I suspect that most, probably all, of the other Authors Electric either don’t watch TV at all or concentrate on programmes devoted to culture, the arts and serious discussions of crucial social issues. I imagine them sitting back on a Charles Eames chair, sipping a glass of Château Pétrus and enjoying a serialisation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason on the latest Bang and Olufsen. My own diet, on the other hand, is predominantly of football, rugby, cricket and golf viewed from a Scrabble-named IKEA chair as I scoff a tub of peanut butter ice cream.
|A Charles Eames Chair|
Fine, it’s a very popular, quite addictive medium with highly professional writers, actors, presenters, producers and the rest who cater for almost all tastes. Even the despised commercials show levels of creative and professional excellence way beyond those of some blockbuster movies. But I really don’t like what it’s done with the notion of ‘reality’.
I know it’s a cliché, but one of the reasons is the preponderance of ‘reality’ TV shows. I think it maybe started with Big Brother. I watched tiny bits of the first ever series in the
UK and remember nothing of it. I
do, however, remember channel hopping when the third or fourth series was on
and coming across what I thought was a hilarious spoof version of it. The
characters were so inane, their conversations so dull, so lacking in any
redeeming features, so devoid of interest that I was lost in admiration of the
writers. (You know where this is going, don’t you?) The problem was that the
sketch went on too long and, after a few minutes, I realised that this wasn’t a
spoof; it was the actual thing.
OK, that’s not a crime. The inmates weren’t chosen for the contributions they might make to the sum of human knowledge, but the thought that people were sitting watching this night after night, finding these people more ‘real’ than those in the world around them was depressing. Then along came Susan Boyle. I know, I know, it’s a long time ago, but nothing seems to have happened since to change my opinions of it all.
By then, I was already watching very little TV, and certainly not the stuff generated by cynical exploiters of ‘ordinary’ people, so I hadn’t heard of Ms Boyle until a visiting American friend (a sensitive, intelligent, caring friend) described watching her on TV in the USA. She was careful to set the scene, talked of Ms Boyle’s dress, bad hair, etc., and how she seemed generally to be an embarrassment to the human race. Then came the revelation of her voice, and she became an angel.
So, encouraged by the friend, I duly watched her performance on YouTube – and it was very, very depressing. Not because of her. To me, she sounded fine, far better and more powerful vocally than most of those rentastars who churn out regular hits. No, I was appalled by the audience’s and the judges’ reactions to the way she looked and to her apparently gauche attempts to inject some ‘personality’ into her presence. (I say ‘apparently’ because Ms Boyle obviously knew she had helluva voice and that the people in the audience making faces at her and conveying their confident superiority over her to one another would soon be silenced. In her way, she was as manipulative as Cowell and the rest – and good for her. Her ‘manipulation’ was without malice.)
So, in the end, she triumphed. In fact, she triumphed rather too quickly for comfort. No sooner had she belted out the first couple of notes than the audience was baying its approval and the judges were doing their ‘gosh, what a lovely surprise’ faces. She was immediately ‘forgiven’ for being whatever their previous sneering at her implied.
The whole Susan Boyle phenomenon didn’t arise from the fact that she had/has that voice, but from the implied gap between it and her ‘unprepossessing’ appearance. If she’d slapped on some make-up, bought a new dress and played herself as the shy, quiet individual she is, she’d probably still have got their votes, but it wouldn’t have been good television. So the producers had to contrive the Quasimodo effect.
But why is that so depressing? Well, watch the clip and pause it before she starts to sing. Look at the carefully chosen images of the reactions of everyone else there. Without exception, there’s total scorn for this person standing before them, a preening, sneering rejection of her, a reduction of her to a figure of fun – based on what? On the fact that she has questionable dress sense? That she apes the confidence of all the other wannabes who strut across our screens? That she’s a middle-aged virgin from a small Scottish town?
I really do hope that she was canny enough to have chosen to project this image of herself deliberately. I want to believe that Susan Boyle manipulated Simon Cowell. But even if that’s true, the initial images of the baying, self-satisfied citizens so devoid of compassion confirm that her victory is a small one and that we’re losing more and more of our humanity. Those few minutes made Susan Boyle a winner, but the few seconds of pre-voice reactions and the patronising nonsense the judges poured over her afterwards took any meaning out of her victory.
The glut of reality TV shows seems designed to highlight the worst aspects of our attitudes to one another and I find it hard to think of that as entertainment.