Director blasts 'BBC ignorance'
Licence-payers are being treated as idiots in the chase for ratings, claims an award-winning documentary-maker after row over a mystery rejection letter
David Smith and Mary Riddell The Observer, Sunday December 9 2007
One of television's most imaginative film-makers has condemned Mark Thompson's leadership of the BBC as a 'catastrophe' and accused the corporation of undermining its worldwide reputation by insulting the intelligence of viewers.
Tony Palmer, who has won more than 40 awards including Baftas, Emmys and, uniquely, the Prix Italia twice, criticised the director-general after the BBC turned down a documentary of his. The film, about English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, has been produced by Five instead.
Palmer said he received an extraordinary rejection letter from a BBC commissioning editor explaining that, 'having looked at our own activity via the lens of find, play & share', it had been decided the film did not fit with 'the new vision for [BBC] Vision'.
Bizarrely, Palmer said, the letter concluded: 'But good luck with the project, and do let me know if Mr. V. Williams has an important premiere in the future as this findability might allow us to reconsider.' Vaughan Williams died in 1958.
Mysteriously, the BBC said that it had no record of the proposal and was working on a documentary about Vaughan Williams which had already been commissioned from the director John Bridcut. Palmer insisted that the exchange had taken place but declined to name the author of the letter, sent in June 2006.
'No human being can understand this letter,' he told The Observer. 'What does "findability" mean? Television used to be called television, not "vision". It's idiotic. I've no problem with being turned down but I'd like it to be for reasons I understand. If I'd been starting out 30 years ago and I read this garbage, I'd have slit my wrists.'
In a long and distinguished career, Palmer has made more than 100 films, including documentaries about Benjamin Britten, Igor Stravinsky, Maria Callas and Yehudi Menuhin. His series Wagner, starring Richard Burton, was described by critics as 'one of the most beautiful films ever made'.
He approached the BBC last year with the idea of making a documentary about Vaughan Williams, whose best known symphonies include The Lark Ascending and Fantasia on Greensleeves, in time for the 50th anniversary of the composer's death. After his rejection, Palmer won a commission from Five for a two-and-a-half hour film which will be broadcast on New Year's Day.
O Thou Transcendent includes contributions from Sir Michael Tippett, Mark Anthony Turnage, Harrison Birtwistle and, more unexpectedly, Neil Tennant of The Pet Shop Boys, Tony Benn and the Archbishop of Canterbury. It also features the last interview with the composer's widow, Ursula Vaughan Williams, filmed only six weeks before her death in October 2007, aged 96. After a preview screening at London's Barbican Centre, Vaughan Williams biographer Simon Heffer described it as 'stunning'.
Palmer said: 'It's the kind of film the BBC in the good old days would have made. Now it's not going to make this kind of film. It's nothing to do with money. It's a complete misunderstanding of the BBC's purpose.
'The BBC has a worldwide reputation which it has abrogated and that's shameful. In the end, the buck stops with Mark Thompson. He is a catastrophe.'
The attack comes a week after Sir Richard Eyre, the former artistic director of the National Theatre, criticised the BBC for failing to provide programmes that inspire people to visit museums, galleries or theatres.
Thompson is also under pressure after announcing plans to make 1,800 redundancies and redeploy a further 700 staff, raising the prospect of industrial action.
Palmer stressed that he was grateful to certain BBC departments, including archivists and the BBC Chorus, for making the film possible. He added: 'I'm not one of those people who believe there was a golden age of television. But the morale of the BBC has never been as bad as it is now.
'The really depressing thing that's happened is the tendency to think the audience is stupid: "If we don't have it presented by Ant and Dec or some totty dolly bird they won't watch it." This is an insult to the audience and denigration of the traditions the BBC is meant to uphold. The audience is being told it's too stupid to grasp anything "cultural" or "elitist". Bollocks is the answer to that.'
Palmer did not rule out returning to the BBC, but added: 'If I'm going to be offered 50 minutes on BBC4 then no, thank you very much. It's not that I'm against BBC4, but what's the point if you're not going to reach an audience?.'
A BBC spokeswoman said: 'Television arts commissioning can find no record of receiving a proposal from Tony Palmer. This rejection letter did not come from them. We are unable to take this letter seriously without seeing it or being given the name of who sent it.
'We had already begun developing a film with John Bridcut on Vaughan Williams in early 2006. We reject any suggestion that films require celebrity involvement to be commissioned,' she added.