Thursday, November 20, 2008

Sound Judgement

There are many lessons to learn in life. Apparently one is: Never argue with a girlfriend because she’s always right. At least that’s what they told me. Although from experience my interpretation was: Don’t argue with a girlfriend because you won’t hear the last of it. (And, more importantly, if they weren’t in the habit of having hot make-up sex afterwards, there was really nothing to gain anyway).

That said, one thing I came to acknowledge over the past years was to never argue with a girlfriend who’s a lawyer whether they are right or wrong, simply because they would gleefully tangle me up in torturous and tiresome legalese in their effort to win. These “heated debates” of ours were few and far between, and since relationships are built on compromise as well as love, I’d ultimately suck it up, let them claim victory, and be rewarded later on between the sheets.

Where we did reach an impasse was in our television viewing. After a day compositing pet food commercials I wanted to watch something with intelligence. After a day in the legal trenches they wanted to escape into mindless entertainment. Obviously this meant an agreement would be reached in which I sat and watched the programmes they wanted to watch. Unfortunately that meant, depending on the time of year, Big Brother for one and The X Factor for the other. I had to keep reminding myself the energetic sex made up for it.

Who on earth thought it was a good idea to put the general public on the television? Obviously they’re a necessary ingredient for games shows and vox populi soundbites in news and current affairs programmes, but there has to be a limit somewhere. Over the years it seems like the bolt on the gate has come loose and the plebs have scarpered from their pen to ride roughshod across every television channel.

Frankly, I don’t always see the point of this. If I need the boiler fixing or the plumbing given the once over I’m not going to ask somebody on the street rather than phone a professional who knows what he’s doing. If I’m sitting in the living room and have a sudden, overwhelming (and probably irrational) urge to watch real people I’ll look out the window rather than flick on the TV.

Growing up I remember talk of Paul Watson’s The Family, which introduced the “fly-on-the-wall” documentary to British television in 1974 but didn’t see any of it. A couple of years later I did watch Sailor, the celebrated BBC documentary series showing the day-to-day life of the sailors working on board the Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. Apparently there was footage of naval fighter aircraft on test flights accompanied by Pink Floyd’s Shine on You Crazy Diamond, but all I remember of the music is that bloody Rod Stewart song Sailing, played over the titles.

Then in the 1980s came authored pieces like Canadian-born Molly Dineen’s Home from the Hill in the BBC2 documentary strand Forty Minutes, which documented the return to England of Colonel Hilary Hook, formerly of the Indian cavalry, from his home in the Kenya Hills and having to readjust to a completely different way of life. In the following years came the likes of Dineen’s The Ark, highlighting London Zoo’s struggle for survival after its government subsidies were cut, and The House, which can an eye over the rifts and acrimony behind the scenes at Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House after a £55m grant had helped it through an earlier financial crisis.

These prestigious series, lifting the lid on British institutions, eventually began to peter out no doubt because, after the reaction to The House, people closed their doors to cameras in case they were portrayed as incompetent buffoons on screen as filmcrews peeked behind the curtain at the great and mighty Oz. To satiate the continuing public appetite of poking around in other people’s lives, along came what turned into the docusoap.

Whereas a series like Sailor or Roger Graef’s Police had shown viewers something they would never ordinarily see in their day-to-day lives, docusoaps – obviously made on cheaper budgets – revolved around pretty much the everyday. Driving instructors, traffic wardens, vets, shopping mall staff, and, to a degree, airports and cruise ships were more familiar to the audience.

The key to getting the shows talked about was to have the researchers or whoever was sent out on the initial forays to see if the concept was feasible was to find larger than life personalities. This meant the kind of people that if you were seated opposite them at a dinner party would have you lunging across the table and burying the salad fork in their head before the end of the first course. Stuck in a lift for them for more than five minutes and any jury in the land would return a verdict of justifiable homicide. After all those shenanigans, the next step was “reality TV”.

Except, of course, reality had nothing to do with reality TV. Everything we see on television outside of scripted drama and comedy has been subject to editorial judgements that consciously or subconsciously manipulate the footage. Big Brother might have been an interesting social experiment to begin with, but God was it boring. The only time real life heats up is when personalities clash, so I suppose everyone was watching in the hope that it would turn into a housebound The Lord of the Flies. From what I saw of it, dutifully sat beside the first lawyer girlfriend, that didn’t happen.

By the time I was sitting on a different sofa, watching The X Factor years later, it was obvious that all the shows that had come between were dressed-up competitions, not far removed from the earlier game shows I watched in my youth. What would have been one round of The Generation Game was now the whole show. The opening auditions seemed not so much about discovering raw, untapped talent but in humiliating the poor souls either deluded about their lack of talent or appearing as if they are auditioning to be the fifth Yorkshireman. This was like the gladiatorial arena once Health and Safety got involved.

One show I wasn’t forced to watch was Strictly Come Dancing when it first appeared in 2004. Curiosity was the initial reason because it seemed to be such an anachronism in this day and age. Melding Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom with the skill and dexterity of the old Come Dancing (which is why we deserved the Falklands), it turned out to be fascinatingly entertaining. As guilty pleasures go, one season was enough for me, although strangely I came back to watch this current sixth season. Good job that I did.

The key to these kind of shows is not just having public or inexperienced public figures on the show but having the viewers at home have a say in the voting procedures. After all, you have to remember that in polls where the public are asked to vote for the best film ever they nominate crap like Star Wars. It helps to remember the line of dialogue from Men in Black: “A person is smart. People are dumb.”

Things like this are primed to go wrong and subvert the true intentions of the show. Apparently in every season the judges, and most probably the other competitors, have been irked that someone clomping around the dance with two left feet, while celebrities with a spark of real talent have been given their marching orders. Obviously it’s all a bit of a lark at the beginning, making it a show of two halves as the real no-hopers try their best before the wheat is gradually separated from the chaff and the real work kicks in.

The whole hullabaloo sparked by poor old political correspondent John Sargeant being kept in the competition by a large portion of viewers, giving him their vote solely to further annoy the judges, has certainly added a new dimension in terms of entertainment. It shows how as a country we’re not only happy to celebrate the underdog but happily thumb our noses at authority figures.

Still, nine weeks in the joke did seem to be wearing thin. No wonder he walked, even though his decision then sparked a completely different outrage. But when politicians jump on the bandwagon, particularly a wanker like Peter Mandleson calling Sargeant “the people’s John Travolta,” it really is time to go. Amongst all the news reporting of the event yesterday, the best has to be the Newsnight segment, especially since Paxman gleefully embraces the whole absurdity of the situation.


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