How I would rescue the BBC’s falling ratings

I am writing this article in 30 degree heat on my birthday, which shows true devotion. I am not sure how old I am as I stopped counting after 65 but I am still 25 in my mind, even if my body disagrees.

I love the nostalgia of old black and white television series and am currently watching a box set of Dial 999, which was shot in 1959 at Elstree Studios and all around London as it was a crime series. The star was Canadian actor Robert Beatty and each episode is full of familiar character actors of that era. Some were already well-known from the movies and others were just beginning, like Patrick Troughton just a handful of years away from becoming Dr Who and a household name. In those days the acting profession was far smaller and actors tended to be typecast in comical roles, villains, romantic heroes, barmaids and coppers for instance. Some, like Warren Mitchell before Til Death Us Do Part, usually played foreigners, as did a young Christopher Lee.

Some 40 years after Dial 999 finished I invited Robert Beatty back to Elstree for a reception and he asked if he could bring a friend, who turned out to be Eartha Kitt. I recommend watching the series if only for views of London as it was in the 1950s and to see how it has changed.

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I worry about EastEnders, which is filmed at BBC Elstree, as the viewing figures have fallen off the cliff and at one point a few weeks ago were as low as two million, which is a big decline from the halcyon days of about 20 million. It is of course true of all ITV and BBC programmes as younger viewers in particular turn to Netflix and other channels with vast budgets. The BBC have just spent several million pounds on rebuilding the street set and other studio upgrades. My only advice to the producers and writers is to cut back on the politically correct but often depressing storylines. In general I would advise them to start remembering that a quarter of the population are over 60 and stop chasing younger viewers, which is rapidly becoming a lost cause.

Across the road at Elstree Studios the BBC rents stage space for various television series such as Pointless and another popular show filmed there is The Chase, hosted by Bradley Walsh. I have met Bradley, who I believe was born in Watford, and he is a nice guy and a gentleman not to mention multi-talented. However, I think he is overexposed on television, although that has apparently earned him £12 million. Although The Chase is shown throughout the year they actually shoot 210 episodes, 16 celebrity editions and 16 beat the chasers in just 86 days.

I still think a great afternoon television programme would be along the lines of ‘whatever happened to’, with guests from the music, television and film worlds from yesteryear. It would be cheap to film and have great appeal to older viewers, who the BBC should remember pay its licence fee. I am told the BBC pays a celebrity £5,000 to appear on Pointless, although they play for charity. For such money I am sure one could attract stars from the past. Nostalgia is very popular. Back in 1989 I was a programme consultant on a two-part BBC television documentary that got bigger viewing figures than EastEnders but cost a pittance. Just a thought.

  • Paul Welsh MBE is a Borehamwood writer and historian of Elstree Studios

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