A Clash of Cultures

In which The Author listens to the radio once more

A fortnight ago today, I caught an interesting documentary on BBC Radio 4. At first I thought I’d come unstuck in time and missed a day. Professor Laurie Taylor usually presents a Tuesday afternoon round-up of the social sciences called Thinking Allowed. Sometimes I listen to it, other times I don’t – it depends on what mood I’m in. If Prof. Taylor’s exploring new aspects of anthropology, talking to people who’ve done the research at first hand, I might stay tuned. If he’s discussing yet another report making the obvious link between poverty and crime, I probably go and do something less boring instead. When I heard his voice on a Monday afternoon, I was understandably confused.
It turned out to be the first part of a two-part documentary called Bingo, Barbie and Barthes. It (slightly prematurely) marked fifty years of Cultural Studies as an academic discipline, and in particular the work of Birmingham University’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, which was founded in 1964 by Richard Hoggart. Prof. Hoggart’s 1957 book The Uses of Literacy was arguably the catalyst for the new field of study, and he became the centre’s first director when it opened.
In his fascinating retrospective, Prof. Taylor spoke to some of the key players in what became a very productive and often maligned area. I remembered a lot of them from my early days in academic bookselling, when the Polytechnic of Wales had a thriving Media & Cultural Studies Department. I wasn’t familiar with their work, but I certainly recognized their names from reading lists and stock-cards; the programme’s interviewees included Prof. Hoggart’s successor Prof. Stuart Hall, notable writers and researchers such as Angela McRobbie, Paul Gilroy and Dick Hebdige (see Pick’n'(Re)Mix), and the Guardian journalist Suzanne Moore, who had studied Cultural Studies at university (although not at Birmingham).
Cultural Studies, like its close relative Media Studies, was often accused by the British media of committing many sins: of left-wing bias; of being ‘woolly’ and ‘anti-intellectual’; and of often deliberate obscurantism. I must admit to having some sympathy for that point of view myself, as I described in Bullshit Detector. Eventually, the growing emphasis on Real-World applications in British universities began to sideline Cultural Studies.
At Glamorgan, the course was enfolded into a larger Social Sciences department in the late 1990s. Two years ago, during another internal reshuffle, the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences was enfolded into the Faculty of Business and Society. I can only assume that at some point during that internal upheaval my paperwork vanished (see Everything Changes) and my academic career came to an abrupt end. By that time, Cultural Studies at the University of Glamorgan was just a distant memory.
The CCCS, the alma mater of so many of the leading thinkers in the field, closed in 2002. You’ll be lucky to find a Cultural Studies course in the current UCAS handbook. Maybe Goldsmith’s College still offers it. It must be a hell of a competitive application process…
Anyway, this afternoon I caught the latest instalment of Round Britain Quiz, which has been running on Radio 4 since 1947, believe it or not. Like Brain of Britain and Counterpoint, it’s been shunted around the schedules for years until finally finding a permanent home on a Monday afternoon, with a Saturday night repeat. Unlike Brain of Britain (which I get as a podcast in case I miss a heat) I don’t listen regularly, because I find it extremely annoying, to be honest.
RBQ, as its aficionados call it, is very different from the other quizzes it shares a slot with, in that the ‘teams’ aren’t drawn from the general public. Instead, the regular players are a mix of former quiz champions, academics, writers, broadcasters, and ‘pundits’. They’re the sort of people who, in a previous generation, would have appeared on The Brains Trust, and who would now make up the regulars on Eggheads (if only it didn’t appear on that new-fangled television, of course). I first came across RBQ when I was working in Dillons, and Nick Clarke was in the chair. Now it’s chaired by Tom Sutcliffe, and (say it quietly) it seems to be dumbing down.
If you haven’t heard it before, let me warn you that the questions are bizarre in the extreme. Some are complied in-house, and others are submitted by listeners. There’s always a connection to be made between the multiple elements of the answers, and some of them are extremely obscure, to say the least. Sometimes you feel as though you’re eavesdropping on a conversation in a care home, where a group of elderly people with dementia are trying to do a particularly fiendish Spectator crossword. Here’s an question from today’s edition:
Why would Umberto Eco be interested in a Polish-born revolutionary, a time-travelling Tyler, Mrs Gorbachev, and Laurie Lee’s Miss Burdock?
Anyway, the panellists eventually cracked it, with only a little guidance from the chairman. I’ll talk you through it in the same way. Umberto Eco wrote The Name of the Rose, from which you should be able to deduce the connection with people who are also named Rose, or variations on that name:
  • the Polish-born revolutionary was Rosa Luxemburg
  • the time-travelling Tyler was Rose in Doctor Who
  • Mrs Gorbachev’s name was Raisa
  • Miss Burdock is the eponymous character in Cider With Rosie.
(Believe it or not, that’s a fairly easy one!)
Another question this afternoon involved very different three pieces of music: Handel’s Largo, ‘Flowers in the Rain’ by The Move, and ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ by Buggles. The only clue was that they had an ‘initial’ connection.
It goes without saying that the experts recognised the Handel piece immediately. They’re all good British intellectuals after all. Their childhoods were probably made up of listening to the Third Programme and reading the classics in their original languages, interspersed by visits to the theatre or the opera house. However, when it came to the other two pieces of music, they were totally flummoxed. Mr Sutcliffe nudged them gently in the right direction for a few minutes until the penny finally dropped:
  • Handel’s Largo was the first piece of music transmitted over the wireless (what we used to call ‘radio’), on Xmas Eve 1906;
  • ‘Flowers in the Rain’ was the first record played on BBC Radio 1 on its launch on 30 September 1967;
  • the Buggles song was the first song played on MTV, when it started on 1 August 1981.
(Note for younger readers: the M in MTV originally stood for Music.)
Anyone who’s been a pub quiz regular in the last twenty years or so will almost certainly have come across the Buggles question before. Just about everyone of a certain age will know the one about The Move as well. They’re such old chestnuts that I could legitimately describe them as ‘common knowledge.’
Unless, of course, you’re a team member on Round Britain Quiz.
That’s why I started to write this particular entry. Inspired by Richard Hoggart’s original argument, the Cultural Studies brigade did their best to apply critical techniques to pop music, films and TV shows, and to present them as part of a much broader ‘culture’, along with the obvious candidates like high opera and the classics of literature. In Bingo, Barbie and Barthes, Suzanne Moore had described the relief she felt upon arriving at university, when she discovered that popular music was deemed worthy of serious study. As a working-class youngster, she’d never listened to classical music, and had been terrified that she’d be a fish out of water at university.
Listening to RBQ this afternoon, the cultural divide was alive and well once more. It was blindingly obvious that ‘low culture’ had completely passed the teams by. Another question made reference to The Tempest, the rights read to a suspected criminal in the United States, and a ‘funny lady.’ Once again, the team nailed the first part, struggled with the second, and completely failed to get the third. (To be fair to the panellists, I don’t think Miranda Hart is funny either.)
Possibly by coincidence, and possibly not, this afternoon’s listening also including Auditioning for Auntie. The journalist Pete Paphides had been granted access to the BBC’s archives, to look at the written feedback from pop music auditions throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In the wake of The Beatles’ triumph, hopeful musicians and singers had flocked to the BBC studios. They were armed with their gear and their attitudes, and were given twenty minutes to set up, impress the selection panel with three songs, and bugger off again. A successful audition would secure that all-important recording session.
The whole setup sounded redolent of a homespun, class-ridden, very British alternative to The X Factor. Instead of singing in front of a studio audience and a panel of music business movers and shapers, they performed to producers from the Light Entertainment Unit, who were more used to dealing with people like Tony Hancock. The comments made about The Rolling Stones, The Who, Elton John, Nick Drake, and a host of others, made for painful listening. It was obvious that the BBC staff, with a couple of exceptions, had no knowledge of (or interest in) the music they were dealing with, and no idea of what the public wanted to hear.
It was hardly surprising that the pirate stations made such a massive impact in the decade before the BBC finally bit the bullet and let Tony Blackburn play ‘Flowers in the Rain’ live on the air. The times they were a-changing, and the BBC was being left a very long way behind. It was the same period which saw the birth of Cultural Studies, and the idea that the division between ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultures was artificial and maintained by sheer snobbery.
For me, listening to Mr Paphides’ documentary tied this little knot of programmes up in a neat bow. I’m not being an inverted snob when I say that it might be time to introduce some new blood to Round Britain Quiz. It’s all very well having two people on the team who know everything about the works of Handel, but when they can’t name a former Number One hit by The Move, surely something has gone wrong somewhere.
With that in mind, I hereby volunteer to try out for the Welsh team of RBQ as and when a vacancy may arise. I may have limped in a poor third on Brain of Britain last year (see It’s Grand Oop North!), but look what happened to the guys who beat me on the day. Scott Dawson, who won our heat, got knocked out by Barry Simmons (of Mastermind and Eggheads fame) in the semi-finals. Darren Martin qualified for the semi-finals as one of the highest scoring runners-up, won a place in the final, and lost to – yes, you’ve guessed it – Barry Simmons. Now you know the full story, you’ll see why I felt like the part-time football club who’d accidentally qualified for the fifth round of the FA Cup.
That’s what general knowledge quizzes are all about, at the end of the day. It must be wonderful to have all the education money can buy, and be a world authority on some obscure poet, with a long reference on Wikipedia and an entry in Who’s Who. The thing is, if you’re in your local pub quiz and you don’t know who currently plays James Bond, at best you’re going to look a fool. Anyone can drop an obvious question in the local pub, when everyone’s had a few beers and it’s all forgotten (except by irritating know-alls, who’ll remind you about it for the next twenty years or so.) However, if you want to show off your total ignorance of popular culture (or, alternatively, ‘common knowledge’) on national radio, you’ll look like a massive buffoon in front of millions of people.
If the CCCS at Birmingham achieved anything during its forty-year existence, it was to demonstrate that the barriers between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture are artificial constructs. The smashing of those barriers has become even more relevant in an era where (almost) everyone has access to pretty much all human knowledge, via the Internet.
James E., Gaz and I are still vaguely planning to get a team together to have a shot at Eggheads. In the meantime, I’m absolutely serious about trying out for the Wales team on Round Britain Quiz, even as a standby in case someone falls ill. I modestly think my general knowledge could plug a few gaps in the regulars’ store of facts. Paul Bajoria, who produces RBQ, also produces Brain of Britain. I should think he’s still got my contact details somewhere…