In the summer of 2020, a month after the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston was toppled and three months after George Floyd was murdered outside a convenience store in Minneapolis, I gave a lecture about race and racism, diversity and inclusion within the television industry. I used that platform, the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture, to tell the story of how for decades TV has failed not only to address its diversity problem but, at times, even to acknowledge that it has one. On the small screen – as in the worlds of art, publishing, theatre and film – who gets their stories told and who gets to do the telling have never been based on talent and passion alone.
Television is an old medium with a long established internal culture, one that developed over the decades and from the outset was exclusive rather than inclusive. The BBC that emerged in the 1920s very much reflected the class-bound society that had spawned it. Early television was dominated by London, and its programmes were largely produced and presented by members of a middle-class elite.
Despite the much publicised relocation of various broadcasters and production companies to the regions, a century after British broadcasting began, when we picture a television producer we still do not think of someone with a regional accent from a working-class background. Those people from wealthy backgrounds, who attended private schools and elite universities, are sometimes described in the culture of television recruitment as being from “traditional backgrounds”. The backgrounds of people such as myself, from council estates and failing comprehensive schools, are tellingly described as “non-traditional”.
Putting words out into the world, as I did that summer, can have unpredictable effects. One of which was that it helped a group of people – with whom I now work – to devise an initiative that aims to influence the development of a new medium. This year, as well as working in television, I am engaged in StoryTrails, an initiative led by StoryFutures Academy, the UK’s National Centre for Immersive Storytelling at Royal Holloway, University of London. The new medium in which we are working is the metaverse – the 3D internet that uses virtual reality (VR) to create new worlds inside a headset, and augmented reality (AR), which adds layers of digital imagery to the real world, that can be seen through your smartphone.
A new medium arrives in the world with no history and, to an extent, no cultural baggage. Women working in the technology sector might challenge the idea that technologies created in such a male-dominated space are completely baggage-free. However, the newness of these technologies means there is the potential to ensure that those who create the metaverse are not defined as being either “traditional” or “non-traditional”. The original sins of Britain’s television and film industries – their exclusivity, their metropolitan focus, their tendency to privilege middle-class outlooks and their long histories of misogyny – should and potentially can be left behind, and prevented from infecting VR and AR and the employment cultures that will develop around them.
This dream of inscribing a new and better creative culture is why our StoryTrails project is placing these new technologies into the hands of 50 creatives from across the country whose backgrounds reflect the diversity of UK talent. They are tasked with creating immersive stories that enable audiences to experience history, touch it, feel it and interact with it where it happened. Using film archive from the BFI, reimagined and transformed into stunning 3D, they will give audiences in Blackpool a chance to ride on the “Queercoaster”, an augmented reality journey through Blackpool’s LGBTQ+ history. People in Sheffield, meanwhile, will see how their city is becoming one of the greenest in the UK, thanks to large-screen immersive domes showing how it is throwing off its reputation for heavy industry and smokey skies.
StoryTrails will be part of this year’s Unboxed festival – billed as a nationwide celebration of creativity but originally labelled “the festival of Brexit”. Whatever the government’s original ambitions, if the festival currently being created by teams of artists across the UK were the latter rather than the former, not only would I not be involved, I’d be among its most ardent critics.
Although the ambition of StoryTrails is to prevent the new cultures around immersive technologies from repeating the mistakes of TV and film, that does not mean they have nothing to learn from older creative industries. Every book written on the history of television in the UK in the end reaches the same conclusion: that what makes British television special is the tradition of public service broadcasting, an ethos that emerged as radio and then television evolved in the UK from 1922 onwards. That tradition matured within the early BBC and was later transmitted to the new independent television companies that appeared in the 1950s, and from there to Channel 4, born three decades after that.
Public service broadcasting has been about making content available to everybody irrespective of where they live. In a UK made up of four nations, it has been about shared histories but also divergent experiences. It has sought to forge a sense of national identity while celebrating cultural difference. It has attempted to bring content together in ways that do not presume limitations, and to foster the potential for serendipity and the broadening of horizons. This appeal to universality has, at its best, not been achieved at the expense of minority communities and minority voices. British television, particularly in the early years of Channel 4, offered unique spaces and platforms to minority communities and parts of the UK distant (both geographically and culturally) from London.
In 2022, with disinformation surging throughout the world, and a Russian army encircling Kyiv while Putin’s state television convinces millions of Russians that Ukraine is the aggressor, public service broadcasting is more valuable than ever, and something we are perhaps beginning to appreciate more than we have in previous decades.
The 3D internet is very different from traditional television but inherent to them both – in very different ways – is a relationship to geography. Among the BBC’s greatest contributions to public life in Britain is local broadcasting – both television and radio. The 3D internet has the potential to be local in new, unique and extraordinary ways.
The 3D internet is able to take digital storytelling and overlay it on to real physical spaces. The overwhelming majority of people in the UK own a smartphone, through which it is possible to add virtual layers of augmented reality on to the places that are parts of our everyday lives. Already, 63% of us use AR via social media platforms on a regular basis.
This new way of seeing has the potential to enrich our relationship to real physical spaces – in particular to shared public spaces. The 3D internet, with its capacity
to stamp history virtually on to geography and create hybrid physical-digital experiences, is about opening up virtual public spaces. It asks what the new public spaces of a 3D internet will be. What will be the equivalent of the public forum, the market, the plaza? Where will we meet each other and where will we forge communities?