I had intended to offer my list of Edinburgh recommendations yesterday or today. But sadly I left the unmanageably-sized list-in-progress on the desktop of my computer at work. So instead today's entry is about television.
I'm not about to argue that TV must re-embrace Reithian principles. But the interview with BBC3 Controller Danny Cohen in yesterday’s Media Guardian (satirised here) did briefly make me wonder why anyone bothered with anything any more. This has nothing to do with the recent spate of specious nonsense written about TV phone-ins being rigged, the treatment and coverage of which has been preposterously po-faced - but that’s another issue. No, what concerned me about the interview with Mr Cohen was the following (from the real article):
"Building on the success of Baby Borrowers, the channel’s next big factual “event” will be Pramface Mansion, in which 10 single mothers and their offspring will live together for a month... The insulting title is nothing compared to some of those for which the channel was pulled up in last month’s annual report... Fuck Off I’m Fat [sic] springs to mind."
It is difficult to come up with a sensible way of responding. The problem is that raising any sort of objection a) plays into their hands and creates precisely the sort of media furore that such titles and programmes are created to generate, but worse b) to attack from positions of compassion or concern makes one look like a hopelessly ineffectual liberal, while to attack from a position of high-minded contempt or moral fury makes one sound like Peter Hitchens or Roger Scruton. Other options available pretty much take the Charlie Brooker satirical route, which - quite apart from making one sound like a potty-mouthed puritan with an unusually vivid imagination - obviously doesn’t work, since the programme makers are clearly raiding back issues of TVGoHome for inspiration.
While researching an interview for The Times Online with Roger Michell recently, I noticed that he had been the director of the excellent BBC adaptation of Hanif Kureshi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, and was immensely pleased to discover that its DVD release is imminent. But when was the last time there was a really great adaptation of a modern novel made for TV? From what little I saw of it, White Teeth was dreadful, and also was ages ago now. Has there been anything else since? Brick Lane went to film; Vernon God Little - surprisingly - went to theatre, and so on and so on. Admittedly, Buddha... was probably a rarity even at the time, and possibly I loved it more than most, since it was set where I lived in Bromley, was about people roughly my age, it involved punk music and threw in an awful lot of sex for good measure. The fact that it goes on to get involved with theatre, which I couldn’t have given less of a toss about when it was first aired, only makes the re-watching all the better (BBC4 showed it again in 2003).
The thing is - and I could be remembering this all wrong - in the same year or so Channel 4 aired its amazing "Banned" season, which included Alan Clark’s Scum and Derek Jarman’s Sebastian, followed in the autumn by its Punk season (or was it just a weekend? Or even a night?), which included a couple of documentaries, Julien Temple’s Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, at least one show which collected pretty much everything that was to inform my taste in music for the next ten years into an hour or two of music videos and Derek Jarman’s Jubilee. At roughly the same time, Twin Peaks was running for what seemed like forever on BBC 2.
It is cheap to suggest that such inspiring programming wouldn’t see the light of day now. It might. But I’d be out when it was on, having learnt not to trust the telly. And there was plenty of rubbish on TV back then too (remember The Word?). What’s more, culture - such as it is - doesn’t operate in the same way now. For example, you don’t need the BBC or Channel 4 to broadcast the documentary. A cursory YouTube search reveals that much of that programme of punk/post-punk videos is online anyway: hire the DVDs, search the songs, and do it yourself. But then, that rather misses the point - what was great was that someone else had seen fit to introduce me to all this stuff. It was an education.
Maybe I'm worrying unduly. As Johnny Rotten observed: "The kids want misery and death, they want threatening noises, because that shakes you out of your apathy." They probably don't want no education.
This isn’t to say there’s not some excellent Television these days. Quite apart from all the American stuff, State of Play, Life on Mars and Shameless were all great. I didn’t see any of Skins, but apparently that had its moments too. But I do miss the sense that there is someone in charge out there who really knows what they’re doing, and who knows more than you do, and wants to share it with you.
That’s much of what appeals to me about many of the blogs I read - they are the products purely of people sharing their enthusiasms, and bringing to your attention things which might otherwise pass you by.
That said, nearly everyone has probably buggered off to Edinburgh by now, so Lord alone knows who I’m writing this for - apart from the two Finns who turned up yesterday attracted by my sarcastic use of "porn" as a tag for yesterday’s entry.
Reading list for this week:
Luke Kennard’s The Harbour Beyond the Movie - which, from what I’ve read so far, is just great: laugh-out-loud funny along with some beautiful phrasing and playfully handled erudition. Highly recommended.
Mark Watson’s A Light-hearted History of Murder - which I’ve only just started, but looks like it will be a lot of fun indeed.
Also, from Tesco, the new Inspector Rebus novel by Ian Rankin: The new Rebus paperback always seem to crop up just before the Edinburgh Festival, and so every year, I succeed in scaring myself witless with tales of the city’s violent, criminal undercurrents just before going up. I don’t read a lot of detective fiction/crime novels. The only reason I started with Rankin was that a) there were a lot lying around at a friend's house, and b) he had quite promiscuously deployed the names of at least three or four songs that I like as titles - which were the ones I read first.
Which reminds me, I have another grumpy old man piece to write about "Whatever Happened to Literate Pop Music?" - citing everything from Killing An Arab, and Atrocity Exhibition through to Jacques Derrida by Scritti Politi. The basic thrust is that when I was a teenager - and admittedly listening to music much of which was already ten-odd years old (strange to think that to my fifteen-year-old self Never Mind The Bollocks was newer then than The Stone Roses is to me now) pop music was not hermetically sealed in a world of its own references and nothing else. As a fifteen-year-old, had any teacher asked me to read Camus’s L’Etranger I would have resented it greatly. But because of boyish one-upmanship, of course I went out and did the research on the say-so of The Cure. Similarly - though I blush to admit it - the only reason I had even a passing acquaintance with Theatre of Cruelty was not because of any inspirational theatre studies teacher (I never took the subject - I’m not even sure it existed - certainly not at my school it didn’t) but because of the song by Bauhaus.
I’ve also just received a review copy of Andrew Keen’s fascinating-looking The Cult of The Amateur - How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy, of which a review and probably numerous blogs should be coming your way soon.
In the meantime, from the heady days of 1991’s Channel 4 punk special, here is a recording from an earlier Granada (I think) studio performance of Joy Division doing Shadowplay. This is what TV is really for.