Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Shock, horror, BBC complaints department behaves exactly as expected

I knew it was a mistake the moment I pressed the 'Send' button. I knew they would treat me like someone pointing out (spoken in nasal tones): 'You do realise, in you drama on Sunday, that a commuter train from Slough in 1967 would not included that kind of carriage, which wasn't introduced until 1968?' But I did it anyway.

Here's the thing. I had watched an episode of the BBC's police drama New Tricks, a painless, brainless way of spending an hour that is to, say, The Bridge, what a McDonalds coffee is to a serious barista product. One of the suspects in the show was a physicist. Fair enough. Even physicists can be obnoxious, as he certainly was. But they showed him in his lab. This was a physicist working on antimatter. And what did we see in the lab? Chemical glassware, and him playing with cylinders of blue liquid. Wearing protective goggles. I just had to moan.

See the physicist at work
So I went through the BBC's byzantine complaint form and made this comment:
I was very unhappy that the 6 October episode showed a character identified as 'a physicist' and working on 'antimatter' actually working in a laboratory where all the equipment would be familiar from an A-level chemistry lab - liquids in tubes, beakers, burettes and the like. This bore no resemblance to any environment in which a physicist would work. You've seen CERN on the news, for goodness sake. Please don't argue that this is nitpicking, or detail no one would care about. You wouldn't show someone in a drama going into an Indian restaurant and eating chicken chow mein. Or someone supposedly working in a brewery, when they were shown working in a paper factory. But this was just as inaccurate and, frankly, condescending to the viewer. It would not have been hard to have filmed it in a physics lab - there are plenty in London. This is one of a number of examples where accuracy of portrayal of science in dramas is far below par compared with, say, portrayal of other academic subjects. It probably reflects the preponderance of arts graduates at the BBC. But it's not good enough. It's easy enough to get someone to be a scientific adviser on a drama (I'd be happy to volunteer) - and there is no excuse for this kind of sloppiness.
I could almost have written the answer myself, so well did it match expectations, but here it is:
I understand you had concerns that a physicist working on antimatter was shown in a laboratory where all the equipment would be familiar from an A-level chemistry lab as this bore no resemblance to any environment in which a physicist would work. 
Whilst we thoroughly research all our scripts and storylines, a certain amount of dramatic licence is occasionally used in order to keep the story moving forward. We appreciate that even the most minor deviation from accuracy can be irritating to some viewers, however with the number of characters in the show, and the amount of storylines running concurrently, we cannot always include the level of detail that some viewers would like us to. 
Right. They totally ignored the point about restaurants and instead considered this a 'minor deviation from accuracy.' Perlease! And how did using a chemistry lab rather than a physics lab 'keep the story moving forward?' I wouldn't have minded if it had been a bog standard university physics lab - no doubt plenty in walking distance of their studios - I wasn't insisting on a full scale antimatter confinement facility.

They can spend all that money to send Brian Cox to a beach somewhere to make a ponderous statement in a slow, lugubrious voice, but they can't spend 30 seconds thinking 'Do physicists really do this?' Sigh.

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