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.


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  2. I may have been too hard on the Unthanks in this piece. I didn't mean to be.

    Something that occurs to me now which perhaps didn't while I was writing this piece (in a hurry, during an extended weekend of four near-three-hour train journeys in three days which I can't see myself experiencing again): could the young man denied his potential life in 'Waiting for Elvis' have been based partially on the young Alex Harvey, back when he was "Scotland's Tommy Steele"?