It seems that this Christmas won’t be Christmas as we know it. This year we will not have the joy of spending three or is it four long hours on Boxing Day playing spot the superannuated actor you thought was long dead, or name the old girl in wig and pearls, playing an amateur sleuth called Button or Bundle. The BBC have put away their annual Agatha Christie Boxing Day drama.
This is not because they’ve decided to give us a work by Ibsen, Wilde or Shaw, a satirical production of Gilbert & Sullivan, as they used to do, or a new play by Tom Stoppard. The ritual Christie fest has been cancelled because someone in it, Ed Westwick, a lad you will probably never have heard of has fallen from virtue.
Two women accused Westwick on Facebook of attacking them at his US home in 2014. He denies the claims and says he doesn’t know them. They have accused him of rape and he is being investigated by the police. The BBC says they ‘are not making any judgements’ but until the matter is resolved they are dropping the appropriately entitled ‘Ordeal by Innocence,’ from the Christmas schedules. The BBC like the railway companies don’t believe in spoiling us at Christmas so presumably there will be a big Dad’s Army filled hole left behind. White Gold the late night comedy where he appears has also been put on hold.
It’s hard to understand why Westwick is so important. He is not a household name, at least not in this one or anyone I have asked nearby. The cast contains at least eleven other well known actors, including Bill Nigh and Anna Chancellor. With its starry cast, elaborate filming, varied lush locations, in the UK and abroad, the three part drama probably cost at least a million of our money as licence payers. As he is not particularly well known to the general public and he has not been charged yet, let alone brought to court this move seems incredibly cautious. It can only be understood by seeing the BBC once the world’s most respected public service broadcaster, taking part in the great national moral panic which began in Hollywood with Harvey Weinstein. Someone else almost no one had heard of.
It’s hard to believe that this is the same BBC which once used to revel in sin; sending Mrs Mary Whitehouse into a lather of rage at scenes of debauchery in its weekly Wednesday Play and in its weekly classic drama. Their production of Edward II for instance showed scenes of homosexual love which shocked the public at the time. Our TV screens were replete with dramas about seriously transgressive people from kitchen sink conflict to psychotic Roman emperors, Oscar Wilde a celebrity who liked young men, some under age, to Caravaggio who committed murder and Dylan Thomas a chronic alcoholic who abused his wife. I don’t think anyone ever enquired what the actors involved had been up to. Actors were not so important, or seen in any way as role models in those days. Now to appear in one late evening comedy seems to turn an actor into a celebrity, a new form of high priest of modern culture, expected to be impeccable in all his ways. Sophisticated people and BBC producers once suspended moral judgement in the interest of art. That culture, still paid for by us, has vanished.
If I ever met Miss Marple I would ask her how did this happen, why is Aunty back after being away for so long? I think the wise old bird might point out that she hasn’t come back to save our morals. She’s entirely here for the money.
In the UK we no longer produce great eccentric character actors, instead our young thespians, as in the USA have to be beautiful, mostly ex-models, and all very similar. To be seen as successful they now have to make it to Hollywood, become part of that homogenised face-lifted industry, just as every TV series made by the BBC is now chiefly a product for sale on the open market. Incredibly the BBC is now governed by what it thinks quite cynically the Americans will approve.
No one ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of an audience and everything from BBC drama must now be as unchallenging and safe as, well, an Agatha Christie novel. Very thin bedside fare for most of us and if Ed Westwick is innocent as he says he is, I wish him well and thank him as he may have inadvertently done us all a favour.© Salisbury Review