Friday, 31 July 2015

31/07/15 - Peacocking

When I was a kid, being on television was a really big deal. I made a colourful calendar when I was about twelve and sent it in to Live & Kicking (who were running some kind of calendar competition, obviously – I’m not in the habit of mailing unsolicited hobbycrafts to kids’ TV shows on the off-chance that they might enjoy it) and, for a split-second, my name appeared on BBC1. On Christmas day, no less. It was hugely exciting, and my family treated me like a celebrity all day. Earlier that year, my mum had given a soundbite to the local news in protest against something or other that was happening to a nearby roundabout; she appeared on screen in her yellow cycling cagoule, momentarily militant in the face of, er, something, and everyone we knew crowded around their tellies to witness a familiar face on the box. That kind of thing was thrilling back in the blissful simplicity of the early nineties. Being on TV was very special indeed.

The modern concept of fame is something that irritates me enormously. In the olden days people were famous for doing, achieving or knowing things; Brunel was famed for his engineering ingenuity, Capability Brown revolutionised the British countryside with his madcap landscaping, Archimedes will forever be associated with hydrostatics. The obverse side was infamy; Burke & Hare, Typhoid Mary, Ned Kelly – they were widely known for deliberate misdeeds and acts that civilised society considered to be, at best, distasteful… but what’s interesting is that now the line between fame and infamy is blurred. It’s perceived as equally valid to be famous for doing something unsavoury in front of millions – singing badly, eating a witchetty grub, whatever – as it is doing something even remotely worthwhile or beneficial. So what’s the point of working at something when a wilful lack of effort can receive similar plaudits?

This is partially, but by no means entirely, X Factor’s fault. And I’m not knocking it as a show; I watch it every year, it’s cheery, mindless escapism that demonstrates a genuinely charming snapshot of the human desire for betterment and achievement. I really like it. But it also demonstrates the modern world’s nastiest, most unpleasant character trait: there isn’t a specific word for it, but it’s a combination of laziness, a misplaced sense of self-worth, the desire to be recognised for one’s talents whilst simultaneously showing a belligerent lack of acknowledgement of their shortcomings, and a sense that the world owes you something and that you deserve to receive accolades solely on the basis of wanting them. “I’ve wanted this my whole life, I want it so much.” Really? Why haven’t you done anything about it, then? Maybe practised a bit, done a few gigs?

Reality TV has a lot to answer for. I forced myself to watch a lot of it at university under the broad and loosely-defined umbrella of ‘dissertation research’. (Yeah, a large part of my [rather poorly received and extremely badly written] dissertation was an acerbic rant about the facile shitness of reality television. It didn’t really make a specific point. I’m still not entirely sure what I was getting at.) The genre's roots lie in game shows, as you might imagine, which were and are the portals to allow average Joes onto the small screen without having to really put any work into it. And game shows stretch way back to 1938’s Spelling Bee, so this desire to be on screen and grab a pocketful of fame’s glitter is nothing new. It’s more the dogged pursuit of fame at any cost that’s beginning to define an unpleasant new 21st century behaviour.
The rot began to set in with MTV’s The Real World back in 1992, which subsequently became the channel’s longest-running show and is credited with spawning the latter-day reality genre. It was structurally similar to ITV2’s more recent The Only Way Is Essex in that it showed real-life events to a degree, but these were shaped by the whims and direction of the production team to make stuff actually happen – largely because other people’s lives really aren’t that interesting; folk just go to work and go to the shops and watch telly and have a nice cup of tea. So a pseudo-narrative structure has to be shoehorned in. (For further back-up of this, see Big Brother: the first UK series in 2000 was genuinely interesting as an anthropological social experiment, but as soon as the second series came around the contestants weren’t a diverse crowd of different characters, they were just fame-hungry pricks peacocking for the cameras; they knew exactly how much real-time footage would be broadcast, you see, whereas the contestants in the first series had no idea and assumed it’d be a brief daily round-up. A group of people sitting around doing nothing makes for fucking boring television [until they get cabin fever and start to punch each other, that is], which is why they’re fed with pointless tasks. It stagnates quickly.)
Have you seen the movie EDtv, incidentally? Probably not, it bombed at the box office, but it’s actually not bad; think of The Truman Show but with the dystopian horror of awareness. The moral is that accidental fame is a bitter pill.

Now, there are plenty of people who are on TV on merit. That’s a truism; people wouldn’t watch television if it wasn’t worth watching – there are loads of credible presenters, journalists and what-have-you who can all be proud that they’re working hard at being good at what they do and became famous by consequence, rather than approaching it the other way around. That’s good. But there’s a worrying subset of celebrities that, frankly, should be bloody ashamed of themselves: they’re taking part in celebrity reality television. And that’s a sub-genre that doesn’t need to exist. It’s meta, celebrity-squared. Yvette Fielding, Lionel Blair, Melanie Sykes, Michael Buerk - what the hell are you thinking? You’re already on TV, you wallies, no-one gives a shit if you can dance on ice, make a stargazey pie or a decent Victoria sponge, or live in a sanitised jungle for a bit and eat perfectly safe but unpleasant-tasting parts of animals. It’s tremendously fucking tedious.
I am clearly in a minority with this opinion, given the popularity of such shows. I’m also a hypocrite, as I watch them. No-one’s forcing me to do that, I do it by choice. But it does irritate me that these celeb forays, once solely the preserve of Children in Need or Comic Relief, in which we’d see someone we recognised from the telly doing something other than what we knew them for, are now on the box all the bloody time performing random tasks. Chewing gum for the eyes.
Perhaps I’m just jealous because they’re doubly-famous – not just famous, but famous on a secondary level simply for being famous – whereas I’m just a nobody among a miasma of similarly unremarkable nobodies. But hey, it’s us nobodies keeping these people on television…

The basic problem today is that we’ll watch any old shit. And the saddest element of this behaviour is that if you manage to get on screen for whatever reason, it really doesn’t matter. We’ve killed television’s mystique, and now that we’re so far down this execrable road, there’s no turning back. Enjoy what intelligent programming remains while you can, because the TV of your children’s future will be 100% (or, in reality TV language ‘110%’, ‘one hundred million percent’, etc) dross. All filler, no thought, just a hell of a lot of exaggerated mutual backslapping. It’ll no longer even pretend to be a mirror of ‘reality’; we’ll just be watching each other doing nothing at all.

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