In marking Prince Philip’s death BBC didn’t so much lose the plot as revert to ancient one

Broadcaster stuck to protocols that harked back to pre-Netflix levels of influence

The BBC set up then later removed an online complaints form for people  who thought its blanket coverage of Prince Philip’s death was too much. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

The BBC set up then later removed an online complaints form for people who thought its blanket coverage of Prince Philip’s death was too much. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

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Shortly after noon on Friday, BBC Radio 1 Dance, a digital station spin-off from Radio 1, was doing what it does best: playing a techno anthem. But as Alan Fitzpatrick’s We Do What We Want advanced at what seemed to be an unrelenting pace, the unpredictable happened: the beat dropped for an orchestral blast of God Save the Queen.

As mash-ups go, worse have been heard. But this was the improvised Don’t Listen to What You Want remix and it marked an abrupt end to that afternoon’s Classic Dance Anthems with Charlie Hedges as listeners were informed instead of the death of Prince Philip.

The Duke of Edinburgh was not a known techno fan so perhaps this is what he would have wanted. But within hours, deeper schedule rip-ups, beyond the initial news simulcast, were confirmed. The BBC didn’t so much lose the plot as revert to its version of an ancient one, ignoring the extent to which the audience – and the theatre – had changed since it was first written.

On Friday night, BBC Two aired the same programmes as BBC One and BBC Four was suspended, with the frankly alarming advice to switch to BBC One “for a major news report”. Had nuclear war broken out?

No, this was the BBC playing its part in Operation Forth Bridge, the code name for the Duke’s death, and making a series of apparently voluntary decisions about what was and wasn’t appropriate for it to air. Leaks over the years about what such a plan might entail meant its reaction was scarcely surprising, but that didn’t make the reality of it any less surreal.

Rhetorical questions abounded. Was it really wrong for licence fee-paying British subjects to want to explore the extraordinary history of lawns in the company of BBC Two’s Gardener’s World? Was UK national identity so fragile that it could not withstand a handful of tired people indulging in the spectacle of Vanilla Ice doing Ice Ice Baby on Top of the Pops 1990?

Why was it right for an international women’s football friendly between England and France to be pulled from BBC Four yet shown online? Was showing the match online-only somehow less offensive to the grief-stricken than broadcasting it on BBC Four? What was the Daily Mail’s verdict on all this?

Mother of God, was Sunday night’s scheduled showing of Line of Duty “safe”?

From a cringe-free Irish perspective, the reverence with which the BBC – and other UK broadcasters, but most overtly the BBC – treat even routine morale-boosting statements from Queen Elizabeth is as much a source of curiosity as it is a trigger for despair. Our approaches to official mourning have diverged, too. Mercifully, an RTÉ policy of suspending all programming across services in the event of a taoiseach, president or pope dying while in office and merging its radio stations to play only funereal music has long been abandoned.

North Korea comparison

I saw a British journalist tweeting that the world would be p***ing itself laughing “if this was North Korean TV” and wanted to reply that that there was no “if” about it. And yet the fact that the UK is not (yet) North Korea is exactly why the BBC’s attempt at mood-policing seemed so bizarre.

To keep the trust of their audience, State-owned broadcasters must often fight to assert their independence and distinguish themselves from the straight-up, completely controlled “State broadcasters” of less democratic nations. Sometimes, it seems as if the ultra-deferential BBC is not trying.

Yet even in the flag-waving heartlands, the schedule changes appeared to be testing the loyalty of the audience. By the end of the night, the BBC had set up a special form on its website to process complaints about its blanket coverage. It subsequently took it down as complaints subsided – albeit not before the complaints form had itself attracted complaints.

Some wondered what all the fuss was about: in an age when Netflix is widely available, did it matter that the BBC was sabotaging itself in this way? Why was everybody whinging? Shouldn’t they get over themselves? It was only television. But this is not the point. The point is the BBC no longer has the cultural power to instigate a top-down “national moment” and that only makes it more embarrassing and weird when it tries.

Hollywood royalty Tom Cruise was one of the guests on an episode of BBC One’s The Graham Norton Show postponed on Friday night. Photograph: So TV / PA Media
Hollywood royalty Tom Cruise was one of the guests on an episode of BBC One’s The Graham Norton Show postponed on Friday night. Photograph: So TV / PA Media

The verdict was soon in: an analysis of ratings by US entertainment industry site Deadline showed BBC Two’s peak-time ratings dropped by two-thirds compared to the previous Friday, while ITV’s royal tribute programming saw its viewership plummet 60 per cent. Channel 4, which extended its news coverage but then reverted to its original schedule, suffered less, with viewing down just 8.5 per cent, and Gogglebox easily winning its time slot. Those most eager for royal coverage gravitated to BBC One, but its ratings were still down 6 per cent.

That was Day One. On Day Two, Pointless Celebrities was cancelled for reasons it is maybe wise not to dwell on, but television schedules slowly reflated back into shape. Not so on BBC radio, where various stations played the most sombre tunes they could find and anything resembling upbeat chat was eliminated.

“Mourn-porn” is a new term for me, but I get the feeling I’ll be using it a lot more in future.

‘Different style’

“You’re listening to 6 Music with a different style of show today as you will understand,” said BBC presenter Mark Radcliffe on Saturday morning. “This is Bon Iver.”

This was ironically hilarious for a while, but not feeling especially sad in the first place, I didn’t want to be dragged into the mire by a succession of musical miserabilists, so I switched to Graham Norton on commercial (but ad-free) station Virgin Radio UK, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s Wireless Group. The night before, an episode of Norton’s BBC One chat show featuring Hollywood royalty Tom Cruise had fallen victim to the royal axe, but on Virgin, he was on less slavish territory.

It had been hard to know how to “pitch” his show that morning, he told listeners, but ultimately what he and his producers were opting for was “kind of business as usual”.

Anybody who wasn’t in the mood could always follow the news on Times Radio or meander in something more downbeat on Virgin Radio Chilled. Virgin Radio UK was going to do what it does best: playing Mystify by INXS.

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