“WE ARE what we watch”: a fairly dubious profundity, but containing a kernel of truth. So The British Academy Television Awards (BBC1, Sunday) should provide — as watching TV is far and away our greatest leisure occupation — the topic of more conversations than any other. A caveat should be declared: apart from one category, all the prizes were awarded by professionals to fellow professionals; so a cynical view is that the exercise amounts to little more than luvvie speaking unto luvvie. The programmes represented, however, were those attracting the highest viewing numbers and greatest critical attention. Perhaps even thespians share the tastes and values of us common folk.
And never has actors’ presumed self-importance and their closed world been more thoroughly punctured than by the presenter Richard Ayoade’s lacerating gags. Apart from the usual suspects (Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway yet again the Best Entertainment series; Gogglebox winning the bizarrely named Reality and Constructed Factual category), I found the list of winners very encouraging.
A significant majority of the programmes dealt with serious and challenging moral issues: the Leading Actress winner, Jodie Comer, and Best Supporting Actress, Cathy Tyson, both appeared in Help (TV, 24 September 2021), a dramatic exploration of the care-home crisis under Covid; Sophie Willan, in Alma’s Not Normal (TV, 1 October 2021), punctures all expectations of what should properly be found funny; the Factual Series winner Uprising (TV, 30 July 2021) is a searing exposé of the failure to take the 1981 New Cross house fire seriously; Big Zuu — the celebrity chef — won in two categories.
All these, and the high percentage of women, add up to a far greater diversity, a far deeper range, than what used to be considered popular. The surprising failure of the powerful AIDS drama It’s A Sin (TV, 5 February 2021) — despite having the highest number of nominations — to win any award may paradoxically indicate that homosexuality is in itself now considered so unexceptional as not to raise special attention.
The closest we got to religion was in the double nomination for We Are Lady Parts (TV, 28 May 2021), the comedy based on the incongruity of a group of actively Muslim girls’ forming a punk rock band. And the Must See Moment, the one prize awarded by the general viewing public rather than professionals, was Rose Ayling-Ellis’s silent sequence in Strictly Come Dancing, a breakthrough encouragement to take seriously deaf people’s talents and abilities.
Winner after winner made implicit anti-government pleas in support of public broadcast TV’s and Channel 4’s independence from purely commercial standards. Of course, all this general advance in widening liberal standards ignores one crucial fact: most young people hardly watch TV, and certainly not the established terrestrial channels. Their viewing centres entirely on smartphones and streaming platforms — inculcating, possibly, somewhat different values.