When it was announced yesterday that Frankie Boyle’s BBC series New World Order had been cancelled, the comedian’s reaction was frank but restrained. “Not surprising in the current climate, I suppose,” he told fans on Twitter, many of whom had followed his superb topical panel show devotedly for the five years it was on the air. Boyle didn’t elaborate on what he meant by the words “current climate”, but it doesn’t take too many imaginative leaps to hazard a guess. New World Order was one of the few shows on TV that was sincerely and unapologetically left-wing. And politically speaking, the BBC is in the midst of a full-fledged climate crisis.
It’s not good for optics that New World Order’s cancellation comes just weeks after the BBC was embroiled in an impartiality row with Match of the Day host Gary Lineker. The dispute – prompted by a tweet in which Lineker likened language in the Conservative party’s draconian new immigration policy to that used in 1930s Germany – was a black eye for the BBC. In removing Lineker from the role, they underestimated the show of solidarity from his fellow presenters, and others across the BBC Sports team. Not to mention the public support. The truncated 20-minute episode of Match of the Day that aired that Saturday, devoid of commentary and punditry, will be remembered in infamy. Ultimately, Lineker was restored to the role, but allegations of BBC prejudice have only intensified.
Often, when BBC programmes are accused of “left-wing bias”, it’s far from the truth. Series like Have I Got News For You – an ostensibly left-leaning topical series, often mentioned by conservatives in discussions of BBC bias – are scorned by many on the actual left. The Ian Hislop and Paul Merton-fronted panel show was, after all, the series that platformed Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage on their rise to prominence, and habitually mocked Jeremy Corbyn. But New World Order was legitimately left wing, as blunt and disparaging about the failings and hypocrisies of Keir Starmer as it was about the cruelties and ineptitudes of the government. It was a show where the phrase “revolution” could be uttered and everyone on screen would tacitly agree that would be a good (if only hypothetical) idea. Even with this being the case, New World Order was hardly a blinkered dose of communist agitprop; guests of a more centrist persuasion would regularly appear on the show, and would be allowed to espouse their views unchallenged.
The phrasing in Boyle’s tweet suggests it’s possible that New World Order will be picked up by another broadcaster; this is what happened with Channel 4’s The Mash Report, another series that was cancelled by BBC Two, having weathered accusations of “left-wing bias”. These are not the only examples. In 2016, the BBC cancelled Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, one of the best and most innovative comedy series in decades. Whether this was entirely down to Lee’s erudite skewering of the British right remains up for debate – a 10-minute sequence in which he did nothing but impersonate Rod Liddle eating poppadums was maybe always going to prove too outré for a mainstream broadcaster – but the decision to can a relatively inexpensive, Bafta-winning series like that certainly didn’t dispel fears about the BBC’s “current climate”.
The axing of New World Order is also disappointing from a representational perspective. Panel shows have typically been white, straight, non-disabled boys’ clubs. While New World Order was hosted by Boyle, who is all of those things, he was surrounded by a diverse roster of rotating guests, including (in recent seasons) Jamali Maddix, Sophie Duker, Desiree Burch, Susie McCabe, and Miles Jupp. It was not unusual to see Boyle joined by a panel comprised entirely of women, or people of colour. Filmed in Glasgow, the series also provided a substantial platform for up-and-coming comedians, and allowed them ample chance to shine. Speaking on Steph’s Packed Lunch earlier this week, comedian Rachel Parris lamented the recession of opportunities for rising comedians: “We’ve got so few paths now and I think they’re closing things down instead of opening things up.”
Whether or not politics had anything to do with the decision to cancel Boyle’s Bafta-nominated series is ultimately immaterial: the decision has been made. But true leftists have just lost one of the few TV series that seem to give voice to anything resembling their point of view. Its cancellation isn’t a surprise – but it is a profound disappointment.