Wednesday, 30 March 2011

10 O'Clock Live (Channel 4, 24/03/2011)

10 O'Clock Live is now in its tenth week; it is an attempt to make an up-to-the-minute satirical comedy, with a reasonably well selected team of participants. Whilst this is nominally a review of last Thursday's instalment, I have been watching this over a few weeks, so references may cover previous episodes.

The problem for me is not that it is left-wing - which it is, in a lukewarm Guardianista manner - but that it is all so predictable. Brooker's bits are very much News Wipe-lite, lacking the depth of his analysis on that fine BBC4 programme.

His recent BBC2 series, How TV Ruined Your Life, was satisfactory but tended to use very obvious clips. It worked best when he focused on the lifestyle dreams peddled by television, and the illusory view it gives of 'romance'; the public information films episode trod over very old ground without shedding much new light.

Lauren Laverne is okay, acting as a sort of likeably perky straight-woman to the others. She is rarely funny but does make some generally sensible, earnest contributions: the one on public libraries, particularly. As with any thinking and feeling person raised in Sunderland in the 1980s, she is anti-Tory and these views clearly come across. Far better her than Daisy Donovan.

Jimmy Carr is, well, Jimmy Carr - which is to say, smugly 'deadpan'. His contributions vary from the forgettable, to the inconsequential to the crass (making light of postal workers' redundancies). In Carr-world, puns are the height of wit and when the writers do give him some political lines his delivery lacks understanding and conviction. His portrayal of George Osborne the 'toff' is utterly toothless - missing the point and diverting the audience from the real nature of these Tories.

David Mitchell, however, has no end of conviction and displays more intelligence and passion than anyone else in the programme. He handles the largely serious interview sections well, mixing pointed, relevant questions with some barbed asides that are rather less cynical than Paxman's. He makes some sterling comments on housing, debunking the 5-years-out-of-date lifestyle 'aspirations' peddled by the Tory MP Grant Shapps: "Our houses are massively overvalued [....] Shouldn't we get rid of this bloody ladder!?"

Mitchell is excellent in highlighting the absurdity of Osborne's budget proposals, putting public money towards propping up house prices at their current 'value' - encouraging first-time buyers to borrow beyond their means. Politician Shapps is every bit the vacuous television property-porn salesman, an archetype that should be as popularly loathed as the reckless banker:

'People wanna get a foot on the ladder'

He also has Shapps squirming over the issue of elite public schools and their charitable status - effectively receiving a subsidy from the state. His "Eton College is taking the piss" receives gratifyingly loud applause from the seemingly 20-30-something audience. Clearly the Tories will have to face these charges now that they are in power, defending an iniquitous status quo (shamefully unchallenged by the Blair or Brown's Labour Party).

For the self-styled libertarian Tory James Delingpole to describe the programme as 'Maoist re-education' is palpably absurd. So much of the satire, Mitchell's interviews and pieces-to-camera notwithstanding, is relatively apolitical and lacking in bite; it is rather conservative television in how little it uses the format, with its solo-comedian spots and the spartanly garish sets. It would benefit from a more varied approach to its comedy: sketches, songs. Delingpole is wrong that there is no serious debate; in the interview and panel sequences, there is a reasonably high standard of debate - with guests who span the political spectrum. If it tends towards a left-of-centre perspective, this might be seen as a necessary counterbalance to the overwhelming right-wing dominance of the newspaper market - and the BBC, which, lest we forget, employs such left-wing firebrands as Nick Robinson and Andrew Neil.

This show is actually quite valuable in bringing some sober debate on issues like Libya and housing to a young audience. The Libya debate with Rory Stewart was a case in point, managing to convey many different perspectives on a complex issue - see alo the immigration debate that involved Mehdi Hasan. 10O'CL works less well as comedy, however; one can only imagine the greater depths that would be explored by a Stewart Lee. Indeed, this team of performers and writers seem unable to reach the incisive depths and vitality of Chris Morris or Armando Iannucci. Those 1960s-born satirists probe a lot deeper into the human condition and power than the following generation does here.

On balance, it is better that 10 O'Clock Live is being broadcast than not being broadcast, but there are so many missed opportunities that one is left disappointed. It should be urgent and essential viewing, but is only occasionally so. It is a significant advance on Channel 4's ghastly essay in anti-civilisation, The 11 O'Clock Show, but nowhere near the sort of satirical genius of The Day Today or even The Friday Night Armistice.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

STV Player and related issues

While I've gone through the issues often enough recently on my own blog (which I hope is not neglected in the light of my involvement here), I think I'm over my romanticisation of the parts of these islands commonly described as "Celtic". While there is still a legitimate case to be made for stating that the unpleasant behaviour I experienced in the later part of my train journey back from BFI Southbank yesterday is made worse by the void of a Dorset which lacks both the survived-in-adversity folk cultures of Scotland, Wales and Ireland and the ever-evolving multiculturalism of London, it would be wrong of me to pretend that there would not be such problems, or at the very least similar ones, wherever I went.

There were a good few wake-up calls along the way, among them a sharp correction from someone who pointed out that it was maybe not so ironic that the notoriously xenophobic Diocalm ad much ridiculed by Victor Lewis-Smith was shown on STV. Probably biggest of all, though, was my realisation that I had taken a very wrong turning when I was not instantly repulsed by a post on a TV-related forum (which, for the sake of all concerned, will remain nameless) where someone suggested that coming from Cardiff "really doesn't count as being Welsh".

Once it occurred to me that my lack of immediate anger was hypocritical considering that had someone made the equivalent remark about London I would have been the first person to make BNP accusations, I knew that I had taken the wrong road. Most English romanticisation of Celtic cultures is based around the idea that England does not have a clear identity of its own, which when you seriously deconstruct it is based around two fallacies: firstly, that it is even possible for a country as large and as varied as England, and with its very specific history, to have such an identity, and secondly that it is even necessary or appropriate.

I also strongly suspect that some of the romanticisation, while it may dress itself up as socialist, is based around the idea that much of the creativity and invention that goes on in England "isn't really English" - in my opinion, a racist (or, when directed at those like me, nativist/culturalist) slur on millions of people who know no other land, including those who shared the experience of Dick Fontaine's I Heard It Through The Grapevine (wonderful and revelatory; a fine example of how ATV accidentally became far more genuinely radical than it had ever been before when the social democratic establishment finally got their own back on the Grades, perhaps its last great triumph, and of course utterly reversed and beyond within a decade) at the BFI yesterday. It's the same reason why, special and resonant as the Unthanks' "Last" is, I'll always choose "Hello" or the "0121" remix over it; life, whether it comes from a putative EUtopia or the city so many Mail readers around me have fled, has to be better than a song which, ultimately, offers no such thing and, at its heart, with its acknowledgement of how illusory the past actually is, knows it.

This is also why I will not write again, as I did in the faltering early days of Sea Songs, about the full nature and implications of the ITV/STV rift. Old ground, old ground. However, I must recommend the online archive available at STV Player. Obviously, much of what is available there is of little if any real interest - the "Scotland" section confirms precisely why Grampian, despite serving a more rural and conservative area, was generally seen as the more progressive company while it still existed - but the STV Dramas section contains some interesting material especially in the children's field (in which STV, like some other "second-tier" ITV companies, had a major flowering in the 1980s, as soon to be deservedly represented at BFI Southbank - though sadly without the permanently-mired-in-legal-issues TVS contributions).

Shadow of the Stone is a rather fine series which very much covers familiar children's drama motifs of the period (uneasy teenager alienated from family and haunted by figures of the past, Moondial-esque allusions to the devil, insular coastal community) - there are several other 1980s series that cover similar ground, but in those respects it is particularly close to The Watch House, made the following year. Nonetheless, however generic its very title may appear to be, it holds its own ground, and the fact that it's too recent and its film stock not sufficiently grainy to attract the Belbury Youth Club bores is another point in its favour.

The Dramarama collection - all STV's contributions to that anthology series - contains several moments of interest; it's all too depressingly typical that the combined effects of the expat market (a vision of Scotland that is no more progressive than thatched-cottage-cream-tea England) and the popularity of David Tennant in Doctor Who have given The Secret of Croftmore well over twice as many views as all the other episodes combined, because there are several of far greater interest. The Macrame Man accurately captures the sheer despair of Scotland under Thatcher - socialism in retreat, in exile - and Room for One More, however clunky some of its "issues" may appear to 2011 eyes, reveals precisely what can fester in such an abandoned environment (and it is, I think, accurate that the racist is a British nationalist rather than a Scottish one; Scottish nationalism is often culturally conservative, which is always a bad thing, but even then it is much more likely to be civic).

Waiting for Elvis - based around the demobbed Presley's brief refuelling stop in Scotland the same night Wolves' humiliation by Barcelona and Daniel Farson's Living for Kicks confirmed, through the platform of ITV, Britain's humiliation from all sides - weirdly conflates with the crudely abusive small-time manager in The Long-Distance Piano Player. Here we have a young woman denied her potential life through the pettiness and insularity of her fiance, and a young man denied his potential life not only through that very same pettiness and insularity, revealing itself at the crucial moment as a mere front for cruelty and brutality, but also through the exploitative lusts of his manager, desperately aspiring to influence the new seat of power which could not care less about him or where he comes from (the two, equally odious, main forms of Toryism).

Rarely has the well-worn technique of shifting from black and white to colour and then back again been so powerfully used. The fact that Scotland has, on the whole, been more resistant than England to the mutation of the world that is willed into being during the "Belinda" sequence, then viciously exposed as a fantasy (quite apart from the fact that it was always an ethnically-cleansed America, a pre-Civil Rights Act America), since it became the blueprint for post-Thatcher neoliberalism, only makes its original potency all the more tense and multi-layered when you see it now, almost as long from 1986 in time as we then were from 1960.

That this was on ITV at about the time of day when Alan Titchmarsh now appears only makes it all the more necessary to see now. STV's public-spiritedness on this matter can yield unexpected revelations. This is one of them.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Play for Today #001: The Long Distance Piano Player

TX: 15/10/1970 (dir. Philip Saville, w. Alan Sharp)

"That's what the people want to see..."
"There's no-one here"

'It hadn't the size, the reach that one expects from a "Play for Today." Though, strictly speaking, one hardly knows yet what to expect from this re-titled series' (Nancy Banks-Smith, The Guardian, 16th October 1970, p.16)

This was the first Play for Today, successor series to The Wednesday Play (1965-70), and is subject of the first in a series of articles in which I will write about as many PFTs as possible. The BFI Mediatheque now holds around 60 of them, and I have a few more on DVD; the Mediatheque most accessible to me is based in Newcastle's Discovery Museum and I have made many visits since it opened last year.

As Robin intimated in his last post, 'The Long Distance Piano Player' displays a rather inert, ossifying North with its northern everytown of 'Middleton'. Jack (Norman Rossington) is a small man straining after 'something big'; an impressario with a limited world-view, possessing the overbearing bravado of a Wolf Mankowitz-depicted svengali, slipping between mid-Atlantic and native accent with disturbing ease. 'Tis he who arranges for the premise: that Ray Davies' piano player, Pete, is engaged in a continuous marathon of piano playing, set to last four days and nights. Sharp seems to be commenting on the transience of such gimmickry, with the marathon being sparsely attended for the most part.

Saville's visual aesthetic is, whether by design or necessity, spartan; in keeping with the glumness that Sharp discerns in Northern provincial towns. Drab interiors are captured in an unforgiving light; as Chris Dunkley said in a contemporary review: 'The damp respectable squalor of the church hall [...] must elicit a schizophrenic shudder of nostalgia and distaste from anyone ever involved in Wolf Cubs, jumble sales or party political meetings whose trappings lurk shabbily in corners'. (The Times, Friday 16th October 1970, p.16)

Then there are a few exterior scenes that on archetypal 'northern' bleakness: houses stacked up t' hill, cobbles, Lowryesque chimneys, lonely merry-go-rounds and a pretty lady in a hairnet on a swing. This is Pete's wife Ruth (Lois Daine), looking evocatively glum in impeccably 'kitchen sink' manner.

There are deliciously banal, world-weary asides from the occasional visitors to the hall, who form a sort of Greek Chorus, observing that the "pia-ner feller" is "still playing away!" "It'd be an amazing feat if he does it..." / "Aye, aye..." This element of the play is rather witheringly described by Banks-Smith: 'Commenting on the action are a chorus of village idiots, local louts and deaf old men. The latter conversing interminably - I improvise - along these lines : "Me leg's gone again"; "Gone wheer?" "We're wot?" "We're not wot we were" "Eh?" "Nay." '

The feat seems to be considered almost as if an attraction within a bygone music-hall bill; Davies's character goes along with it through force of habit and convention. One could infer that Sharp has a critical perspective on the rather Guinness Book of Records ethos of the 'marathon' - peddled, lest we forget, by the McWhirters, free-market ideologues to a twin.

"Playing away like that can't be good f' y'!"

There are serene passages in Pete's playing, and the promise of communion ultimately unfulfilled - as when a growing audience asks for requests which start well but peter out. As the days pass, his chords become leaden and dolorous, sometimes achieving an accidental abstraction in tandem with his physical exhaustion. Davies is convincing as the self-effacing Pete; admittedly, not a particularly challenging part, as George Melly states in his Sunday television column: 'As the rather simple-minded but highly strung marathon man, Ray Davies, one of our most talented pop composers, did all that was needed and could, I think, given a part that required it, act.' (The Observer, 18th October 1970, p.32)

Both Melly and Banks-Smith are blunt about the play's limitations - an innate lack of originality - but ultimately find enough to enjoy, as does Dunkley: 'Despite this simplistic derivativeness which almost became a minor theme of the play, Sharp did achieve a remarkable atmosphere and an admirable degree of sympathy.' Indeed, the play captures a 1970 sense of flux, the cultural consensus over, as announced in John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band and explored here by the great TV documentarian Adam Curtis.

By the ending, one is left with a sense of suffocation; Sharp captures a characteristic Baby Boomer-generation's feeling of being stifled by humdrum provincial life and petty-bourgeous values. Davies embodies this younger generation with its aversion to responsibility and vague yearnings for 'freedom'. Of course, this freedom ultimately became a remoulded, tradition-trampelling capitalism - as embodied by Branson, Bono, Blair and so many others. But here it can still be identified as liberalism rather than neo-liberalism - capitalism, personified in its clapped-out 1970 form by Jack, is as mistrusted as traditional working-class or upper-class cultures. The increasingly despondent Pete feels oppressed by everything around him:

"What isn't useless...?"

As well as multiple strands of British culture, Sharp seems to be highlighting the influence of the wrong sort of Americanism - with a character pointedly querying Jack's accent: "Why does he talk like that? Like he's an American...?" The ending, with its US-centric rock song, 'Got to Be Free', suggests a yearning for the open spaces and unpredictable freedoms offered by the American counterculture, which held out great promise in the time of 'Quiet Mutiny' in Vietnam (see John Pilger's World in Action documentary of that name from this same year). It is worth noting that the Scottish-born Alan Sharp went on to write screenplays for Ulzana's Raid (dir. Robert Aldrich, 1972) and Night Moves (dir. Arthur Penn, 1975) - examples of the complex, ambivalent filmmaking that Hollywood produced in the pre-Star Wars era.

This first Play for Today works better when read as a metaphorical reflection on British society than as straight 'realistic' drama and its characters are as much archetypes as human beings; marionettes in Jack's faltering puppet-show. Pete is a hamster-in-the-wheel, as well as a harassed liberal who has lost his faith in society (see also in 1970s television: Reginald Perrin, Tom Good). The dulling grind of the marathon becomes a metaphor for the 9-5 experience of conventional work.

Pete and Ruth's relationship offers scant consolation amid the general air of depression - even this seems jaded and ritualistic. The play is not especially light or humorous other than in the choric role of the punters and occasional wry line from Pete; when there's a brawl in the hall involving diffident local hoodlums, he says: "[I] should've played the action music". Overall, a flawed but compelling PFT; as Melly intimates, it both succeeds and fails through adequately evoking the underlying boredom of its 'marathon' scenario. As a play it is far from subtle but is tellingly of its day; it is an articulate expression of inarticulacy and thwarted ideas of freedom.

You can watch it online here, though in a visual quality decidedly inferior to that at the Mediatheque.

-- With thanks to John Archbold for the Radio Times cover

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Impressions of BFI Southbank, Wednesday 2nd March 2011

The walk from Waterloo station to BFI Southbank is the shortest walk I ever take, yet in many ways the most overpowered with resonances of multiple disavowed pasts, whose battles have shaped everyone's lives in ways that few really recognise or understand. Once you've walked past the Eurostar white elephant - which would never have needed to be built, replacing the atmospheric and evocative Windsor station as it did, had the party that now claims to believe in high-speed rail approached the Channel Tunnel rail link with any kind of enthusiasm, and cannot but evoke the horrible fact of such a superb train crawling along Victorian lines for thirteen years - you're faced with the memory of John Poulson, the grubby short-term capitalist whose success in buying both Tory anti-statists and Labour utopian-socialists, through cynically using the right words to convince both ilks of dreamers whose fatal flaw was remarkably similar (that they would take any route, without thought for the consequences, as long as it led Britain out of the '50s), did so much to bring the whole Butskellite edifice crashing down. His typically shoddy and ill-constructed Tower Building, beside which the 1922 station seems to cringe, almost embarrassed by its near-obliteration, is particularly jarring and depressing considering its proximity to some of the finest buildings to come out of the post-war public spirit; you're reminded of the cynical exploitation of modernist tropes and styles for utterly antithetical, exploitative reasons which the Mail and Express-reading masses confused with the real thing, and gave the Prince Charles school of neo-feudal reactionaries a justification they didn't deserve (in exactly the same way that ELP's misunderstanding and consequent abuse of the idea that rock music didn't have to take "Roll Over Beethoven" as its model, and the fact that the mass knew them but didn't know Hammill, Wyatt or even Fripp, gave rock'n'roll fundamentalists, and all those who fundamentally got punk wrong, all the excuse they needed).

This is all the more depressing not only considering the greatness (in their own contrasting and conflicting ways) of the Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall/Hayward Gallery and National Theatre, but the fact that much of what is contained within BFI Southbank (the expanded and renamed National Film Theatre) reminds us of all the good that the consensus did for Britain, yet - perhaps because of its urban location and need to reflect the city around it far removed from the romanticised ruralism of Ghost Box (whose downside should be made clear for all by the Brian True-May row) - never seems to embalm it or innoculate itself from the present, always keeps open both to the complex reality of those times and to what could still happen in the present and future. In short, the post-war consensus modernised rather than abolished. But there were multiple reasons why that didn't happen in the wider society, and even as I have managed to disassociate the area - and the RFH specifically - from my own childhood experiences there, not least my first, brutal realisation of class awareness, it has become a mental battleground for the battles between those who truly believed in the consensus and those who wanted to exploit it for the crudest possible reasons, a harsh and heartstopping experience whenever I'm there. The London Studios are a little bit further on, and I don't usually think of their history; what I do have on my mind is as much as I can take.

The relevance of this piece thus far to television may seem to be merely tangential. Let that now change. While I would suspect that the majority of the Mediatheque's contents were not made for television - indeed, it goes back long before there was such a thing, and some of its most revealing moments for me have come from the lineage of experimentation and challenge in British film which those talking up The King's Speech far beyond its merits implicitly write out of history, from the all-too-relevant early 1980s social comment of Burning an Illusion or Crystal Gazing, to Nick Broomfield's unforgiving expose of harsh 1970s Lancashire authority, Juvenile Liason, to the exploration of Scotland's unspoken history in Blue Black Permanent (made for Channel 4, I know, but the point holds) - its TV collections continue to stimulate, and ask more questions than they answer. There have been many Play for Today revelations, including the very first, Ray Davies (who should have done more acting) amid a dying, rotting Old North in The Long Distance Piano Player (I notice that Tom drafted a piece on this production, and I would be very interested to read his thoughts on that matter), Licking Hitler, David Hare's unrelenting exposure of the cynicism hidden by the "finest hour" self-aggrandisement that some still cannot let go, and the chilling allusions to Britain's unkillable pagan legacy in Robin Redbreast.

But Nemone Lethbridge, James MacTaggart and Kenith Trodd's Baby Blues, seen exactly 51 years after the night Elvis landed in Scotland and, separated only by the news and seen by early ITV's millions, Daniel Farson exposed Britain's cultural humiliation by America and Wolves exposed its sporting humiliation by continental Europe, and 38 years after it was made, may stick in the mind longer than most, not least because it seems to embody the unabashed socialism possible at the time in mass communication, while at the same time being full of harbingers for the Tory reaction that would freeze such opinions out of "ordinary" media. Transmitted in December 1973 - right in the midst of a moment of acute national desperation and class-war tension, with the Civil Service being trained in how to resist anything a soon-come Labour government might try to do - it captures a moment of acute paranoia among the traditional ruling class, feeling directionless and adrift following Heath's U-turn, three months before what turned out to be Labour's, and British socialism's, fatal victory. The direct resemblance between the casino frequented by the grotesque Sir Dominic (Norman Rodway) and the very real one whose members' political legacy was so superbly dissected by Adam Curtis in The Mayfair Set only makes it seem all the more real, as if you're watching a dramatisation of history at a crucial turning point.

Among its most interesting elements is the baronet's friendship with two erstwhile proles on the make (Terry and Sid, played by Brian Croucher and Peter Childs), both every bit as odious and anti-human as he is, and representing the unpleasant underbelly of the supposed alliance (alluded to, with heavy sarcasm, by one of the private hospital staff they abuse together, who at that moment clearly feels a greater sense of affinity with NHS workers than she might normally do) of the aristocracy and proletariat fondly and falsely wished for by David Lindsay. To a 1973 audience, these characters must have seemed like washed-up ghosts of the already distant '60s - Michael Caine clones who'd thought they could make it but were now reduced to clinging to the elbows of the already privileged - but seen today they weirdly anticipate one of the major political shifts of the 1980s; the rise of the Tebbitist "barrow-boys" who felt no cultural loyalty even to a heritagised, cleaned-up version of the BBC, and accordingly precisely broke what ties remained between the Tory party and the Corporation and rendered such a thing as Play for Today unachievable, while also setting the tone for the pop-cultural leanings without which the Cameronites would never have been able to play the Blairite game to destroy Brown. If the main disappointment of the post-1979 changes - and especially the post-2010 changes - from the perspective of people like Sir Dominic has been the victory of the mass in cultural terms even as the political process in Britain has become less and less equal and more and more stratified, culminating of course in the current government, then these characters anticipate precisely how things were to work out; while the idea of a casual, cynical alliance between the Sir Dominics and the Terrys and Sids may have seemed slightly off ten years later, when what resistance there was in the Tory party to the Tebbitist doctrines tended to come from the quasi-aristocratic elements, it makes all the sense in the world in 2011, when Britain is ruled by Sir Dominics playing Terry and Sid's game, in terms of the crude, tabloid level of their tactics and rhetoric.

It may well say something about how those very same US-inspired marketing techniques have diluted class politics in terms of the basic public understanding of the terms of debate, even at the time of the most socially elitist government since 1964 - admittedly, they seemed to have been comparatively diluted when Butskellism was at its zenith, and only came back to the fore so brutally as it was withering, but the point holds - that a part of even me was thinking, with a very 2011 kind of cynicism, that Sir Dominic's portrayal was too broad and overdone, a mere caricature. Certainly, even if there were still the time, place and context within mass television for comparable dissections of the psychopathology of Cameronites, a portrayal like that very clearly wouldn't do; it would have to be based around a particular version of the marketing character, rather than an ancient class archetype. But I cannot stop myself thinking of Chuck D's line about "now the KKK wear three-piece suits", which while it refers directly to David Duke's attempt to become Governor of Louisiana, anticipates not only the BNP's post-millennial "suits not boots" tactics but also, more obliquely, the popification of Sir Dominic's class which defines current British politics. Back then, if you were a socialist, you knew exactly who the enemy was - their image, speech and dress were utterly unreconstructed and unambiguous - and you had the space within mass communication to decry them. Now, the former is hidden by the facade of Welch/Mumford pseudo-pop and the latter is frozen out forever in Murdoch's kingdom. While Play for Today poses many still-unanswered questions, this is looking to be among the most recurring, and maybe the most important.

I must at this point urge those who can make it at short notice to attend at least one of the remaining events in the Alan Plater season (and, if they have time, to visit the Atrium as well), because, without doubt, he was a great socialist, a great humanitarian, a great writer and a great man, a creative spirit with few rivals in his field. The 1965 Z Cars and 1966 Softly Softly shown in NFT2 on 2nd March were both fine representations of his talent; the former episode, "Brotherly Love", revealed his fine ear for dialogue, accent and social relationships as they were at the time, especially the now virtually unimaginable role of the church in most communities, and conveyed perfectly one of his characteristic traits, his wholly unforced balance of serious issues (which never seemed like "issues" in the worst, deathliest sense; they never did with him) and inspired humour. Broadcast in the days between Churchill's death and his funeral (poignantly, the review quoted in the programme was from the four-month-old original incarnation of The Sun), I couldn't resist the thought that it might have struck a chord with those - no doubt including Plater - who were anxious to get away from the fuss, to step further into a new era the following Monday morning, even if many of the pop-cultural forces he might then have seen as some kind of allies for socialism, or at least the building of a progressive British identity unconnected to the days of empire, proved to be anything but.

The Softly Softly episode, "Sleeping Dogs" - a witheringly accurate description of post-war British fascism and how it exploited, as that creed always has and always will, gaps and weaknesses in authority to physically attack any person or business that didn't fit into its ideals of "purity" - was quite exceptional, a warning about precisely what lies beneath official conservative "neutrality" and institutions proudly boasting that they have "no political position" and the soft-left/liberal view that it is "intolerant" not to tolerate absolutely everything that is ever said or thought - the normalisation of fascism. The greatest source of anger that it brought on is that so much of it could still apply today, right down to the Daily Mail as fascists' "least worst" mainstream newspaper - as recent polls have confirmed, there is still strong latent support for these views which would in many ways make the likes of the English Defence League more dangerous if they could somehow stop beating up Muslims (and how odious and cynical are modern-day fascists' attempts to embrace Jews as "allies of convenience"), just as organisations such as the "Free Britain" group portrayed here were more likely to pick up on the prejudices that lurked below the Butskellite surface when they simply spoke - as they do here, cleverly not displaying the Nazi iconography that was hidden within their homes - in terms of "sovereignty", and didn't scrawl swastikas and throw bricks in shop windows (as they also do here, but attempt in their "respectable" public image to distance themselves from, and could clearly fool a disturbing number of people just as their equivalents do today). Plater's passion on these matters, and his clear belief that if we don't use the rule of law against these people they will feel that they have won some kind of moral argument, shone through, and it worked even better for the moments of sharp humour, which made it much more effective as mass communication.

If Britain is the weaker for anything today, it is the lack of such unequivocal statements in mass television - the equivalents of Midsomer Murders always existed, of course, but they were much less dangerous because they co-existed with the sort of programmes I have written about here (they were also, on the whole, better - the idea that Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel in the Crown were the best things Granada did is as foreign to me and everything I stand for as the idea that David Lean's epics were better than Black Narcissus, but the big productions of those times obviously had qualities that their post-1990 equivalents could never have grasped, or wanted to grasp). When Midsomer began, 14 years ago, international sales were rapidly on the rise to their current almost total importance within the British TV industry, and the series was always clearly intended to appeal to an easily-exportable, instantly-recognisable (and of course utterly false no matter how far you go back) view of Britain first and foremost - its success with the Mail heartland here was a secondary factor for ITV in a way that audience simply cannot accept.

Visions of any country designed to appeal to globally assimilable national caricatures are bound to seem far more problematic in that country itself, for clear and obvious reasons. Brian True-May has merely been honest about the nature of these things, and (without knowing it) the damage they have done to British television, setting it back, not forward. His vision of exclusivity is, in truth, a cultural one rather than a racial one per se - because of my musical and cultural tastes as well as my political views, I myself would have no more place in Midsomer than Smiley Culture (the circumstances of whose death show all this stuff in a particularly stark light); my being on "the wrong side" in Britain's internal cultural wars would overpower my whiteness. It is the antithesis of what the likes of Plater and Rosenthal were about, and the antithesis of what BFI Southbank is still about (in a necessarily and rightly different way). As with Keys and Gray, what may at first appear to be an over-promoted media sideshow actually uncovers much deeper problems - not so much in terms of Midsomer Murders itself, but in terms of the system that created and sustained it, and exaggerated its status far beyond anything it objectively deserved.

I hope to write more here next week, once I've been back. The journey is always nervous. The day itself is rarely anything of the kind. This is a platform we should all be proud of. This is all our responsibility.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Introductory post 3

So we begin, or rather I begin. I don't feel I need to write at length about my initial childhood experiences with television and my opinions over the change in ethos and values since deregulation, because I am of a similar vintage (two years older - "Ashes to Ashes", still so much better than anything named after it, was number one when I entered the world - so I probably caught a bit more first hand) and, I suspect, share a similar cultural grounding (to simplify: I knew Flanders & Swann as a child like I knew oxygen, but didn't catch Stock Aitken Waterman until their tide was ebbing) to the other two contributors here. We are all products of the time and place in which we grew up and the values and assumptions of the homes we grow up in, and my mother being the oldest of seven, and both the only one of those seven who was too old to be a babyboomer and the only one who was educated beyond the compulsory school leaving age, combined with my socially alienating and disconnecting condition, made me what is often euphemistically called that sort of child, the sort who would no more have watched the action cartoons that so many of my contemporaries seem to look back on as the height of their childhoods than pick up dogshit in the street and eat it.

The three series from my childhood that did the most to form me culturally were Moondial (on which subject I could not improve on Tom's devotional words, because the first thing that really changes your life and teaches you that there are other worlds out there is the thing that sticks with you in your last moments), The Moomins (narrator older than both my grandfathers indeed, and the source for my love of a certain profoundly Scandinavian melancholy; when I first heard references to Rupert Murdoch, seeping upstairs from The Financial World Tonight, I thought he was Richard Murdoch, and when I conversed at the turn of the century with someone less than four years my junior who only remembered the post-1993 Japanese anime version I realised for the first time how completely someone so close to me in age is from a different cultural generation), and Windmill (what pre-Sky Sundays really felt like when the Open University was on its holidays - a fantastically varied melange of archive extracts, presented by the avuncular Chris Serle, which thought nothing of showing 1949 television newsreels, placed wholly within their natural context, to a mostly young audience; when it was replaced by the ultra-fast, pop-based Boxpops my eight-year-old self felt an umbilical cord had been cut). None of these series were shown after Gazza's tears. All of them led me to a rich vein of discoveries from beyond my own direct experience, including many of the series already cited here, and to that extent (although I am warmed by the YouTube commenter who far prefers the original Moomins to the Anstis-era abomination despite only remembering the latter in person) I am the product of a very specific experience which became a lot harder to grasp for the generation immediately following mine, where the common core of broadcasting was eroded and the range on offer to the mass was, in many ways, narrowed as it appeared to be widened. It would be easy simply to lament.

Easy but, I think, misguided. While I am staunchly politically opposed to what has happened, I am acutely aware that much of the old structure would probably have been eroded by other forces even if the specific forces which did erode it had not taken that precise neoliberal/ultra-consumerist form; as Karl Naylor has persuasively argued, the very habit of television watching contained within it the seeds of the erosion of the very same vestigial/residual common culture (with its echoes of music hall, pre-rock popular music generally, and the local peculiarities of industries from mining to farming) which early mass television reflected and mirrored back to its audience (at this point, I think back to one of my cohorts' comments in his introductory post here to the effect that most people can claim that they caught an ebbing tide in childhood, and thus inevitably of Peter Hitchens' obsession with just being able to remember Before The Beatles (TM); I don't want to end up like that). We of the social-democratic Left need to ask ourselves perhaps more often than we do whether we could actually stand to live in the society we may romanticise (for me growing up, the repeats from 1989 and throughout the 1990s were as fundamental as breathing, but with the exception of some of the subtler, mostly earlier episodes, I have come to pretty much dislike Dad's Army, not so much for what it is itself as for the way a certain set of people seem to think that if you don't like it then you're at the very least not "really" English, sometimes even not "really" British).

As for the pop-cultural movement that has defined itself by reclaiming the paternalistic ethos of old-school British broadcasting from the sneering dismissal of the new, pop-rooted post-Blairite establishment, I have largely fallen out of love, probably as a result of my repoliticisation and re-engagement with militancy and outsiderdom in the present. Mordant Music's Dead Air, with its brilliant use of Philip Elsmore, the voice of friendly, paternalistic, balanced authority-on-Thames which drained out forever on what might have been the last night of my childhood, is unquestionably one of the finest albums of the last decade, but give me Durrty Goodz on Channel AKA or Martin Solveig on Clubland TV a million times over Moon Wiring Club's insultingly obvious and hamfisted Gordon Murray allusions - to listen to that sort of thing after Mordant is like hearing Camel after Van der Graaf Generator, and just as unwelcome. I wonder whether I was right to allude so frequently to the likes of Lucy M. Boston in a pop-cultural / blogging context, back when they were generally only mentioned by older conservatives (who were/are usually also Conservatives, though they shouldn't be), whether I've inspired through the back door a load of bandwagon jumpers who embalm all the signifiers as part of their desire to live in a museum, which may be intended as a statement of opposition to neoliberal hegemony, but in reality is the exact opposite, as it holds back from any kind of political engagement in the present, and subtly depoliticises the past as well.

So whatever you expect here, don't expect it. Expectations are the enemy of creativity, in television as everywhere else. I want to challenge myself as much as, or more than, anyone else. That is, after all, the truest reincarnation of the spirit of Hugh Carleton Greene, Howard Thomas, Sydney Newman and the Bernsteins - and it's the one thing the worn-out Ghost Boxers aren't doing. The rare occasions when deregulated television is genuinely democratic, rather than simply a platform for the rich to get richer, will be as likely to be discussed in my posts here as anything else. When the past is revisited, it will often be to evoke what could have happened, but equally as much what still could - every minute spent wondering, aching with sadness so as to stop yourself shivering with fear, what might have happened had this Nine O'Clock News had a rather different lead story is a minute of the precise same disengagement which led to Welcome to Godalming. Nostalgia is another enemy of creativity, but a belief in true representative democracy is the precise opposite, and if I find more stimulation in certain aspects of the television of the past than in much of what is allowed within mass platforms today, it is hardly surprising that I may be drawn to the former. But that is the only reason. I don't want to end up in 30 years' time talking about "With Every Heartbeat" or "Heartbroken" on whichever satellite channels I first saw them on in the way some socialists who have lost touch with the true meaning of their creed may talk about "Forever Autumn" on Top of the Pops. We can't go home again, and I'm not old enough really to have been there anyway. But if this blog is to mean anything, as I understand it, it is as a platform for exploration of the past as a subject for further research. There isn't enough of that. There never has been. Let there be much more.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Question Time (BBC1, 03/03/2011)

"B-Movies, made at night, with actors nobody had ever heard of..." 

Late on in this latest edition of the 32 year-old programme, David Dimbleby mutters this curious aside about the obscure byways of British cinema; a reverie which tickles the animated Starkey to a frankly inordinate degree.

It proves one of the finer moments of a show which is dull, dull and dull again, for the most part. Of course, I am not somebody implacably opposed to the celebrification of 'political debate' - i.e. the profoundly unedifying Alastair Campbell vs. George Galloway 'face-off' a few weeks ago - but I want a more interesting range of perspectives and ideas than was presented last night.

The likes of Margaret Beckett and the erstwhile "Quiet Man" of British Politics, IDS, are programmed to bore, impeccably schooled in the art of turning people off politics. International diplomacy and the House of Lords were represented by the watery, circumspect figure of Malloch Brown. The panel was completed by Telegraph journalist Liam Halligan and the eccentric TV historian, David Starkey.

Topics included, inevitably, the subject of Libya and the absurd sabre-rattling of David Cameron, acting less like a prime minister than a vacuous PR man trying to bolster his jingoistic credentials with his core voters and play the Blairite world policeman card. Note the irony of the below image, mentioned during the programme:

There was discussion of the foster-parenting legal case that the Christian couple had launched against their local council; though nobody managed to articulate the reason for the court's judgement: that subjective religious belief on homosexuality should not be upheld by the law: 

'The Judea-Christian tradition, stretching over many centuries, has no doubt exerted a profound influence upon the judgment of law-makers as to the objective merits of this or that social policy, and the liturgy and practice of the established church are to some extent prescribed by law. But the conferment of any legal protection or preference upon a particular substantive moral position on the ground only that it is espoused by the adherents of a particular faith, however long its tradition, however rich its culture, is deeply unprincipled; it imposes compulsory law not to advance the general good on objective grounds, but to give effect to the force of subjective opinion. This must be so, since, in the eye of everyone save the believer, religious faith is necessarily subjective, being incommunicable by any kind of proof or evidence. It may, of course, be true, but the ascertainment of such a truth lies beyond the means by which laws are made in a reasonable society. Therefore it lies only in the heart of the believer who is alone bound by it; no one else is or can be so bound, unless by his own free choice he accepts its claims.'

This couple could have done more fostering had they not, rather idiotically, decided to launch this frankly absurd case in defence of their right to express an opinion, in the context of their fostering, that our modern and necessarily secular law could never endorse.

The discussion of Murdoch's acquisition of 100% of Sky was not consequential enough, with little analysis, though some panellists showed a little perspective on that man and his empire.

Nothing particularly interesting was said on the subject of the UK Film Council, other than the palpably ludicrous claim by Halligan that the British film industry is 'genuinely great at cinema'. He's talking about The King's Speech, The Queen and, erm, some other films about royals. Presumably not the truly interesting low-budget stuff like Fish Tank. David Dimbleby makes the relevant historical example of the Eady Levy, which required a certain percentage of films exhibited to be British-made; none of the panelists pick up on this - they clearly haven't the historical awareness or interest. Halligan's delusions of British grandeur are amusingly pricked by Starkey, who tartly mentions the amount of terrible films produced during the Boom with the sort of big money LH advocates - "my friends were all at it!"

Disappointingly, the panel lacked the views of the political or broader left; not even the most delusional, neo-Blimpish Telegraph reader could take Malloch Brown and Beckett to be voices of the left.

As a piece of television was this entertaining, informative or educational? Only very slightly on all three counts, though the format clearly has potential to work - provided there is a better range and quality of guests than we saw here. Important issues were covered, but were not really the subject of much interesting debate; on most of them, there was only a scintilla of difference between the panelists.

The panel

Lord Malloch Brown (b.1953)

Senior UN role from 1999-06, Minister of State for Africa, Asia and the United Nations 2007-09 in Gordon Brown's "government of all the talents". Knighted in 2007. Seemed to be trying to give as little away as possible about his own inherent partiality, as is the way with mandarins. He has studied History and Political Science, yet tries to come across as ahistorical and 'above the fray'. Something like the Lord Shawcross, another internationally focused Lord, whose Face to Face I watched this week - another Labour politician very loosely connected to the Party, wanting to appear 'independent', who indeed earned the nickname 'Lord Floorcross'. Whilst MB did speak out against some of the Bush-era excesses of the US in 2006, he came across as the ultimate establishment man here. He backed up IDS in saying Sky News is a 'very good' channel.

Margaret Beckett (b.1943)

Derby MP, President of the NO2AV campaign and an embodiment of Labour's limitations. She has been associated with some worthy causes in the past but has not delivered - look at her response to the 2006 Lebanon war whilst Foreign Secretary, her lack of action on nuclear disarmament. Beckett is patronising in approach and ultimately tainted by the Blair-Brown years - and thus is always drawn into defending the past record. She supports the Old Politics of FPTP and thinks that AV is a bad thing because people won't understand it. Cringe.

Iain Duncan Smith (aka. 'IDS') (b.1954)

What to say about this inexplicably praised 'man of conviction'. He went to Glasgow and drew some obvious conclusions without offering realistic proposals to actual provide Social Justice. He is a Thatcherite Conservative pretending to be humane; the furrowed brow beneath the bald bonce simulating 'concern'. How disingenuous was he, regarding the foster-parent issue? Trying to keep the 'common sense' brigade on board whilst also feigning adherence to the liberal letter of the law. His confused position came across, and clearly will have pleased nobody, though I suppose it does old IDS some credit that he did not endorse the Torygraph's view. On Libya, however he aped the Blair/Gove doctrine of 'liberal interventionism', endorsing, in principle at least, a British intervention in Libya.

Liam Halligan

Open-neck shirted, bland purveyor of received opinions and tired tropes. He fluffed the open-goal offered by Western interests in middle-eastern oil, by giving a rather incoherent argument. Perhaps inevitably, he could not provide any systemic analysis, being very much part of the post-Thatcher consensus, being an Economics graduate in this era, a Telegraph columnist and indeed working for an assessment management firm.

David Starkey (b.1945)

A historian and political contrarian, known for providing curt turns on this programme. I had not expected to like him at all - 'How much pompous baloney from Starkey will there be?' was scrawled in my notebook as I saw he was on. However, Starkey came across as a welcome unpredictable presence in the context of his rather staid fellow panellists. He railed against the 'disease' of Blairite 'interventionism' and of adherents like Giddens and Gove - making similar basic criticisms as Richard Seymour, while obviously not sharing Seymour's own ideology. One assumes he has moved to the Old Right politically after his disillusionment with the left in the Callaghan era; something of a High Tory who notably criticised the Blair-Gove form of neo-liberalism when the subject of Murdoch came up. Gay and atheist, as he proclaimed in this programme, yet fetishist of political power-play and very possibly an imperialist. He is obviously not going to agree with Daily Mail homophobia but will argue for their right to exist, as he did with the foster-parents' case. He made one of the best points of the show to the effect that he wouldn't have turned out the way he was had he not had homophobic parents - part of an argument against state intervention in the family sphere and for conflicts being allowed to arise. He said all of this in his rather self-parodically abrasive tone of voice. It must be said that pre-emptive legislation - however well-intentioned - can have unforeseen repercussions, in some cases, although preventive measures could obviously save a lot of pain and strife. He was actually rather good in answering the Libya question in attacking the government's lack of historical perspective and lack of joined-up thinking:

'This is demented government; it's government that should be put in a care home.'

A hectoring, pompous ass he may well be. Jonathan Meades or Bertrand Russell he clearly is not. But at least he made challenging points and displayed signs of an independent intellect. Starkey was clearer the 'winner' of this television debate, whatever his many objectionable views. Clearly an unsatisfactory outcome, with this curious man looking rather smug at the end, basking in the sort of audience applause that suggests he might be in for 'national treasure' status, heaven help us.

The audience (Derby)

Nothing too significant or odd to report other than a tendency towards opposition to many of the cuts and that typically British reticence to actively support their governments.