Saturday, 16 April 2011

Uncle Jim, Uncle Lew, the Muppets and social democracy

I have written extensively elsewhere of the importance of ATV - the most problematic from a social democratic perspective, because wariest of the consensus of limited capitalism within which it had, unwillingly, to operate, of the ITV companies of the network's first quarter-century - in making the transition from the culture of the British Empire to the culture of the undeclared American one far smoother and easier to take for older British people at the time than it would have been otherwise.

The single most important show in this process in the late 1950s and early 1960s was Sunday Night at the London Palladium, simultaneously the last repository of the British music hall where the Crazy Gang made their final appearance together, and the platform through which Buddy Holly and the Beatles defined their impact, and where the Stones' attack on the certainties of the post-war state found its most perfect definition. But perhaps most fascinating in this context are the strong echoes of the music hall in the format of The Muppet Show - globally, probably Lew Grade's biggest success of all, even though it was made at a time when he had been forced to step down from day-to-day control of ATV by the IBA and when the social-democratic establishment was already closing in on the company, soon to force it to reform into a wholly Midlands-based company with quite different aims - and specifically the fact that, in the early weeks of 1978, the Muppets were in the Top 20 with their version of "Waiting at the Church".

The plot thickens. In the TV Times of 27 January-2 February 1979 - the same issue with Flambards on the cover - the then Prime Minister, in an interview seemingly conducted towards the end of the previous year so utterly inimical to the events of that moment, and weirdly predictive of the distortion of the political process which would do so much damage to another Labour Prime Minister who should have called an autumn election when he had the chance, expresses his appreciation and enjoyment of The Muppet Show. Infamously, he had heralded his fatal postponement of the general election at the TUC conference the previous September by singing the very same song, in a gesture which seems - history has given it this status, however little he could have imagined it - both to end one era (dignified statesmanlike politics, a cross-party agreement on the limiting of capitalism so as to maintain social cohesion and stability) and fire the starting gun on another (the reduction of politics to symbols, gestures, songs). Could it be, perhaps, that it was the Muppets' rendition that had placed the song back in his mind, and convinced him that it might, somehow, be a good idea?

The idea that there might have been some kind of connection between such an omnipresently successful - despite rather than because of the system under which it was created - product of British television as global/mid-Atlantic powerhouse rather than internal public service, and the political decision which opened the floodgates for the lifting of those restrictions on global capitalism which had dogged Lew Grade for so long, is one of the many powerful ironies of those years (if, that is, there is a connection; there may not be, I just like to imagine so). The cultural shame and embarrassment - obviously embedded with a nasty, latent anti-Semitism when held in some Tory circles, but rooted in a basically admirable, however incompatible with the pop-cultural creativity that exploded in Britain in the 1960s & 70s, belief in public-spiritedness and universal obligation when held by Labour supporters - which had been felt across the board about the presence of a company like ATV, trying desperately to juggle the international role it aspired towards with the regional role it had to fit within, in retrospect began to die the moment the nation heard that there would be no general election at this time.

The political legacy of what happened next is defined by the fact that it happened in the first, pre-Falklands years of the Thatcher government, when the ideologues were still struggling to stamp their absolute authority and the less fanatical "wets" still had a stake in the Cabinet. The collapse of the Grade empire due to the attentions of the IBA on one side of the business and the disaster of Raise the Titanic on the other (ITC having moved into films in the later '70s hoping for greater success in a less regulated area, only to be destroyed by the same rules of the market that have undermined so many latterday Tory heroes, not least Bruce Gyngell of Thatcher's own ideal ITV company) was one of two downfalls of buccaneering capitalists in the very early 1980s (the other being the collapse of Laker Airways, at least in part due to the machinations of the still-nationalised British Airways, in the early weeks of 1982) which convinced the forces of Thatcherism that they needed to take absolute control of the party and push out those who still took "conservative" comparatively literally. There is, in fact, a sense in which ATV and ITC died so that Murdoch and Sky could live.

There is no doubt that the Grades fitted perfectly one of the two main anti-Semitic stereotypes, and the Bernsteins the other; obviously, all those who adhered to such stereotypes, however subconsciously and unthinkingly, epitomised the lies and delusions on which Britain was living at the pre-ITV, pre-Suez, pre-Elvis moment, and Britain in 1955/6 undoubtedly needed a bit of what the Grades had to offer, "vulgar", "rootless" capitalism. It just needed the tendencies demonised by old-school Tories as "Jewish Bolshevism" more. In terms of being Conservative without being "Tory" in the then still commonly identifiable cultural sense, with its echoes of backwoodsmen and Victorian diehards, and also calling for an Establishment separated from the old Foreign Office Arabism, the Grade dynasty played a crucial role in the long-term creation of Thatcherism (this is the sense in which Death of a Princess was, perversely, less of a break from the earlier incarnation of ATV than it seemed at the time).

The fact that Central were, only twelve years after coming into being, absorbed by Carlton - capitalism at its absolute crudest, with no hint of the genuine love and enjoyment and care that defined even ATV and ITC's more mediocre efforts - sums up precisely how this story ended. In the brief island between, Central - while still continuing the tradition of IBA-baiting with The Price is Right - also defined their own territory in terms of drama (helped massively, in terms of opening up new ground in the portrayal and stimulation of young people, by Lewis Rudd and Geoff Husson, of whom more soon), and brought a genuine flavour of the Midlands to British television in a way nobody before or since has really shown the desire or inclination to do. The story of ITV in the Midlands begins and ends with out-and-out capitalism, by the end devoid of any of its fresher, more exciting qualities by having become a fat, rotten establishment culture. What interests me most, though, is what happened because it had to happen under a mixed economy, and which would probably not have happened under the neoliberal misinterpretation of freedom. For a powerful depiction of a class lost and isolated amid Thatcherism - the children of the old respectable working class, seeing their parents' routes to suburban respectability closed off and reduced to sheer nihilism, with even the land where the values of "your philosopher Keynes" were surviving only an unattainable mirage in the end - check this for a start. And remember how and why it was able to happen, and how and why it couldn't happen now.

Excuse me if I don't think The Persuaders or The Champions stand any kind of comparison. Out-and-out capitalism was exciting once. But here, now, it can never be again. The Grades, undoubtedly, did much of value in British mass culture in a particular place and time. But their myth is the same myth as that cherished by the offshore radio fanboys, the Jim Slater euologisers, the Jagger cultists (who Peter Hitchens would almost be right about if only he admitted that their crime is neoliberalism rather than socialism), and in the age when a cruder, much less well-made and well-constructed version of what they represented represents the cultural model for Old Etonian Tories rather than anything to be wary of, it has to be opposed. If only Jim Callaghan could have seen that, back in the first week of September 1978.

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