Saturday, 26 February 2011
I haven't quite given up watching TV but I'm nearly there.
It wasn't something I planned to do. Given the right mood, I can enjoy an evening with the television. I don't just watch serious shows. I can sink into programmes that are merely pleasant and those that counterfeit an undemanding friendship between presenter and viewer. When real friends aren't on hand, fakery will do.
These days, while I still sit down to enjoy the occasional film or music programme, I try to avoid much of what TV offers. That skews my criticism - I ought to know more about the subjects of my discomfort. But there's a limit on how long I can endure some of the latest trends. Sometimes that limit allows me to watch for two or three minutes. Occasionally I last nearly half an hour. Often I reach for the remote or the off switch in a matter of seconds.
My discomfort began many years ago. The council estate on which I grew up was a popular haunt for TV documentary-makers, eager to present all of us who lived there as feral creatures, alienated from society by whatever the bogey-man of the moment was, from modern architecture to the innate stupidity and violence of the working classes. We gradually learned their methods. They would move in smilingly, ingratiating themselves with the locals, praising anyone who would embody the director's views in a speech direct to camera.
There's always someone who wants to be TV. It's easy to find someone with a grievance – or genuine anguish – who can be treated as typical of a whole community. Teenage youths with a sense of bravado are prepared to declare their involvement in gangs, threats, mugging – anything the pretty young interviewer wants – because it's better to gain her smiling approval than to admit the uncomfortable truth that they're only 12 or 14 and their mum won't let them out after 7.00 p.m.
Television lies. It doesn't often tell direct untruths but it lies by selection and omission, by choosing a single person, a small group or a set of episodes to stand for a class, a racial group or a community. This is not governed by the laws of libel – and TV companies usually know how to stay within the guidelines laid down by those who control broadcast media.
Besides, TV offers what the audience and the tabloids demand. It feeds into prejudice, hatred and contempt. I can't talk with authority about My Big Fat Gipsy Wedding because I knew from the advance publicity that the programmes would drip with contempt for the people they persuaded to take part – and that it would add to the daily contempt and hatred which too many members of the Romany and Traveller communities have to endure. I didn't watch. After transmission I listened to anguished voices of a number of intelligent travelling people and their descendants. I noted that they didn't even sound angry – the misrepresentation and the attitudes that programme-makers encouraged in the viewers were too familiar to cause anything but resignation to pain.
Freakshows used to be a staple of travelling fairs but they're dying out now. I've mixed feelings about them. No-one wants to be defined as a freak but the people who toured the country, exhibiting themselves in booths, seem to have found some kind of camaraderie as well as a regular income. Some – like the fat man Daniel Lambert – achieved respect for their courtesy and intelligence. It's hard to think that the freakshows on television offer such an opportunity.
TV freakshows want two things: outlandishness and suffering. The ideal freak-star should have an agonising past with a few ex-friends or embarrassing relations who are prepared to sell their stories to the tabloids. It helps if the freak-star is working-class and lacks the means or confidence to question or challenge the freakshow system. Then the freak-star should have outbursts of unacceptable behaviour – the sort of outbursts any of us might have if watched round the clock and required to perform for cameras that follow every move. The more polite freak-star will recognize the outburst as misconduct, subside into tears and apologise. The badly-behaved freak-star defends her or his conduct and can be held up for further contempt.
Any freak-star who attacks the system is blamed. Good, pliant, commendable freak-stars talks of their “journey” and praise the system. The reward is more TV exposure. Occasionally the freak-star achieves financial gain, though this is usually short-term.
Sometimes a freak-star tries to trick the system – or is incited to trick the system – by falsely representing a past as tragic or impoverished. You can't become a freak-star without overcoming illness, grief, abuse or addiction. You have to make your exploiters cry for the cameras – so long as they don't smudge their carefully-applied make-up.
But if you lie to elicit those much-needed tears, the tabloids and public will turn on you. They want authentic suffering, a real journey – and you mustn't deceive them. If you do, they'll turn away from you at once. There's always another outlandish figure or group to hate, despise or pity. The trickster who tries to exploit the freakshow system is condemned to isolation. The TV companies and their bosses rake in their millions.
And the audience stays smug in a contempt which provides warm insulation from most of the pain in the world.