Friday, 13 July 2012

The Death of Satire

A few years back, Ricky Gervais's ghastly Extras Christmas special climaxed with this impassioned monologue:

What are we doing, selling ourselves, selling everything. Happiest day of my life - ooh, quick, I'd better do the invites, bake a cake, and get a press tent: must have a press tent, it's a wedding. You know - I must see pictures of myself with other people I'm in a programme with. Ooh, I'm now pregnant, perhaps we should televise the birth, get Ruby Wax to present It, or do Jimmy Carr's 100 Greatest Caesarians. I'm sick of these celebrities just living their lives in the open: why would you do that? It's like these popstars who choose the perfect moment to go into rehab: they call their publicist before they call a taxi, then they come out and they do the second autobiography: "this one's called love me or I'll kill myself" Kill yourself then. And the papers lap it up [...] and fuck you the makers of this show, as well - you can't wash your hands of this. [...] the Victorian freak show never went away, now it's called Big Brother, or X Factor, where in the preliminary rounds, we wheel out the bewildered to be sniggered at by multi-millionaires. And fuck you for watching this at home. Shame on you. And shame on me.

Not long afterwards, James Blunt, interviewed by the Observer for its "This Much I Know" feature, remarked that this programme had really nailed our modern, celeb-obsessed culture. There's an example for you of how satire works these days:  the James Blunts of the world tune in, watch it on their plasma-screen tellys, say "that's it, that's it exactly. So well-observed..." and get on with their luxurious lives. Big Brother and X Factor, meanwhile, are just glad of the publicity (it's also worth noting the right-wing tinge to the gag that follows this monologue, where a female celebrity backs up Gervais's points and agrees to join him on his walk-out, only to say that there's paparazzi outside so she'd better slip on a bikini first. It's strikingly similar to the defence offered by people like Paul McMullan ).

Ben Elton is an old hand at this kind of satire. When discussing his novel set in something akin to the Big Brother house, Elton was quick to point out that he enjoyed Big Brother, and thought that while it did get a little out of hand it was good popular entertainment. When publishing a novel about Cowell-style talent shows, Elton was quick to point out he'd sent Cowell and Louis Walsh copies and they'd both loved it. You can't make satire any safer than by getting it approved by the targets 

We do have one cultural resource that can counter this, though, don't we: surely Doctor Who doesn't stink in this way? A show about an alien being that loves change and new ideas, always  moving from one place to the next, one situation to the next, one moral dilemma to the next, one scientific problem to the next. Surely that can't have been corrupted? Sadly, yes, and it started before the casting of cutely safe, safely cute flow-chart monstrosity Matt Smith, and even before the casting of David Tennant (a proper actor, but still too safe). The moment of truth came when the Doctor was  still in the angrier form of Christopher Eccleston (to date, the best actor to take on the role). In his penultimate episode, Bad Wolf,  the Doctor has been imprisoned in the Big Brother house. There's a voiceover cameo from Davina McCall, there's an authentically recreated set and diaryroom, Paul Oakenfold's theme is used, even the individual catchphrases ("please do not swear", "we're coming to get you"). We then get this exchange: 

Doctor: So the population just sits there? Half the world's too fat, half the world's too thin, and you lot just watch telly.  
Lynda: Ten Thousand channels, all beaming down from here.
Doctor: (grimly) The human race: brainless sheep, being fed on a diet of - (he softens) mind you, have they still got that programme where three people have to live with a bear?
Lynda (ecstatically) oh, Bear With Me! I love that one!
The Doctor: And me - the celebrity edition where the bear got -
(The Doctor and Lynda simultaneously): in the bath!

Here, in that little throwaway moment, we don't just witness the moment when Doctor Who was killed ; we get an idea of how capitalism works. Roland Barthes's brilliant essay "Operation Margarine" compares it to innoculation. You introduce a little bit of the poison, to keep the system used to it. In Barthes's example, you advertise margarine by first acknowledging that margarine is drab, then reasserting its merits. Most tv adverts still use the operation margarine technique. Adverts for banks often begin with parodies of the irritating things people associate with banks (jargon, smallprint) before moving to the one company that will never subject you to them (the Marmite adverts are a playful take on the idea).

Both the Bazalgette and Cowell empires are built on this principle. Every time you say that Cowell is infuriating, that Big Brother is claustrophobic, that we're zombies for watching it, that the whole thing will lead us to a Year Of The Sex Olympics-style dystopia, you're also saying that it's fascinating television; sooner or later pseudo-disparagement leads to bathetic punchlines: "I can't stop watching". "It's awful, but it's riveting". As for Balzagette and Cowell: like Murdoch, they don't care what you think of their rotten product: they just want you to keep consuming it.

After Doctor Who's corruption, what's left to believe in? Perhaps the recently concluded Harry Hill's TV Burp? Surely that never let us down? The show was spiky in its earlier days, combining impeccably performed pratfalls with genuinely cutting observations about the stupidity of contemporary British television. A horrible sign that things were going wrong in its later seasons came when Dermot O'Leary filmed a walk-on cameo, waving to the applauding audience as he left. O'Leary is the acceptable face of capitalism, a trendy, kindly-faced shill for corporate-minded, tabloid television: the material filmed for the National TV Awards in which Matt Smith's Doctor struggles to get him there on time was final proof that Doctor Who didn't exist anymore, and something soulless was masquerading in its place. The X-Factor spoofs on TV Burp began to resemble Peter Kay's Channel 4 spoof, Britain's Got the Pop Factor... and Possibly a New Celebrity Jesus Christ Soapstar Superstar Strictly on Ice, which was all too to glad to get Cat Deely and Neil Fox onboard to play themselves. It's currently being reported that Harry Hill is working on Simon Cowell's X Factor musical. If true, that would make him the Nick Clegg of the comedy world (and while we're here, we might ask why the normally admirable Stewart Lee felt The Jerry Springer Show merited a lavish West-End musical: yes I know it was satirical, but doesn't it rather take the view that Jerry Springer is significant? Wouldn't it be more satirical to take the the view that his show was nothing, and merited no discussion? Springer himself seemed quite flattered by it).

Conservatism-posing as satire found a new expression in Peter Morgan's script for the ludicrously overpraised film The Queen. It could almost have been written by Tony Blair, it's very misty-eyed toward monarchy, and it takes the same view of Princess Diana's death as the tabloids, and yet it was widely seen as a film talking a wry look at all three issues. The film's driving force is the idea that the Queen was out of touch with the public. It has no time for the idea that the mass sobfests were part of an emotionally incontinent reaction to the death of a celebrity (an idea that can get out of hand, admittedly, but still a viable alternative to listening to Candle in the Wind), or that there's something obscene about hearing people say they cried far more than at there own mother's funeral. It also presents Prince Charles as a politically savvy, wily old bird, who understands the situation as well as Blair and delivers a heartfelt speech about Diana's gifts "whatever you and I thought of her" to the Queen. The ludicrous idea of Prince Charles as "Pretty clever..nice guy..bit of a maverick...", often put about by men smart enough to know better like Clive James, Stephen Fry, Billy Connolly and Barry Humphries, finds its most striking articulation in a film  that saves its savage scorn for the Queen Mother and attempts to portray the Queen as, in Morgan's own words, "a cold, emotionally detached, haughty, difficult, prickly, private, uncommunicative, out of touch bigot," but to dislike the Queen and the Queen Mother and exempt Charles is like opposing organised religion except for that Pope chap. As for the anti-Tony Blair stance, could anyone honestly point to a single moment in the film which portrays him in an unfavourable light? Even Alastair Campbell, for all the shots of him leering in the shadows and writing "People's Princess" on a notepad, is never shown to do anything other than shrewdly pick up on the mood of the people. A friend of mine as fiercely non-Conservative as I am who didn't know I'd already seen it recommended the film to me and added it was "interesting because it paints a very unflattering picture of Mr Blair". This isn't surprising when you look at the film's critical reception. The Emperor not only had lovely clothes: he was pretty scathing about the need for an Emperor in the first place.

A welcome exception to this received wisdom came from the novelist Nicola Barker,who wrote in The Guardian:
( ):

It's puny. It lacks the courage of its convictions. It's wishy-washy. This - highly lauded - enterprise promises to engage with one of the most important British cultural moments of the past 20 years. It should be heroic and screwed-up and vicious and ridiculous and angry - but it isn't. It's complacent and hollow and self-satisfied. Why grasp a nettle, I can't help wondering, if you're going to persist in wearing gloves?

This almost makes up for the defence of Big Brother a few paragraphs earlier, in which Barker repugnantly describes reality tv as "profoundly moral." Well, you can't have everything. As for Morgan's "bigot" comments, what on Earth did he think was going on in the ridiculous scene where the Queen gazes soulfully at a stag which may or may not contain Diana's spirit? Or the scene where the Queen looks heartwarmed when the little girl amongst the mourners gives her flowers? How Morgan must hate those scenes if someone added them.

What's happened to Channel 4 over the past decade demonstrates even more disturbingly the extent to which Right-Wing people are thinking of themselves as Leftist. More4's inexplicable The Execution of Gary Glitter was a piece of red-top tabloid television, right down to the contributions from Garry Bushell and Anne Widdecombe, with the horrible twist that it was made by people who thought they were satirising that very world (what was going through Miranda Sawyer's head as she filmed her contributions is an enigma to rank alongside why Elia Kazan agreed to name names): the show's writer even wrote a smug piece for the Independent bemoaning capital punishment and chiding Obama for not condemning it. Similarly, while Channel 4 routinely chastises offensive programmes from the past in its clip shows - Mind Your Language, Benny Hill, Love Thy Neighbour, Minipops - when Frankie Boyle on an episode of his Tramadol Nights referred to Katie Price's disabled son by name and made a joke about the child getting so big her bodyguard boyfriend was necessary to "keep him from f**king her", they defended the joke as necessary in order to push back the boundaries of comedy. Channel 4's Alternative Christmas Message used to be a jolly, frivolous affair with The Simpsons or the Osbournes. In 2008 it was made by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad  Not an impersonator, but the actual Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the same despot responsible for the public hanging of juveniles, denial that there are any gays in Iran and countless human rights violations was given the opportunity to make a broadcast in which he, in all seriousness, attempted to argue that his values were in alignment with those of Christianity at its best. Who knows how the people at Channel 4 responsible for this justified it to themselves: did they think they were being satirical? Did they think they were using offence and provocation to give people a jolt and get them thinking, to stimulate debate? Ahamadinejad, meanwhile, had no such deceptive motive: British television gave him an opportunity to present himself as a moralist, and he took it.

Back in 1997 Channel 4 broadcast Chris Morris's magnificent  Brass Eye, perhaps the only genuinely subversive piece of satire ever shown on British tv, or at least since That Was the Week that Was. It remains the biggest Influence upon Channel 4, but unfortunately, it influenced them in all the wrong ways, and its real strengths were forgotten. The lesson that Channel 4 and the next generation of would-be Morrises took away from Brass Eye was not its expert lassoing of media pundits with their own stupidity, or its portrayal of a media that dictates the news rather than vice versa, but that shocking people was an end in itself  (Even Morris's own revival of Brass Eye for the  notorious 2001 special seemed more interested in baiting than in challenging the Right-Wing, lacking the invention that made the 1997 series so invigorating). Post-Brass Eye shows like Balls of Steel, Frankie  Boyle's Tramadol Nights, Death of a President, The Taking of Prince Harry and Black Mirror are all based on the principle that if it offends the Daily Mail, then it must be clever. This is not the intellectual riposte to the Daily Mail's poisonous effect on British life that we so badly need, but an infantile ploy for attention. Look at the poster for a new series of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding - "Bigger, fatter, Gypsier" or the leering trailers for the Bodyshock documentaries: is this really anything other than red-top television?

Even those supposedly offended by the likes of Frankie Boyle or Jimmy Carr have closed their minds to more disturbing offences. The disability campaigner Nicky Clark, for example, accepted Gervais's vague gestures of apology following his annoyed tweets to those who asked him to stop using the word "mongs", and his insistence that the word had changed its meaning, and after conducting a fawning interview with Gervais for the New Statesmen can now be found writing pieces for the same magazine berating whatever tasteless gag Frankie Boyle has made recently. In a conversation I blundered into with her on Twitter, she said she thought Gervais's Derek made some salient points about oppressive carers. I replied: "Couldn't he do that without clenching his jaw in a "comedian-does-spazface"' kind of way?" To which Ms Clark replied "spazface? Mind your language, son, there's a dear". It was oddly reminiscent of the stoning scene in Life of Brian, when a bunch of people gather to stone a man for saying "Jehovah" but begin to stone one another for repeating the word each time the accusation is repeated. Ms Clark and I have more in common than she assumes, as she has two daughters on the Autistic Spectrum and I have Asperger's Syndrome, so neither of us care for the word "spaz", but in view of the astonishing experience of being implicitly accused of using a term of abuse I've been on the receiving end of in my schooldays - by someone who acts as a spokesperson for people like me - perhaps she might understand my annoyance.

People like Nicky Clark aren't really interested in standing up to bullies: they are happy to make a career out of "He shouldn't say that", but uninterested  in discussing why he said it, what the implications of saying it are, whether an excuse offered for why he said is really that sincere or convincing and whether there are more subtle ways of spreading bigotry about minorities. Ricky Gervais is far worse than a cartload of Jimmy Carrs, Chris Moyleses or Frankie Boyles, and his work does far more damage both culturally and, as this shocking piece  uncovers, to individuals. Life's too Short is Mind Your Language 2.0. It is based around the assumption not that people of Warwick Davis's height are funny - as its production team would be quick to say - , but the more insidious - and just as boorish - idea that the majority of the public think they are. Passers-by watch with amusement as he struggles to get out of his car; when he attempts to buy a packet of condoms, the woman behind the counter loudly shout across to her colleague, asking if these will fit a dwarf. The naturalism so crucial to Gervais and Merchant's success rules out any possibility that these onlookers are meant to be absurdly unconvincing (as opposed to Peter Griffin in Family Guy, whose idiocies are not presented to us as the way most human beings tend to react, but as comic conventions dictated by whatever joke the Family Guy team are playing with).

  In Derek (an idea which began with sketch from 1999 which vanished from YouTube as the 2012 Channel 4 pilot was preparing to broadcast), Gervais is able to clench his teeth and play a character familiar from playground "spastic" impersonations (that word is unpleasant, cruel and anachronistic, but so is Gervais), partly by his tried-and-tested "irony" and partly by falling back on sentimentality. Back in 1998, American Pie discovered the knack of adding schmaltz to knob gags so that Guardian contributors could laugh along too, and shows like Derek and The Inbetweeners have perfected this to mask far more detestable content. It's revealing here, as SOTCAA have pointed out, to consider Merchant's reaction to Gervais's claims that Derek isn't really disabled at all in this 2001 interview ( with the pair, when the character was part of their "Rubbernecker" show: "Yeah, that's the corporate party line. Toeing the party line. The man who sees the world differently. Brilliant."

But are these considerations the kind of thing that Nicky Clark wants to write about? Of course not. It would raise questions, and require discussion and debate. How much easier it is to send off a piece to the New Statesmen about how Frankie Boyle shouldn't have made that horrid joke (It's interesting, too, that her piece – - is dismissive of this open letter by Boyle - - even though it shows rather more guts and social commitment than her article).

If satire in this country has any future, it is essential to realise that our current media climate has the appearance of being flooded with it, but on closer inspection it's a mirage. To produce something that couldn't be easily understood as "wickedly subversive": ah, how wickedly subversive that would be.