I had an argument on a friend’s LJ – mmm, feel the netiquette – about reality TV over Christmas, when he identified another reason why ‘The Runaway Bride’ was such an unedifying trainwreck, namely Russell T Davies giving the villain no motivation other than hating Big Brother and Heat magazine. This, of course, fits in perfectly with my earlier post about reality TV advocates having to slime their opponents in increasingly hysterical terms to cover up their lack of a coherent argument – people who hate reality TV aren’t just class traitors, now they’ve betrayed the entire human race!
Well, this really got them out of the woodwork, talking about how wonderful it was that Russell had become “the champion of the common man” and how reality TV “is wonderful, unless you’re a complete snob”. The hackles were rising, and I dared to point out that multi-millionaire sewage magnate’s grandson Peter Bazalgette was not, in fact, the good-hearted salt-of-the-earth poor lad made good they seemed to think he was. They responded by telling me that I was, in fact, a patronizing snob and I hate the working class.
News to me, I must say. I mean, it’s true that living on such a luxurious council estate for so long has left me out of touch with the ordinary working man, but I thought that the company I keep might have grounded me a bit. For a start, my work involves helping people in desperate poverty. I know, I know, this isn’t quite as helpful to the working classes as pontificating on the internet about what “they” like and what “they” think, but I’m trying to do my part. And Mick, my boss, lives on an even poorer estate than I do, and hates reality TV even more than I do. I’ll have to tell him that he hates himself and everyone he knows. He won’t like that, but it’s the truth.
Yes, OK, sarcasm will only get you so far. I backed out of the debate because it was going round in circles (there was, literally, nothing I could post which wasn’t answered with “j00 hate the working classeses!111!2”) and I felt that another round would result in me inventing a way to punch someone in the face through the internet. For the record, here are my main disagreements with the point (singular) that they were deploying, and (where applicable) how this new series of Big Brother has proven me absolutely right.
Before I start, anyone looking for a good debate on the comments made by housemates and their relevance would be best-directed to Pickled Politics, the spiffy British Asian blog which, between their articles and their comments section, has pretty much every view on this matter represented. To cut it down, editor Sunny writes that though the sentiments are reasonable, the reaction has gone over the top, while contributor Kismet Hardy supports the complainants. Either way, if you want a debate on the matter, there it is. Myself, I'm assuming we all agree that "she should fuck off back home, she can't even speak English" is a racist comment, and this is a rant.
1) Most people who watch Big Brother are casual TV watchers - people like my grandmother, who just enjoys having the TV on in the background sometimes. Needless to say, when I suggested this, I was accused of grievously patronizing the working classes by suggesting they might not be obsessed with intelligence-insulting shit. Yet the ratings for this new series have proven me right. A comedy or drama series generally has a base level of viewers who will watch it no matter what. Even at its lowest point in the ratings, the new run of Doctor Who could still muster about six million people to keep the faith. By contrast, after starting out north of seven million, the current series of Celebrity Big Brother has hit lows of less than three million. Lesson? That, despite the claims that reality TV (and Big Brother in particular) are the most genuinely popular television series in the country, their actual serious fan base lies just south of fuck all.
2) Therefore, I will believe the defenders’ case that reality TV is staunchly popular with the working classes when they can provide me with statistics that say that a mere five per cent of the population of the United Kingdom are working class, and they were all watching Celebrity Big Brother when no-one else was. Reducio ad absurdam, yes, but I’m prepared to accept that a large amount of the show’s audience might be working class, just not – as the defenders seem to believe – that the entire working class constitutes the show’s audience.
3) The argument that disliking reality TV is a form of snobbery generally comes from people like Mark Lawson and Russell T Davies, neither of whom strike me as having spent their formative years in near-Dickensian poverty. By contrast, media figures who actually did grow up in a working class background – most obviously Paul Abbott – hate it. Still, I’m sure that Abbott, creator of such hoity-toity posho costume dramas as Clocking Off and Shameless, hates his characters, his family and himself.
4) Nobody feels the need to talk this way about any other genre, do they? If you say that you think Heartbeat’s crap, no-one responds with “Well, The Bill is quite popular with yer actual working-class people, therefore if you hate crime dramas you must hate the working classes thus I win IDST.” The need to protect an entire genre from criticism in such a blanket way shows up the motivation of the high-profile reality defenders; they’re not interested at all in the working classes, they’re interested in maintaining a media status quo that’s been kind to them so far. (On this, more later)
5) By contrast, reading the letters pages in papers with an overwhelming working-class audience – the red tops, essentially – suggests that most correspondents are either indifferent or hostile towards reality TV. There are never any “Big Brother was the TV highlight of the year!” letters; such praise is usually reserved for comedy and drama. This cannot be passed off as working-class correspondents being influenced by middle-class journalists, since the papers they’re writing to all have a strong pro-reality TV stance. The working classes are actually a lot more broad-minded viewers than the middle-classes think; Culloden and I, Claudius were initially greeted with a sniffy reception by critics, but became hits through popular acclaim.
6) It is representative of the triumph of doublespeak in modern Britain that a series which exists solely to bully, harass and intimidate the weak can be hailed as standing up for the little man. Nobody in Shakespeare’s Britain was arguing that if you found bear-baiting distasteful, it must be because you hated bears; likewise, there are no records of people standing outside Bedlam saying that if you objected to people being given guided tours of the asylum it clearly shows you hate the mentally ill.
I want to expand on this point, since this year the cruelty behind reality television has been clearly demonstrated by the racist remarks directed at Shilpa Shetty, a Bollywood actress whose main crimes appear to be “being a bit snooty” (no surprise, she’s the only person left in who’s actually famous somewhere in the world), “eating with her fingers” (apparently the complainants have never eaten a burger in their life), “talking in a funny voice” (according to a Scouser and Jade Goody) and being a “Paki bitch” (in the charming words of Goody’s boyfriend Jack Whohe? There has been some debate over whether he actually said "Paki", incidentally - the first word was bleeped out. Channel 4 somewhat unconvincingly maintain the bleeped word was "cunt" - again, this issue is hashed out in the Pickled Politics articles and comments).
Now, you can say that this is Celebrity Big Brother, so its connection with the ‘real world’ that unequivocally loves reality TV is minimal. That’s not the case – firstly, and most obviously, because of the decision to move Jade’s family in. Secondly, it still shows up what Channel 4 think the viewers expect from reality TV – bullying, and lots of it! They could have left out Danielle's claim that Shilpa "can't even speak English" and should therefore "fuck off back home"; it’s not a particularly edifying thing to hear, and it was just one remark in a whole day. But they selected it, pulled it out and broadcast it. Then they denied there was any racist behaviour in the house.
Thirdly, in the kind of spontaneous demonstration of working-class spirit that reality TV defenders wouldn’t know if it hit them in the face, around thirty thousand people have complained to Channel Four about racism on Big Brother – by a huge distance the biggest protest against any television show in the history of the medium. Channel Four’s plan to ‘spice up’ the show by broadcasting racist remarks has backfired, and the show stands exposed for what it really is.
There has been a bit of good old-fashioned press apathy on the issue, with people saying that the ultimate winners are Endemol and Channel 4 for making such a talked-about show. I'm not so sure - the show won't wither on the vine overnight, but the idea that only Jade, Jo and Danielle have been damaged by this episode is similarly naive. Channel 4 initially positioned themselves firmly on the wrong side of the debate by claiming the comments were not racist, but rather cultural (i.e., they hated her for coming from a different culture, which clearly isn't even slightly racist). They're backpedalling now, but that's because they have to - their attempt to harness the controversy by nominating Jade and Shilpa for eviction has been greeted with rolled eyes, and they've just lost a sponsor, the sort of thing that just doesn't happen in British television.
Defenders of reality TV used to point to Jade Goody as an example of someone who appeared as a Big Brother contestant and was genuinely loved by the public. The temptation to write something like “one out of about a hundred ain’t bad” is overwhelming, but I’ll save it – consider instead the initial reaction to Jade, when fans of the show gathered outside the house holding signs saying “KILL THE PIG” and shouted abuse whenever she appeared on the TV screen. It was only when some journalists began to question whether this was healthy behaviour that reality apologists made their U-Turn, and wrote the earlier harassment of Goody out of Big Brother history like a particularly efficient Stalinist bureaucrat.
And, leading the whole circus, we have Davina McCall. I will mince no words; if I was Davina McCall, I would put a service revolver to my head and blow my brains out, since I clearly would have no reason to go on living. She has become a smirking rubber-stamp to the worst and most contemptuous aspects of humanity; giggling herself silly over the thought that this year’s double-bed prank might break up someone’s marriage (but it’s not a mean-spirited show, honest), and nodding and grinning while Jackiey belched mindlessly about having problems with “the Indian”.
What wider effects does this have? Well, if the only image of supposedly genuine working-class people and working-class entertainment shows them as loudmouthed deranged bigots, you don’t have to be a genius (or even Mark Lawson) to work out that this fosters a negative image of working class people. You end up with movies like Red Road or novels like Kelly + Victor being hailed as completely accurate portrayals of the real world, because everyone knows; the working classes, they’re animals, aren’t they? They live on estates where the sun never shines, they walk around looking miserable, they end up in violent sexual relationships because they’re not capable of affection or even good old-fashioned lust, no, it has to be violence, the animals.
You end up with people like Simon Price decrying Lily Allen’s album for featuring stories about dumping people that he describes as “reality lite”. You know, as if dumping someone or being dumped isn’t one of the commonest experiences in the world! If that’s reality lite, I wonder what Price would consider full-strength reality? I think we all know the answer to that; something about going off your box on crack and raping a gypsy terrorist paedophile full of the AIDS; the sort of reality that your poncey stage-school brats will never know. In fact, most members of the working classes aren’t that familiar with it either, but it seems to be oddly prevalent around Wapping and Fleet Street.
So there you go. When people say that reality TV is merely a realistic reflection of the working classes, they not only prove their ignorance of the rigorously manipulated nature of the genre, but they also prove their ignorance of the working classes. When people say that reality TV is a genuine standard-bearer for the working classes, they prove their ignorance of the working classes further, and also prove their ignorance of who really pulls the strings. (Hint: Channel Four is not actually a socialist workers’ commune) And when people praise writers like Russell T Davies for their ‘bravery’ in standing up for the genre, they prove themselves ignorant of how prevalent their arguments are, and how pro-reality comments basically amount to someone saying that TV is fine just as it is – hardly a revolutionary statement.
TV is, or more accurately will be, a very different medium soon. The rise of internet sites like YouTube and technology like on-demand video means that television in the future will almost certainly be radically different from what it is now – even if nobody working for the media seems to know what changes they should expect. As a result, the overall tone of the media has become paranoid and defensive, with every new programme sold to us as if it’s a success already and all we need to do as viewers is hop on a lovingly-prepared bandwagon.
Look at the trailers and continuity announcements for The Line of Beauty, for example – they basically said that the show was a new “quality hit” that’s highly “acclaimed” before anyone had a chance to watch it (or, more realistically, watch ten minutes of it then change the channel out of boredom). The watchword is self-congratulation. They all want their place on the boat; they just can’t see that it’s headed over a waterfall.