BBC-bashing is of course a venerable and well-cherished sport for the British press. A recent example was the ‘furore’ over the Corporation’s overly-enthusiastic use of Gary Barlow, particularly in his performance in Gary Barlow’s Big Ben Bash (BBC1), which aired from 11.15 on New Year’s Eve. I want to look at some responses to this programme, and briefly to Jool’s Annual Hootenanny (BBC2) and the fireworks, to infer their expectations of television on New Year’s Eve.
Metro reported that the BBC was “bashed by viewers for Gary Barlow New Year show”, and theIndependent wrote that “Viewers voiced their disapproval at another BBC show dedicated to the singer”. While journalists’ overriding interest in running such stories is to sell newspapers or increase clicks, I believe that the underlying sentiments do have a close relationship to public attitudes towards broadcasting. Narratives in the media recur because they are seen to attract attention, and the narratives that attract attention do so because they matter in some way to readers. That doesn’t mean people agree with or believe them; more that they are felt to be discursively pertinent.
New Year’s Eve and genre
New Year’s Eve is a tricky date. We’ve probably all dallied with family evenings-in, house parties, and a night out. Once you’ve accepted that it’s essentially an anti-climax, the central problem is ‘what is it for?’ and ‘who do you spend it with?’ What’s the generic classification of NYE? The schedule tells us the BBC has a very clear idea: a party.
Both the Hootenanny and the Big Ben Bash are defined by musical performances presented by a musical host and in front of an appreciative on-screen audience for an appreciative off-screen audience, with the building anticipation of midnight chimes. Generically then, New Year’s Eve on BBC television equals ‘party’.
It’s worth noting that the other channels made very little effort. ITV repeated the Vicious Christmas special at 11.15, before moving to the news, weather and the somewhat surprising ‘New Years Bongs’. (Surely not everyone has one?) Channel 4 repeated 50 Funniest Moments, a joyless look at the year’s internet memes and reality TV highlights, while at 11.50 Channel 5 screened The Plank, a slapstick comedy with Tommy Cooper and Eric Sykes. There’s clearly an acknowledgement across the television industry that there ain’t no party like a BBC New Year’s Eve party.
This idea of a broadcast party fits nicely with Paddy Scannell’s theory that broadcasting itself has been defined by the ethos of sociability. And what are parties – at their best – but sociable?
When people enter into each other’s company for the sake of sociability they seek nothing more than the pleasure of each other’s company, and to create an occasion where all are at ease with each other. (1996: 22)
A broadcast party therefore has an opportunity to offer substantial social pleasures. Scannell’s definition of sociability has a number of aspects but I’ll focus on two ideas. One, that broadcast sociability is for its own sake, because it “lacks specific content, aim or purpose” (23), and two, that it relies on a “seeming spontaneity and relaxed naturalness” (24). Both of these help explain some of the complaints expressed in relation to New Year’s Eve.
Anti-social Gary: Disrupting purposelessness
The newspapers’ stories mainly focused on complaints that the BBC has been over-relying on Gary Barlow in recent months, and that this was allowing him to promote his new album.
Why do the BBC have such an obsession with Gary Barlow at the moment. Plenty of free advertising for his albums though #garybarlow
This pecuniary motive removes the purposelessness from Gary’s appearance; he’s not singing for you because he wants to entertain you but because he wants to sell you more songs.
This is rather harsh; musicians are not conscripts or volunteers, although Gary may not have necessarily been paid for this event. (The audience did stump up.) Regardless, a few viewers desire a clear gap between the provision of sociable entertainment and its professional nature. The pleasure of the event is spoiled by an irritation about the proximity between the release of his new LP and the Big Ben Bash that draws attention to commercial motives (that his role as a judge on X-Factor might exacerbate) and their incompatibility with the BBC’s public service remit.
Now Gary Barlow is on a second, painful walk around and random handshakes with the crowd. BBC Licence fee well spent.
I wonder if part of the reaction is also to do with the sociable significance of New Year’s Eve; we’re all pretty familiar with Jonathan Ross/ Graham Norton/ Alan Carr talking to public figures who have a tour, book, DVD, film, CD, play or TV show to promote – but that is normal TV. This is New Year’s Eve. A hyper-sociable investment in the event makes people hypersensitive about the disruption of the sociable pleasures.
This idea of an ulterior motive also motivates the second set of complaints about one particular item of the Big Ben Bash. The show included a few other performers, with a number finding one performance particularly offensive. These were oddly not about Alfie Boe’s too-tight trousers, but rather Gary’s duet with himself.
Criticisms of this segment accuse Gary of egoism and self-regard, and while this is harsh, it was a particularly odd part of the concert. It follows some banter with some celebrities in the audience, with Gary jokingly inviting James Corden to sing a duet, inviting his subsequent dialogue to read as a quirky stunt.
…I found a little piece of footage, I have to share this with you… back to 1993 everyone, twenty years ago, in a little place in Berlin. And I thought if I was gonna do a duet, i’ve done a duet with a lot of people, I’d choose someone, young, good looking, wearing a red jacket, who plays the piano… (turns and smiles)
Except there’s something overly sincere about his singing that just doesn’t invite comedy, despite the rather ridiculous sight of 1993 Gary’s red jacket and haircut. The intensity of the ‘duet’, without any cheeky asides, leads to the conclusion that we are watching some weird pop ouroborus. Gary’s not singing to you: he’s singing to himself.
For Gary’s final anti-social crime, others took issue with his wider star persona, criticising the BBC for giving a platform to a ‘tax-shy Tory’.
Tax dodging Tory boy Gary Barlow on the BBC. Again. What was that about it being a hot bed of leftists?
The sociable moment of NYE is not suitable for someone with a politically polarising persona, though I must confess this was the first I’d heard of either issues. A similar kind of complaint ran through an earlier set of stories from a few weeks before when the BBC had scheduled a series of Barlow-related programmes, describing him as a “bona fide national treasure”, though this claim was later removed from the website. The Guardian responded by devoting an entire thread on their Comment Is Free pages to the topic ‘Is Gary Barlow a national treasure’ of which the resounding answer was ‘No’ and where more people criticised his political conservatism.
They’re probably right; national treasure implies both age and longevity in entertainment, and Barlow doesn’t fit that classification. Despite being in pop music for 20 years, he was out of the limelight for much of this, and his return to stardom is perhaps not firmly cemented enough. However, the BBC apparently want him to be seen in this way, and his role in the Big Ben Bash affirms this. But Gary’s persona and performance defeats this attempt at canonisation. This failure disrupts people’s pleasure and defeats the sociable aims of the Bash.
Turning to the second idea of spontaneity, the Big Ben Bash itself is live, and with its shots of an adoring audience certainly fulfils the lively spontaneity that such broadcasts can bring. This stands in contrast to some responses to Jools Hollands offering.
On the BBC2, Jools Holland’s Hootenanny is a staple of NYE and also provides a party-style broadcast, featuring a collection of contemporary and classic performers and presented by the titular boogie woogie pianist. It included the folksy Lumineers singing their cheery ‘Hey Ho’, and a haggard-looking Ray Davies croaking ‘Lola’. Jools could be open to criticism of self-interest; every other performance also includes him and his rhythm and blues orchestra. However, he has an oddly self-effacing way about him and his interview style is so notoriously incompetent, that criticisms of egotism don’t quite stick.
Viewers problem with the Hootenanny is not that its performers have an ulterior motive, but that it doesn’t fulfil the requirement of spontaneity, which here I am equating the ‘liveness’ and that the sociability is not authentic because it was recorded weeks before.
These are not real people actually having a party, but just pre-packaged images of pleasure. The disappointment that this realisation brings can be seen over the past few years. In 2012 the Mail implied that this was some kind of deception, describing viewers as “Jools’ Fools” and this year another article describes the revelation as “bad news” for viewers.
This makes the show all the more obviously unspontaneous as we get to the stroke of midnight; if you know its a pre-record, you also know that the studio audience’s celebrations are in fact nothing more than prepared ‘celebrations’; a performance dictated by a producer with a stopwatch rather than a spontaneous response to the new 2014. Just knowing this drains some of the vitality from the event. As Jools wandered over to speak to Vic Reeves (for the third time) and wished him a ‘Happy New Year’, I experienced a mild awkwardness, rather celebratory enthusiasm, because I knew for their pre-recorded selves, it wasn’t even Christmas yet.
There will be fireworks
However, perhaps all this can be resolved via the fireworks. While Jools carried on in the studio, Gary raced through the audience and out into the London night to do a link from his concert to Susanna Reid down by the river. She interviewed a few revellers (also awkward but spontaneously so) before the countdown to midnight and the now-traditional fireworks display.
Fireworks avoid the problematic issues raised by Gary and Jools; their only communicative function is non-signifying sound and light. They’re accompanied by a soundtrack of contemporary and classic music, and sound effects that emphasise the London location (the Tube’s ‘Mind the Gap!’ warning fills a brief pause in the proceedings) but these are mere asides to the visual spectacle itself that the cameras captured from a variety of perspectives and distances.
The wider event of the fireworks do appear to be roundly embraced as an appropriate way of marking the New Year. One commentor, Heather Dorling, wrote on the Metro’s Gary Barlow article cited above that, “Some of us don’t want a concert, we want to feel the the excitement and atmosphere of the London crowds awaiting the firework show.” Not many people write about fireworks, perhaps because fireworks are… just fireworks. What else is there to say? (Although remember the controversy over the fake fireworks at the Beijing Olympics.)
It seems they are perfect for New Year’s Eve. They are without content and the event itself is an entirely live experience that the television audience enjoys in unison with the on-screen crowds that line the Thames. While perceived self-interest and a lack of authentic spontaneity disrupts people’s pleasure, there appears to be a consensus that meaningless sound and light is an excellent way to mark a hyper-sociable occasion, avoiding the potential complications of human relationships and power to produce a moment of unreflective pleasure.
After studying Film and Television at Warwick and Bristol, Matt recently submitted his PhD in the history of audience responses to television political comedy at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is especially interested in historical audience studies, attitudes to broadcasting, and how they are expressed in print and online.