Thursday, 22 September 2011

BBC Three, Cultural Snobbery and "Young, Dumb And Living Off Mum"

Episode Six. BBC Three. 18/9/2011.

It's safe to say BBC Three, much like it's similarly-targeted relative Radio 1, has attracted as much cultural snobbery during its life as any particularly vapid Simon Cowell creation. Accused of being a strain on the BBC's budget, not providing content that isn't covered by its rivals, serving an audience equally catered to by ITV2, E4 and a plethora of other channels, not providing an important public service whilst consuming funds that could be used towards the BBC's more highbrow divisions, and generally being an example of the corporation's supposedly long-standing tradition of 'dumbing down', the channel attracts scorn from both sides of the pro/anti-BBC schism, whether it's being labelled a waste of licence payer's money or simply an unnecessary outlet of the kind of 'Trash TV' that has come to saturate so much of modern culture, or perhaps even more regularly, incurring the wrath of those who would like to see it scrapped simply because they don't like it personally and/or are outside of it's target audience anyway.

Young, Dumb and Living Off Mum, which has just come to the end of its third run, is a reality TV documentary in which a group of idle, spoilt teenagers, having been 'kicked out' of their homes by their long-suffering parents, move into a shared house together and are left to fend for themselves. Each week the group are set a new challenge in order to develop their life skills and hopefully a level of maturity they can nurture and take into full adulthood, as each of their parents group together to assess their efforts and vote out one of their collective offspring on a weekly basis. Narrated by a wonderfully snotty Robert 'Yes, I'll Do It' Webb (whose fees must be quickly becoming as competitive as his comedy partner's), the series culminates with the reward of a round-the-world trip for the eventual winner and a companion of their choice via a narrative wealth of stroppiness, clumsiness, parties, drinking, confrontation, adversity, childishness, tantrums, redemption, poignant passages from contemporary chart hits, personal epiphanies, tears, hugs and climactic triumph.

By episode 6, we're down to the last three contestants, and though they've made it this far, there are still many behavioural creases to iron out. Ryan, 18, considers himself 'too gay to do DIY' and is described as a wannabe celebrity who, whilst flamboyant on the outside is revealed to actually be too shy and nervous to take charge and something of a shirker, although fared best previously when working with children and animals. Temperamental self-confessed 'spoilt brat' Ruby-Jo, 19, (addressing a fellow contestant, 'you're a fucking boring shit') is an extremely gobby, foul-mouthed stick of human dynamite who believes the Blackpool Lights to be one of the 'eight' wonders of the world until informed otherwise by bright but extremely lazy Tom, 19, who describes a typical day for himself as being one that consists of little else but watching DVDs and masturbating. His close friend Jack, with whom he considers himself to be in something of a 'bromance', was voted out from the competition in the previous episode.

For the final task, as always the parents will choose the task, but crucially, unlike in the preceding episodes, the remaining contestants will work separately, each returning to their hometowns to offer domestic help in the form of decorating to initially unknown families that are deemed deserving of assistance ('In the past, you've only ever thought of yourselves, and never done anything for anyone else unless you've benefitted from it', run the parents' joint instructions). For Ryan, he will return to Doncaster, to assist family friend Fiona, who has two children to support, one of whom is Ryan's godchild, as well as being a full-time carer for her mother. Ruby-Jo, whose Stockport dialect is so broad she is regularly subtitled, will return to her cousin's family home, which has been hit by redundancy and limited income, whilst Tom, with no Little Hampton-based family members in such dire straits, is tasked with helping out young cancer sufferer Kirsty's family, whose lives have been taken over by the obvious traumatic obstacles that come with this.

With just two days and a thousand pounds each to complete the task, despite the best intentions of the trio and a promising start, inevitable problems come to the surface. Though the usually negative Tom is noticeably inspired by a mixture of a competitive streak and the touching nature of Kirsty's plight, his initial haggling prowess (though the attendance of BBC cameras on B&Q premises may have been a potent bargaining tool) is thwarted when he realises he has neglected to take measurements for the curtains and carpets, and he spends a vast portion of the two days travelling back and forth between the flat, hardware shops and bedroom showrooms, leaving only vague instructions for his confused mentor and team of volunteers. Ruby-Jo overspends quickly, asking a member of staff if they stock any 'cheap shit', threatening to eschew the whole task in a strop before identifying novel and cheap ways to complete it, whilst Ryan, after excelling with his purchases on day one, spends the early part of day two descending into a bag of nerves, dividing his time between making tea for his team and hiding behind a van, much to the frustration of his mentor. Tom meanwhile, spends so much time rectifying purchasing errors that he declines his team the opportunity of breaks, compelling the fantastically bitchy Webb to comment 'No breaks? That's rich coming from someone whose life has been one big break'. Meanwhile, after one team member points out that Ruby-Jo has inadvertently painted a chest of drawers shut, her response is to berate him for 'talking to me like I'm a fucking idiot'. As things draw to a deadline, and all three competitors begin to make up much ground, Ruby-Jo will open the inevitable redemptive chapter of the show by regretting her recent showdown, solemnly admitting 'I've got to realise that I speak to people like that'. Ryan makes up noticeable ground, delivering a much firmer message of gratitude to his team, than the bumbling pep talk he opened with earlier that day.

And so, after the results are revealed to the emotional, overjoyed families, in that trademark Changing Rooms showdown, the parents club together to assess who has come the furthest, who has worked the hardest, who motivated and instructed their team most effectively and who achieved the best results. It's formulaic stuff of course, and built around a narrative model and genre so tightly predictable and orchestrated you know exactly how it's going to end, but as light-hearted stuff of this ilk goes, it sends out a much more harmonious and humane message to its target audience than you get from the The X Factor's ruthless and humiliating Darwinism, even if the winner does receive a trip round the world at the end that doesn't exactly scream 'altruism'. This is far more acceptable than the capitalist egocentricity of The Secret Millionaire, with its reverence for wealthy businessfolk kind enough to offer up minute scraps of their time and wealth in the interests of their image and self-promotion, and although orchestrated by definition, the scenes of remorse and redemption, in this episode largely characterised through the teenager's letters read aloud from their parents, apologising for past misdemeanours (especially Tom's 'extremely negative outlook on the world') seem authentic, and the participants all seem to be real multi-layered young people, with equal amounts of positive and negative traits. The gimmicks you would imagine to be in a show of this nature are all intact, of course; Adele's 'Someone Like You', the parts where it seems the game is lost, the determination to change, the feeling that everything is harmoniously tied up and the equilibrium restored impossibly perfectly at the end, with the on-screen 'since the making of this programme' messages before the credits (added to these was the sad news that Kirsty has since succumbed to cancer). Yet, you know what you're getting, and somehow the formula never seems to wane if you consume it as part of a balanced cultural diet. It's inevitably warmer and more genuine than if the BBC's rivals tried it, and with its themes of impending adulthood, responsibility and the transition from adolescence to these, it's exactly the kind of programme the BBC should be making for its young audience, who deserve to be catered for and aren't necessarily exclusive from your Radio 3 listener or Newsnight viewer. Obviously the budget should be spread out to proportionally and realistically cater for its audience, but much of the anti-youth/Radio 1 agenda often seems coloured by the distinct sense of ageism and cultural snobbery. Or in 1xtra's case, actual racism.

Saturday, 17 September 2011


(ATV, 22/10/1960 - 26/11/1960)

"I have hundreds of ladies running through my mind. They daren't walk."

'Thus, briefly, Newley was in time with the ephemera of pop culture rather than show business. Indeed, since his rivals were dismissed as agent-made brain-deads - such as Cliff Richard's Bongo Herbert character in Espresso Bongo - Newley came as near as the trade got to an "intellectual" before the music business developed its self-consciousness and self importance.'
(Nigel Fountain, 'Between Elvis and the Beatles', The Guardian, 16/04/1999, p.16)

The Strange World of Gurney Slade is a DVD release to treasure; ATV's utterly unconventional TV comedy is finally available to enjoy in all its bizarre glory, 51 years after its first broadcast.

The show started out with a large audience yet was moved to a post-11pm timeslot as its viewing figures declined; there were no contemporary reviews in The Guardian or The Times. Despite this critical indifference, it is effortlessly subversive, with a humour that is by turns dry and surreal. Tropes of British television that were already hoary by 1960 are mercilessly satirised, as Newley's agitated Slade walks out of the set of the sitcom he is in. The nascent consumer society of Macmillan's Britain is dexterously skewered throughout, with Newley dancing with a vacuum cleaner and multiple digs at the influence of advertising: 'who am I to ruin the advertising business?'

The series has a leisurely, reflective pacing, with Gurney given to philsophising about marriage, romance and the role of corn in the Napoleonic wars or conversing with cattle. Episode 3 evokes the languorous pastorialism of Powell and Pressburger or, as noted by Frank Collins, the rarefied film The Pleasure Garden (dir. James Broughton, 1953). It can also be considered a sedated, thoughtful development of the Goon Show's madcap anarchism. Newley himself figures as a hipper, yet oddball variant on Hancock's English everyman, as happy going to see French films as is in essaying his skiffle-folk classic 'Strawberry Fair'.

 As the series develops, there are pre-echoes of later 1960s exercises in the bizarre: The Prisoner and Dr Who: The Mind Robber; episode 5 takes place within Slade's own bonce: the curious 'Gurneyland', filled with devils, tinkers and children. Episode 6 evokes Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921) in its deconstructionism: the previous characters of the series retuning to beseech Gurney, requesting life beyond the confines of the series.

For me, the absolute peak is episode 4, where Gurney - and by extension, the series itself - is put on trial for 'having no sense of humour'. The episode can be considered part of a lineage of absurdist trial scenes that includes Kafka and Welles's The Trial, The Prisoner: Fall Out and Dr Who: The Stones of Blood (and, unwittingly, the misbegotten Trial of a Time Lord). Slade is opposed by a motley array of characters including a hangman, a trade unionist, a prosecuting counsel (Douglas Wilmer) and a sullen, fairy tale princess. He is 'supported' by a George Robey-citing music-hall comedian Archie, his punchlines trailing - notable in the wake of John Osborne's Archie Rice. The Entertainer - first staged in 1957 - was adapted for film by Osborne and Nigel Kneale in the same year this series was broadcast.

The main evidence shown to the courtroom is footage of Slade on TV, delivering a rambling, deadpan routine about a countersunk screw. This is a minimalist comedy of mundanity, with Newley extemporising on the merits or otherwise of the said screw. It is just possible that writers Sid Green and Richard Hills may have been taking notes from Pinter's The Caretaker, which opened in London on 27th April; Slade's routine could be considered an altogether more light-hearted counterpoint to Aston's unsettling dramatic monologues.

Newley went on to considerable commercial success on stage with his collaborations with Leslie Bricusse, though less with his directorial film debut, the supposed grand-folly of Can Heironymous Merkin Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? : 'You may squirm but you will not want to walk out'. (John Russell Taylor, The Times, 26/06/1969). As said, The Times did not review TSWOGS, did but mention it glowingly alongside Newley's appearance in The Johnny Darling Show (TX: 12/11/1961), which itself sounds interesting: 'he regarded a world faced with catastrophe in a programme of uncomfortable but wittily expressed desperation'. (Our Special Correspondent, The Times, 18/11/1961, p.4)

The series is beautifully shot, on film; this is television unafraid to be influenced by innovative developments in radio and theatre, crafted by the future writers of Morecambe and Wise and the one-off talent that was Anthony Newley. The Strange World of Gurney Slade is an example of 'Television of the Absurd' to rank alongside Monty Python's Flying Circus and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. Though, in truth, Gurneyland is a whole lot odder. For more thorough and erudite thoughts, read Frank Collins and John Williams, who was one of the people to recommend this wonderful series to me.