Thursday 22 March 2018

TV review: Fall of a global empire is definitely news

Manchester United (All Channels), Teachers' Conferences (RTE1), The Story of the Open University (BBC2)

Illustration: Jim Cogan
Illustration: Jim Cogan
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

IN THE vortex of one of the most important news stories of the century – the sacking of David Moyes – you could hear the odd voice wondering if this should be the lead item on the main evening news.

The reasonable conclusion to be drawn from such complaints, is that the fall of one of the most powerful empires of the age should be reported only as a sports story, leaving the main 'current affairs' events of the day to occupy their usual position at the top of all bulletins.

Last week, this would have meant that reports of the teachers' conferences would take precedence over the failed succession to Sir Alex Ferguson. That pictures of teachers being rude to Ruairi Quinn would be regarded by editors as more significant than the disintegration of the greatest tyranny of modern times. That something the Minister said about Junior Certificate reform would grab the attention of the general public at a level deeper than any discussion of Manchester United, and how the power has drained away from that once omnipotent global behemoth.

Indeed, since the teachers are always rude to the Minister at their conferences, it might be a vaguely interesting story if, just for once, they gave the Minster a warm reception. Yes, that might be news. If there was nothing else going on in the world that day.

Otherwise, both the rolling news stations and the traditional outlets got it right last week, leading with the story that was not just interesting to the public, but in the public interest. They, at least, are learning.


It is possible for educationalists to appear on TV and to sustain your interest for anything up to an hour – though it has to be said that The Story Of The Open University was presented by Lenny Henry, who is not a teacher.

Lenny was seen preparing for his title role in Othello, explaining that it was only his studies at the Open University which he undertook quite late in life, which gave him the confidence to attempt such difficult work.

He had first encountered it as a boy in the 1970s, that age of magnificence, when the people who ran television had these strange notions that it was a medium which could be a force for social good and human progress and for improving the minds of the multitudes who would otherwise have been denied such opportunities – the likes of Lenny Henry who, though he had received an honorary degree for his many other achievements, always felt he had never had a proper education.

David Attenborough, inevitably, was there or thereabouts. He was the head of BBC2 which, round midnight, became the Open University channel, with shows about medieval history and differential calculus presented by mad-looking men for the enlightenment of mature students. Unavoidably, there was also an immature element tuning in, mainly drunk people coming in from the pub who would find a late-night dissertation in black and white on the Franco-Prussian war to be oddly absorbing.

Attenborough himself will probably be the subject of a whole branch of advanced education in times to come, since he is undoubtedly one of the great cultural figures of the epoch. Clearly his most important contribution was his stewardship of the BBC when Match Of The Day was created, though some will point to his work on the environment and the fact that he may have saved the world as being influential too.

Those at the teachers' conference who see themselves as astute social commentators when they use the ancient term of abuse "Thatcherite," may want to take into account the most startling aspect of the Open University was the fact that Thatcher, as UK education minister, kept it going at a time when other Tories wanted to kill this project they had inherited from Harold Wilson.

But her view had darkened by the 1980s, when her beloved Sir Keith Joseph went to ideological war with the Open University, perceiving it as a vast steaming cesspool of leftist claptrap. It survived all that craziness too.

The Attenborough-esque notion of television as a contributor to the "common good" is now largely ridiculed, yet this one really did a lot of people, a lot of good, while the dumbed-down attitudes which replaced it have created little more than a digital wasteland.

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