Thursday, August 21, 2008

Fear Of The Talking Head

Purely in the interests of science, I wondered what it would be like to be seriously treated like I was a complete and utter fucking imbecile. Obviously there are many ways to test this in this day and age. But for the purposes of this experiment I watched last week’s episode of Dr Alice Roberts: Don’t Die Young, which has been loitering around on iPlayer like so many of the turds floating in the BBC punchbowl.

I had missed being spattered by this racid stream of effluvium until friend of the blog, Jaded and Cynical, brought it up in the last post’s comments. At lot of the time we complain that indigenous television drama certainly isn’t what it used to be, but perhaps the worst offender in recent years is how utterly dumb factual programming has become.

J&C mentioned the episode about the digestive system that “opened with a fire engine being driven into a town centre. Members of the public were asked the question: If your intestines were a hosepipe on this engine, how long would they be?“ I had the unbridled joy of catching the episode regarding the ears, nose and throat.

This particular gem began at the circus, for no apparent reason, then went on to introduce some slaphead club DJ who, spending his days and nights in the midst of very LOUD music, wondered if it might be affecting his hearing. Really? Well, who would have thunk it? After a resounding YES! Dr Alice then showed how difficult it was to go clothes shopping with bad hearing. By the time she stated that the mouth was used for eating I figured I had had more than enough.

Sticking it out for just over half the running time left me utterly bewildered. I wondered if the programme title was meant to be sarcastic, as in “Don’t accidentally slide under a bus anytime, you patronising cunt!” If the second half of the show was anything like the first half, in total there was a threadbare two minutes worth of fact in the episode was the rest of the time filled out with twatting around.

Almost thirty years ago the BBC broadcast Dr Jonathan Miller’s remarkable 13-part documentary series The Body in Question, which pretty much told us everything we needed to know. So why is time and money being spent on this new tripe with the ginger bint? J&C mentions Jacob Bronowski’s spellbinding series The Ascent of Man, first shown in 1973. A personal view of history, Bronowski’s account of humankind’s development was simply presented in respect that it was incredibly informative without being staged and also deeply moving without being at all cloying.

Looking back at these shows, perhaps the most interesting discovery is that, like Jeremy Isaacs’ The World at War, which was shown the year later, neither The Body in Question nor The Ascent of Man won BAFTA awards. Yes, they were all brilliant documentaries series, but at the same time there were factual programmes that were considered to be even better. Imagine that!?

Apart from what are now considered landmark series there were the respected documentaries like Man Alive and Horizon, which had a regular home in the schedules. Whichever series it was, I remember a programme on the British motorcycle industry, shown on a Monday evening. Tuesday morning, my first class at the Grammar School was Engineering Drawing, and our master, who had been a Lancaster pilot during the Second World War and went on to annually race in the Isle of Man TT, spent the whole lesson discussing the documentary.

Any kind of onscreen graphics, I suppose, were incredibly basic so the programmes all relied on filmed sequences and talking heads. And yet they were still entertaining as well as being informative because the subject matters were so enthralling. Obviously this is a horrible thing to admit, but it felt good to actually learn something.

Since then there was always series like Timewatch and Bookmark, Omnibus and Arena, Fine Cut, along with the phenomenal material that regular came from the BBC’s Natural History Unit. And at no point watching them did I feel like the material was being infantilised by the material. With enthusiastic presenters like Miller or Bronowski or Michael Wood or James Burke or Sir David Attenborough, we had people who would make ideal dinner party guests rather than the idiots today who you imagine would just want to rifle through your record collection while they talked crap.

And gradually, over the years, most of those programmes disappeared into the ether. The last series of Horizon I watched was virtually unrecognisable, relying heavily on fannying around with CGI in a vain attempt to chase ratings. Channel 4 used to have Equinox before they decided to hang their schedules of Big Brother and repeats of Friends and anything involving that ass-clown Justin Lee Collins. ITV may still have The South Bank Show, but long ago it turned horribly populist and now just seems to be an extended promotion for the artist involved.

What the fuck happened to the population that makes the majority not want to learn? Don’t people want to know more than what to wear or what plants to put in the garden? Why do we yearn to be treated like we’re lying in a crap-filled nappy wanting a brightly coloured mobile filling our field of vision?

There are still good documentaries around but they are few and far between, losing ground to lifestyle garbage and orchestrated phone-in con jobs. Back at the turn of this century the BBC gave us A History of Britain by Simon Schama. Currently we have the utter facile Britain from Above. Luckily there is still the odd informative programme around, like Stephen Fry and the Gutenberg Press - The Machine That Made Us.

In these personality-driven documentaries, which have become the new bait to attract an audience, Fry is a perfect presenter because he doesn’t have an overbearing personality that squeezes everything else out of the frame and is quite happy to hear other people talk, making it all eminently watchable. On the other hand, Richard Dawkins has started to appear so bullying and aggressive with his “I’m utterly right and you’re utterly wrong!” stance that I find him unwatchable.

Still, there is still the dependable Laurence Rees. One of the finest documentary makers in recent times, responsible for The Nazis: A Warning from History, In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great and Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution’, this autumn he’s back with WWII - Behind Closed Doors, which concentrates on Stalin's relationships, with not just Churchill and Roosevelt but also Hitler.

As well as carefully sourced archive material the series includes eyewitness accounts from Uncle Joe’s secret police, speaking on camera for the first time. How about that? Of course it will probably be scheduled opposite The X-Factor.


At 9:35 pm, Blogger Piers Moron said...

Recording cutting remarks, social commentary and the general dislike of Piers fucking Morgan -

At 9:49 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

Well, congratulations. And if you don't mind me saying... "Piss" and "Off"!

At 11:15 am, Blogger Riddley Walker said...

And one mustn’t forget the excellent Connections by James Burke - a series which managed to disturb me so much, I tried to stay awake and not forget anything in case the world stopped working.

I also have the DVD set of Carl Sagan’s magnificent Cosmos which is still (dated flares, corduroy and all) a great eye-opener on the scale and grandeur of the universe in which we find ourselves. Sagan’s hypnotic voice and unruffled presentation belie the fact that he’s continually smacking you in the face with extraordinary data about, well, everything really. Sagan inspired many people’s interest in science in much the same way that the very best teachers inspire their pupils. And he managed to do it without walking through a field of dinosaurs, roping in the general public, or slipping his cock into a black hole for effect.

I have a stack of Horizons that I, umm, ‘acquired’ a while back. As they progress through the years, you can definitely see a decline in the quality of the shows as they attempted or were forced into liberally running the shows through the ‘shiny shiny’ filter in order to chase ratings.

Funny thing is, I’m not sure who it is that the new shows are chasing. Most of the knuckle-draggers would probably rather be out screaming around Stevenage Leisure Park in their souped-up shitty hatchbacks and/or banging some fat boiler with a scrape-back and hoop earrings (yes, I AM a fascist, move on) than concentrating on anything factual. I can’t see that an audience addicted to Big Brother is going to give a shit how long one’s intestinal tract might be. I also posit that they may already be cognisant that their mouths are used for eating (as well as yelling at each other), so there’s no breaking news there.

It would seem that if an endeavour is not deemed to be ‘cool’ then it is, by its very nature, worthless. Learning has never been particularly cool, but with a society increasingly enamoured with ‘celebrity’ and the concept that becoming one circumvents actually having to do any real work (Kerry Katona, Jade Goody, Jordan, etc.), it's unlikely that surrounding it with flashing lights and thumping bass is going to swing the vote.

I’m off to gas some peasants in the meadow...


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