The term ‘national treasure’ is a heavily overused one.
The phrase, ”the term ‘national treasure’ is a heavily overused one’ is almost equally overused.
Nevetheless, when it comes to Britain, David Attenborough is, indisputably, a national bloody treasure. Hell, what with the work that he’s done in the name of the planet as a whole I think it’s fair to say that he is in fact an international treasure. A global treasure. (With the work he’s done on helping to soothe my hangovers, he’s certainly a personal treasure for me at the very least.)
Now, fresh off the wondrous follow-up to The Blue Planet and just when you thought you couldn’t love him anymore, new documents from the BBC archives have come to light that show that Attenborough has had his head screwed on right and has been ahead of the curve for decades. A secret memo, sent by Attenborough 45 years ago when he was BBC’s Director of Programmes, urged the bosses at the station to dedicate more air time to marginalised groups.
According to the memo (which can be read in full here (PDF link)), Attenborough was inspired by public acccess shows on US cable television to suggest creating a slot for ordinary people and groups representing marginalised members of the population in order to give them a voice on a respected and widely viewed medium that they would otherwise have never have gotten.
In the memo Attenborough emphasises that one of the benefits of such programmes would be to bring ‘voices, attitudes and opinions, that for one reason or another, have been unheard or seriously neglected, by mainstream programmes.’
That’s right, almost half a century ago, when the overwhelmingly vast majority of all media in Britain was run by a relatively tiny old boys’ club of privileged white dudes with imperial attitudes and closed minds—I mean, that’s still the case now, but it was even more so then—one privileged white dude not only saw ahead to the future, he also urged his contemporaries to embrace that future.
It seems clear that there really are considerable numbers of people who have something to say, both didactically and stylistically, but who regard professional broadcasters as a closed group who filter everything through their professional production standards and thus crucially distort what the contributors are trying to say.
The memo goes on to describe the potential pitfalls of such a programme—though curiously and charmingly Attenborough seems to worry much more about the possible dullness that could ensue from a show being hosted by non-professionals and structured in loose, ad-hoc ways, rather than any moral or political outrage.
Attenborough’s proposals were accepted with some trepidation by the BBC, and in 1973 BBC2 launched the show ‘Open Door’, a pioneering late night public access experiment. One might be tempted to give some credit to the BBC for listening to Attenborough but let’s be honest: Who in their right mind could say no to Attenborough? That’d be like refusing the sun.
According to inews:
One episode, rescued from the archives and made available online by BBC History, along with Attenborough’s letter, handed editorial control to the “Transex Liberation Group.”
“The programme, featuring trans women, began: “Jokes about ‘the operation’ are all that most people know about transexualism. Tonight’s group discuss their situation in a more serious and comprehensive way, and draw attention to the many difficulties they endure”.”
It is regarded as the first UK TV programme to depict the trans community sympathetically, rather than a “problem” to be solved.
A different episode was dedicated to black teachers discussing racism in the British school system.
It’s funny. These days you struggle to get privileged white academics to address trans people by the correct pronouns. To treat marginalised or minority groups with a basic level of respect. But half a century ago, one privileged white academic, who had a voice and who had cultural and societal clout, thought it would be a great idea to not just respect and listen, but to give those groups free airtime on the motherfucking BBC. Because he reckoned that they deserved a voice; that he could use his clout to help amplify that voice; and that it would benefit them to speak just as it would benefit society as a whole to hear.
(Header image taken from the BBC)