wasteful techniques are more profitable, as did the later Victorian mill-owners when they used fuel more efficiently and found that workers are more productive when not being poisoned and wool sells better when not smeared with soot.

If it is as we are promised, I can have high hopes for Green Planet. Seeing and understanding nature is the best way to appreciate it, and starting to become part of nature and to nurture it is a very positive message. Getting yet another lecture about how global warming is responsible for everything from shrinking fish stocks to Liverpool losing the cup makes me want to go out and batter a seal cub.

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Books

Our Planet Matters to Auntie

The BBC’s year-long project, ‘Our Planet Matters’ could be a great thing if it is a wide approach, and of the essence of the BBC’s educational mission.  It may just become a narrow propaganda piece.

The announced project is “a year-long series of special programming and coverage on climate change” with “a raft of news services and shows”. There is a false note there: real environmental issues worldwide cover a wide range of challenges, and of these climate change is the most minor. It is real, but nowhere near as important as pollution or the loss of habitats, for example.

The BBC has the resources to drag in all the wisdom of the world and create an unequalled examination of the many, complex issues within the field, but it mostly chooses a narrow, simplistic approach, for it is still at heart a part of the entertainment industry.

We respect the BBC because it can do wonders, and has David Attenborough; they can draw upon brilliant men and women; but it is part of the entertainment industry and the decisions and editing are made by those who are at a level with the Victorian music-hall.

I want Auntie to do its environment series and do it well.  This blog has carried articles on environment issues before and will do so again. Technology has reached a stage when the world can and should step into new ways of doing things that tread more lightly on the earth. In a timely way, Prince William no less has created the ‘Earthshot Prize’ to encourage solutions to the world’s pressing problems, and declared the coming years a decade of action to repair the Earth.  Excellent; and so we should.

What Prince William recognises in the framing of his prize is that ‘environment’ is a broad heading within which there are many practical issues crucial to our time: pollution of the air, land and oceans; lack of fresh water; biodiversity; and climate change. That is all good. For all that though, when I saw that announcement of a year-long BBC series, I knew that they will get it completely wrong. The press release says just “climate change”. Maybe that is just the PR people writing and ‘Our Planet Matters’ will look at the wider field, but I am not hopeful, by past experience.

The environment has been an issue since 1989 when Margaret Thatcher addressed the United Nations:

Of all the challenges faced by the world community in those four years, one has grown clearer than any other in both urgency and importance—I refer to the threat to our global environment. I shall take the opportunity of addressing the general assembly to speak on that subject alone.

Mrs Thatcher began a global movement, and she was not alone. The greatest philosopher of our age, Sir Roger Scruton, whose passing we mourned this week, wrote at length on issues of protecting the environment, and he realised that it is a very conservative concern:

It needs to be pressed as a conservative issue. It comes across in the mouths of radicals and socialists though, whose ideas would destroy the very things they are claiming to support. The conservative voice for the Earth came first and must be heard loudly. I am not confident of its breaking through he walls of New Broadcasting House, but Conservatives should not make the mistake of dismissing the whole field: just the unscientific mistakes that will be propagated.

Back to the BBC’s year of programming, it has started badly by linking the Australian bush-fires to global warming. They are two completely separate issues, and the worst fires are in the coolest parts of the continent.  That was lazy. They need to do better if this project is to fulfil its educational brief.  The fires are an environment issue, in a broad field, but it is not connected with global warming.

However, global warning is the posterboy of the green movement and everything seem reductible to it, to the exclusion of all else; well, that and waste plastic, which is actually more important.

(I recall in the 1980s the two big environmental scares were depletion of the ozone layer above the poles, and heavy-metal pollution from vehicles, which are both real, and completely unrelated. You still got people protesting to remove lead from petrol ‘to protect the ozone layer’.)

Start by asking who will want to push themselves forward to talk about environment issues to all the living-rooms of the nation.  Frightening isn’t it?

Even if it is a year on climate change, the next concern is what conclusions they imply. As has been recited in many other places, the simplistic solutions suggested by the extreme-green movement would lead to mass starvation and worse environmental degradation, and even if the venting of carbon dioxide into the air ceased at once, it would take two hundred years to bring the levels down. Will the BBC accept some subtlety into their broadcasting? We will see, but I am not hopeful.

The BBC started broadcasting in colour in 1967, but it only broadcasts opinions that are black and white.

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Books

The War of the Worlds on the BBC – a review

A long-delayed review of the BBC’s War of the Worlds (now that election things are past), and I find myself in a muddle for comment.

There is a snarling, lefty theme in two places which grates horribly and is not in the original, but for that later – as a whole the theme and presentation are ambitious and exuding a pervading cloud of inevitable, hopeless doom, just as in the book.

Peter Harness’s three-part adaptation of H G Wells’s work was broadcast by the BBC in November, and is still available on the iPlayer, and in the shops on DVD for Christmas.  It was greeted at the time of broadcast with some howls of rage from reviewers in advance – anonymous shall be the reviewer who said “it’s all woke in Woking” and others accused it of political correctness gone mad (or words to that effect).  It was certainly different, and with modern preconceptions filling in the gaps, but the main problem screaming out of the box is this: It is not H. G. Wells.

The scene is set in Edwardian Britain, in suburban Surrey and then in London; so far so much like Wells (though Wells wrote in 1898 and hinted at its being set at that moment): the series references the brief war scare of 1904. It begins just as the book does, in a picture-perfect suburban village: Wells’s narrator lived in Maybury, a village now engulfed in Woking, and here it begins, and on Horsell Common where the first cylinder lands (or in this retelling, a sphere). Like the book, the series counterpoints the confident civilisation of the period with sudden destruction to show how fragile the show of empire is.

A major contrast between the book and this series is that the Martian invasion is brief in the book and civilisation begins to pick itself up again afterwards, but in the series the whole world is affected and for many years after. Its postscript world, smothered in the red weed is one in which all civilisation has broken down, in which it resembles more that a later book by Wells, The War in the Air. That book looked at how flimsy an apparently well established society can be when once broken (and don’t we now know it when we look at what was Syria). The War in the Air is more realistically Hobbesian in its picture of a destroyed society than Harness portrays for us here.

In context, Wells was writing in the midst of a fashion for ‘invasion literature’, which is a whole different subject. He even opened his novel with a riff off the book that started the trend, The Battle of Dorking. Today though we have other concerns for our own culture’s fragility.

Wells constructed his book as a personal account, by a journalist or writer describing first-hand his experience of the Martian invasion.  It is wholly centred on the (unnamed) narrator, except for some chapters describing in the same tone the adventures of his (equally unnamed) brother. All other characters come in and out of the action as observed actors, not principals. Even the scene of action is limited: the narrator barely strays from Surrey; his brother journeys from London and Essex, and it is strongly suggested that the Martians go no further either. All the action is over the course of a month or so. That keeps even a world-changing event as an intimate personal experience. Conventional wisdom though is that this does not make for good television so Harness chose another route allowing for dialogue and grand, wasted vista.

In Peter Harness’s retelling of the story the narrator is  named George (Wells’s middle name) and he is modelled on Wells himself and his not-quite-wife and named Amy after Wells’s second wife (though I keep wanting to call her Demelza: she is played by Eleanor Tomlinson and in an identical manner to her portrayal of Demelza in Poldark), and she takes the main role. In the original book, the narrator and his wife are unnamed, though there is a ‘George’ mentioned: the lost husband and last hope of a delirious lady on the road, and in bits, that little narrative reappears here, expanded and applied to the main characters.

It makes it a little puzzling to find bits of the book here and there; snatches of monologue / dialogue from the book, characters becoming other characters, and one character definitively slain by the first heat-ray in both productions turning up alive at the end of this one. It is well done as a work on its own, but what kept getting at me throughout is that it is not H. G. Wells.

It is a hard book to render into a different medium, but many have turned their hands to it. Orson Wells famously panicked America with a radio adaptation in 1938 at the ‘eve of war’; Jeff Wayne wrote a techno-rock musical version, which works well; more recently, in 2005, Stephen Spielberg pulled a blinder with his film version that was far more faithful to the book, and better for it, but then Spielberg is a genius. He got over the monologue problem but having the narrator (played by Tom Cruise) leading his daughter to a hoped-for safety.

Back to the BBC drama though.

Is it woke in Woking?

Well, not as such. Any new BBC modern adaptation will be under suspicion for that, but most of the scene comes out well. The writer tries to be more Wellsian than Wells in setting the scene, for Wells in his ideas was a political radical – anyone who could be thrown out of the Fabian Society for extremism is going it some, and travelling in Soviet Russia, praising in the midst of the terror famine while bunking up with Gorkiy’s mistress is not exactly a shy Tory. He does not let this out in the War of the Worlds though: its strength is in its conventionalism. It was written in his high period, before he lost that magic: as Chesterton said of the later work: “Mr. Wells is a born storyteller who has sold his birthright for a pot of message“.

The opening domestic scenes are not radical: Amy being a capable lady with ambitions to study equally with men, though not in the book, would be nothing unusual for the literature of the late Victorian / Edwardian period nor anything unusual in real provincial society. One trope of retro literature is the ambitious woman held back by a disapproving husband, but that does a disservice to the menfolk of the age, who were more likely to support their wives’ ambitions, and did so, and young, Tory husbands led the way. No, that aspect is not radical nor left-wing.

It does depart from the book – the wife there is a cypher. She is a prime motivation for the narrator’s actions but is not a fully coloured-in character, as to colour her in would change the personal structure of the narrative.

The lefty bit is none of this; it is the class-warfare. No-one is authority is anything but a caricature: the unseen proprietor of the newspaper which employs George, ‘His Lordship’, is portrayed as a cruel patrician, and the Minister who employs his brother is a pompous, out of touch, elderly fool straight out of central left-wing casting. (The actual Minster of War in 1904 was a rather vigorous, 49-year old H. O. Arnold-Forster, who was a writer, Mr Harness might note.)

(On screen, the Minster’s dying concern, portrayed as mad militarism, is how to get hold of one of the Martian tripods as a war-fighting machine. That is in the book as the idea of the thoroughly working-class artilleryman.)

Then at the end comes a swipe at religion, with a preacher trying to drag people to the Dark Ages, but again that is no more than a lefty idea. The alleged split between science and religion is largely the invention of Thomas Huxley, of whom H. G. Wells was a student – Huxley gets a mention in The Island of Doctor Moreau, and in later years his son, Aldous, caused Wells to despair at being surpassed as a writer. This religion as anti-science idea is nowhere in the book though. It is an unnecessary dig.

I might forgive the writer for falling for clichés, but surely he could have tried harder. The story overwhelms such failings though and though it is not H. G. Wells, the overarching theme from the book is here too: as it shows mankind’s differences swept away as a new master race descends, and is ultimately defeated by the humblest of God’s creations (and that line at least did get in).

Books

Fallen riders – Auntie’s list

Thank you to the BBC (a rare compliment at election time), for a hilarious, or worrying article on all those would-be candidates who did not fall at the first fence but fell before the race began. The miscellany of frightening, fortuneless, fallible or frustrated fellows is actually just to scratch the surface:

The guiltiest men and women still won through and will sit in the House of Commons – those who have the personal power to prevent their being defenestrated or who have such seniority that the BBC will not attack them as it does the weaker members of the herd for fear of accusations of bias, or for fear that it will hurt Labour too much.

What a parcel of nutters and victims the list reveals. It is even-handed in covering all the main parties, mostly Labour of course as they are the weirdest. It has been painful to sit through the process through which anti-Semitism has become mainstream, even respected in some quarters.  Once it was just snide asides, like the old “More Estonians than Etonians in the Cabinet these days”, but a solidified doctrine taking over the mainstream of a major political party; that is new. As it is mainstream, the only surprise is that these candidates have been removed not celebrated (at least the more dispensable of them have been removed).

Then there are those who have said something off-colour on Twitter. (I thought that was what Twitter was there for? Do people actually take it seriously? That may explain why Fay is so unnaturally restrained on Twitter compared with what she says in public. Heigh-ho.) One day we will ask ourselves as a society whether a word should condemn if it shows no actual intent to malice. For now we are all in Luke 7:32.

It is all at the last minute, and there were so many mild, inoffensive people who could have been picked as candidates, but they do not go into Big Politics.

I thought that the BBC were doing a public service by listing, with complete even-handedness, those who have been defenestrated at the starting gate.  That may be the wrong way round though.

The thing is, it is the BBC and its search for gaffes which has made the alleged wrong-doing of many of these candidates an issue.  We may prefer a rough-and-tumble candidate who feels free to mouth-off about his opinions, and unless we get those opinions then Parliamentarians cannot develop effective new ideas. We need men like Colonel Sibthorpe, who was wrong in just about everything and spoke in such a way as to bring votes to the other side, but who exposed humbug and questioned unthinking consensus.  The BBC will not allow us to have them.

That said, they have done a service in exposing Jew-hate amongst the Labour ranks, and while they will not expose the insane conspiracy theories which sustain it, Auntie can show us where it emerges, before it becomes so mainstream that those hatreds have to be accepted in debate for the sake of neutrality. As to the rest of the fallen riders, they may be the victims of an excess of sensitivity or of their own stupidity.  It has been entertaining though, and really that is what the Beeb is best at.

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Books

Tempestuous climate on QT

What a show – it was horrible. The panel was more balanced on last night’s Question Time than it used to be, and the fur flew.  Before the end, I had to turn off – it was too painful.  The main issue this week was Extinction Rebellion:  for the panel included Rupert Read of that distinguished band of vandals.

On the panel, presided over loosely by Fiona Bruce, were Grant Shapps, speaking for the Conservatives but increasingly acting as the only voice of reason that evening; Lisa Nandy of Labour, who became increasingly detached from any semblance of reality as the evening wore on; Rupert Read of Extinction Rebellion, of whom more later but who made even Lisa Nandy look reasonable; Theo Paphitis as the voice of the frustrated rest-of-us; and Julia Hartley-Brewer, the rent-a-mouth whose sole virtue is being able to expose hypocrisy by being rude to everyone else.

We kicked off with the environment, climate change, and the actions of Extinction Rebellion, and voices rose to fever pitch such that you might imagine the rise in global temperature was solely caused by the Question Time panel. There is no logic in debate anymore. No one on the panel was arguing for climate change being a fantasy or unimportant. No one was arguing against its being hastened by mankind, so you would have thought all would be sweetness and light. It was the very opposite.

Maybe it would have been easier if they could just have said to Read that he is a nutcase and taking such complete nonsense it is only a surprise that he does not laugh at himself, but instead this was in form a civil debate, and as a result it turned into a shouting match.

It takes a lot for me to be on Julia Hartley-Brewer’s side, but she made the unchallengeable point (which Grant Shapps missed) that the Industrial Revolution was the greatest and most beneficial thing ever to happen to mankind.  It is a pity that the point could not be taken further, to analyse the anti-industrial rhetoric of Extinction Rebellion, to compare their (unscientific) protest that millions, or even billions, will be killed by climate change with the utter certainty that millions would die of disease and starvation were the Industrial Revolution to be reversed anywhere in the world.  Again Hartley-Brewer nailed it with her characteristically undiplomatic approach, that Extinction Rebellion is a “quasi-religious death cult”.

Rupert Read believes himself, which is worrying. He said that he wants the government to start by’ telling the truth’, but every statement he made was wrong, and he must have known it. When Grant Shapps demonstrated that Britain has cut carbon dioxide emissions mare than any other country, Read said the figures were fiddled (they are not); he made wild claims on what ‘the science’ says which bore no relation to any scientific papers; he said that no one was talking about acting on climate change until the Extinction Rebellion began – somehow ignoring decades of work and public concern on the subject, begun incidentally by Margaret Thatcher.  ‘XR’ must have a point, he said, because they are invited onto QT: well so was Nick Griffin of the BNP, mate. His knock-down proof of the rightness of Extinction Rebellion was that a sixteen year-old, traumatised autistic girl supports them. He even compared himself to the suffragettes and Martin Luther King.  There is delusion there of the highest order.

Even so, Read was cheered from the audience, which he took as validation. The audience may indeed care about the future of the environment – don’t we all – but does not mean accepting every contradictory madness proposed by his cult.  After that I was not convinced by Julia Harley-Brewer’s description: there is nothing ‘quasi’ about their religion.

We were also introduced to Lisa Nandy, a Labour Party star – she has been tipped for leadership. Please put her on television more – she discredits herself and her party wonderfully. She castigated Hartley-Brewer on the environmental issue (don’t feed the troll, Lisa) saying that environmental catastrophe would harm the value of pension funds – but somehow omitted to say how sudden deindustrialisation, or Corbyn, would not.

It was a relief to get off climate change, and the climate in the studio could cool.  Of course the next topic was Brexit, for some light relief.

On Brexit, out came Lisa Nandy, coming into her own.  She accused Boris Johnson of junking a deal with the EU:  she insisted that there was a deal agreed but somehow it had never been allowed to go before parliament. Well, the rest of the country know perfectly well that there was a deal, for we have memories going back more than five minutes, and that it was put before the Commons three times and each time Nandy and her colleagues voted against it. Challenged on this by Grant Shapps, she claimed there was another deal agreed by all parties (presumably known only unto her and not to the government nor the EU) which was not put.  This was fantasy. Just repeating the same untruth again and again makes enough people believe it to vote, but it is horrid to watch except in morbid fascination.

At that point, Rupert Read came back in with his one good point of the evening:  Brexit, deal or no deal, is not the end which will allow us to get back to normal politics: from that point the Government must start negotiating more trade deals with the EU, so it goes on. It sounded a bit odd after he had just been castigating all and sundry for using ships, aircraft and lorries – surely he would want a complete, self-sufficient autarky to keep those environmentally harmful ships in port?

With no sign of reality breaking out from anyone but Theo Paphitis and Grant Shapps, I finally gave up.

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Books