AD 1977: MY DESPATCHES FROM THE FRONTLINE OF PUNK ROCK

As it is 40 years since that crazy 1977 summer of punk rock, I thought it was high time to exhume my diaries from the time to give you a sense of just what it was like to be at the epicentre of youth culture and fashion. It was quite literally a summer in which I was writing a diary, sometimes, if it was raining. From the very HQ of punk’s capital city: yes, a few short miles from Swansea. Here are some choice highlights. Strap yourselves in!

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IT REALLY DOESN’T MATTER IF IT’S RAINING OR IT’S FINE

File_000(6)Andrew O’Hagan’s new book, The Secret Life, consists of three essays. The first of them, ‘Ghosting’, is itself about the process of writing, and his experience of trying to ghostwrite Julian Assange’s autobiography for Canongate Books, only to find that Assange cannot or will not commit to writing or exposing his real thoughts and feelings, who long ago gave up any professional and objective integrity for self-absorption and a studied cult of personality. Leaving aside everything else about Assange (and there is a lot of everything else about Assange), I keep picturing him as a man who spends a lot of his time staring in the mirror, stroking his hair while fantasising about being interviewed. ‘That was the big secret with him,’ writes O’Hagan at one point, ‘He wanted to cover up everything about himself except his fame.’

On Monday, I went to see Andrew O’Hagan speak about this new book at the London Review of Books Bookshop. Just minutes before the talk began, I learned of the death of a man who – while very famous in his day – never seemed to want to hog the limelight for its own sake. Brian Cant, truly I would say, was a hero to millions of us children who watched television between the 1960s and 1980s. On long-running programmes like Play School and Play Away, Brian – it would feel wrongly impersonal to refer to him by surname – felt like your television dad. With an eternal twinkle in his eye, he was the warmest, most generous and reassuring of TV entertainers.

There were some people on television in those days – we all know who – whom we felt we had to tolerate, mostly down to lack of other options. You never imagined Brian could be one of these bumptious, drunk-with-fame screen obstacles. Nor did he ever seem trapped by children’s television. In later years, when fleetingly interviewed, he expressed only gratitude and love. But it feels a shame that his full story remains mostly untold.

As I mentioned in last week’s blogpost, very little children’s TV was on offer in the 1960s and 1970s, and what there was existed in isolation. Often it was a single programme, a lifeline, a tiny island in an ocean of closedowns, interludes and testcards. Brian was often an inhabitant on these islands: Play School in the mid-morning on BBC2; Play Away the only children’s programme on Saturday afternoon while other channels broadcast hours of sport; lunchtime broadcasts for pre-schoolers, entertainment lasting just fifteen extremely precious minutes. In those latter lunchtime slots, Brian’s voice accompanied the action of Gordon Murray’s trilogy of stop-frame animated series, all set in the fictional county of Trumptonshire: Camberwick Green (1966), Trumpton itself (1967) and finally Chigley (1969). It was disappointing to hear on Radio 4’s Last Word this week that Brian was reportedly only paid a flat fee for his original voiceovers, and did not receive any royalties for their many repeats.

Brian began to fade from children’s TV in the mid-1980s – his last remaining link, Bric-A-Brac (1980–82), in which he played a shop owner who only stocked items beginning with the same initial letter, was repeated until 1987. Thereafter my encounters with Brian became sparser but each one was a delight, nonetheless. I reacted with surprise to his cameo in the final episode of the Esmonde & Larbey sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles (1989), having almost forgotten he was primarily an actor. (As well as a lot of theatre, his many TV acting credits also included Doctor Who, Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars.)

I never really saw Dappledown Farm, Brian’s subsequent breakfast TV series for young children, but his self-parodic narrations of ‘The Organ Gang’ on Stewart Lee and Richard Herring’s This Morning With Richard Not Judy in 1998 were hilarious. ‘The Organ Gang’ was a consciously cheap cartoon about a cast of disembodied innards with faces (Barry Bladder, Beryl Brain, Lily Liver) – imagine a cross between Mr Benn, The Munch Bunch and indeed Camberwick Green. I enjoyed the way Brian gamely pretended to express apathy and even annoyance with the formulaic, threadbare scripts: in the last episode, he couldn’t even be bothered to sing the theme tune properly. I hope he enjoyed doing them, because his infectious sense of fun was still very much in evidence.

And then a few months later, early 1999, I heard the track ‘Fish’ by the artist and DJ called Mr Scruff on Chris Morris’s late-night Radio 1 series Blue Jam. It sampled Brian’s voice from two different sources, both records I had been given when very young. One came from the Camberwick Green story album, just straight transfers of Brian’s narration and Freddie Phillips’ music from the TV series, and it was specifically from a story where Windy Miller went fishing. The other, which took me a little longer to identify, familiar as it was, came from a 1972 compilation album of Play School stories, an item called ‘All the Fish in the Sea’, written by Janet Lynch-Watson, and told by Brian and co-presenter Carole Ward:

CW: ‘Why should it be that the fish in the sea are all unable to sing?

BC: ‘Just listen to me, young fellow/What need is there for fish to sing, when I can roar and bellow?

These were my first records, my first awareness (apart from books) of on-demand entertainment, to be played again and again, whenever I liked. Until I was doing research for this piece, I had not listened to the Play School record in many years. The last time I had played it was in 1980, when I was ten, and really much too old to be listening to it – but by then I had started buying pop singles and even albums for myself, and I played it knowing full well that I was about to bid farewell to something.

I last heard Brian Cant on Radio 4’s The Reunion in 2010, reminiscing about Play School itself. Most of his memories seemed to be less about him than his happy experiences with fellow presenters and encounters with the public who loved him. It just enhanced all the affection for this gentle, dignified, generous but fun-loving chap. It would be nice to think that a proper BBC tribute is being planned; I suspect generations of viewers would welcome it.

Brian Cant died on 19 June 2017, aged eighty-three. It would be fantastic if I could link to a
Brian Cant at the BBC DVD here. Make it happen, someone.

Andrew O’Hagan’s The Secret Life is published by Faber & Faber.

 

 

 

IN PIECES

IMG_1657As we get older, we cannot help but look back more and more. It’s inevitable – life is mostly about memory, and it’s often not even for nostalgic reasons. We’re faced with endless revivals and reissues and reboots, and Facebook reminding you it’s exactly eight years since you wore that hat, but it’s also that, in the digital age, the present is full of the past. There has never been so much ‘past’ hanging around before, and even if you are determined to keep up with new albums, TV shows, books and films, elements of them will still ping inside your head: motifs, emblems, patterns, that unavoidably hark back to past experiences.

Two recent events I attended found their respective creators also wrestling with memory and how it floods their present day lives. David Baddiel’s My Family: Not the Sitcom, a jet-black but celebratory show about the eccentricities of his family background, has just completed its third theatrical run in London. I saw it two nights before it closed. Baddiel’s mother died just before Christmas 2014, when his father was already in the advanced stages of a dementia illness called Pick’s Disease, and the show finds Baddiel grappling with the dilemma of how to remember and portray those who are no longer ‘with us’, either literally or figuratively. It’s a complex show (but very funny), and it uses a variety of illustrative sources: photographs, documents, footage and correspondence.

I first encountered David Baddiel’s comedy on The Mary Whitehouse Experience in the early 1990s; his stand-up was a combination of pop culture and sport (much of it exhuming the forgotten flotsam of his 1970s boyhood) and a frank, often unflinching gaze into ‘difficult’ areas: death, sex, illness, and even occasional glimpses into his own family life when growing up in North London. I sometimes wondered how his parents might have reacted to this particularly confessional type of comedy, but as he outlines in the new show, they seemed fine with it – after all, they came to lots of recordings, especially his mum. But I also found myself thinking about how pop culture is not mere nostalgia in our formative years – it’s a kind of furniture around us, a way of connecting us to the wider outside world.

The night after I saw David’s show, I saw the pop trio Saint Etienne perform live at the Royal Festival Hall, the same day that they released a new album, Home Counties. As ever, they continue to blend the contemporary (glossy, tuneful, often danceable) with elements that yearningly evoke the past. In their case, they use folk elements, mood music, what used to be called ‘easy listening’, and a smattering of references to TV, film and trivia. The effect can be both delightful and haunting.

Like Baddiel, Saint Etienne also use evocative visual accompaniments in their live act: archive film, animation, montages and graphics. During one song, ‘I’ve Got Your Music’, complete with period footage of Sony Walkmans, I kept giggling – sometimes a little nervously – at the recurrent use of Cliff Richard on rollerskates from the ‘Wired for Sound’ video. You can’t get rid of memories, not even – in fact, least of all – trivial ones. Least of all trivial ones. They keep nudging and distracting you.

On Home Counties, there are some short interlude tracks which allude directly to broadcasting that celebrates the past: The Reunion (a Radio 4 discussion about a past event) and ‘Popmaster’ (Ken Bruce’s enduring phone-in quiz on Radio 2). But on some earlier records in the 1990s, they used lo-fi samples from television and film: Peeping Tom, Billy Liar, Brighton Rock, House of Games, a Chanel No. 5 TV advert from 1970, a record about understanding decimalisation, and a pioneering fly-on-the-wall documentary called The Family, about an ordinary suburban family in Reading.

The effect of these extracts was disorientating. It evoked the feeling of how, as young children, our encounters with popular culture – the world at one remove – are often accidental and out of our control. At some point, I suppose when school enters the picture, when we have to start remembering things, we progress beyond a few snapshots and start to find ourselves living a more or less linear experience. From there on, it’s not that we remember everything; it’s just that we start to piece things together, and try and make sense of our surroundings.

For me, this point would lie in the summer of 1974, the long break between nursery school and actual school. I had just turned four years old, an age when you’re still mastering the basics of early life and so you’re forever in the present. You have no idea what is going to register so strongly in your subconscious that you will never forget it. Quite often, it’s not the big events, but the trivia. Forty-three years later, I can isolate actual moments in my memory. And they’re nearly all related to television, or at least contexualised by television. Yet they’re not the big events. No memory of the World Cup in Germany, or a US president forced to step down in disgrace, or either of the two General Elections. I’d like to be able to claim that I recall Victoria Wood winning the talent show New Faces, or Abba winning the Eurovision Song Contest – but I don’t. And I didn’t see The Family either, at least not till the repeats in the late 1980s.

So I was fascinated by television – indeed, I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t watching television, just as I cannot remember a time when there wasn’t music in the house, or a time when I wasn’t reading books. And so, my early memories – even if they don’t feature TV or pop or books – are determined by those contexts. For some reason, I have an unusually vivid memory for date recall – not faultless, but I can usually work out to the day when something happened. And because the Internet now exists and there are sites like the remarkable BBC Genome project, which has every BBC TV and radio schedule between 1923 and 2009, it is actually possible to cross-check these kinds of early memories to the exact day. (If I were a child now, in the on-demand world, this would be practically impossible to monitor.)

It was relatively easy to be obsessed by television in the first half of the 1970s as there wasn’t that much of it. There was no CBeebies or Nickelodeon. There were three channels, there was at most about 12 hours of children’s television a week, mostly in the late afternoon, and there were lots of intermissions and interludes, a lot of waiting. You even had to wait a few minutes for the television to warm up when you switched it on.

I felt like I wanted to own television, the way I owned books. And, in the days before video, not everything had a spin-off book or LP record. So how did I do that? Well, the answer is obvious: I tried to reproduce logos, graphics from TV shows and station idents. (I did play with Lego as well, honest.)

My favourite programmes were mostly visually driven: cartoons, Sesame Street on Saturday mornings, and a lunchtime show on ITV called Pipkins, which was like a comic serial for the under-fives featuring actors and puppets, and which on 5 August that year dealt with the death of the programme’s lead actor George Woodbridge by confronting the death of his character head-on. Quite groundbreaking. Did I watch that one? Frustratingly, I’m not sure – that memory is not there.

But my very favourite programme was called Vision On, ostensibly for hearing-impaired children but which appealed to them – and consequently a wider audience – by disregarding verbal content and concentrating on visuals: short films, animation, mime, surreal and comic sketches, and art demonstrations by the brilliant Tony Hart. Any speech that did remain was accompanied by sign language from his co-host Pat Keysell.

At the heart of Vision On was, I guess, was an early exercise in interactivity. ‘The Gallery’ was an invitation for young viewers to send in original artwork to the BBC and be rewarded with five vital seconds or so onscreen. The accompanying music is now an obligatory soundtrack to anything to do with painting: to those of us of a certain age and above: ping, Vision On.

I wasn’t particularly good at drawing, but I was already somehow skilled at lettering – and I was fascinated by the Vision On logo. Tony Hart, who created it, named it ‘Grog’, a symmetrical cross between a grasshopper and a frog. I could have just painted Vision On on some paper or card, and then folded it over to get a mirror image, but that would have been much too straightforward. Instead, I actually tried to copy the Grog from memory, without the image in front of me. I now realise that trying to copy something exactly can be harder than creating something. I was so committed to getting it right that I momentarily considered sending my best result off to the programme, before reasoning that they probably wouldn’t have needed it. Vision On already have their own Grog, Justin. It’s a big one, on their wall, behind them, every week.

Sometimes I found television funny; sometimes it made me feel funny (Samantha off Bewitched, that woman off Hickory House, and a classical violinist I kept seeing on BBC2 – probably  the young South Korean virtuoso, Kyung Wha-Chung). At other times, in the blink of an eye, it could turn into something utterly anxiety-inducing. There were public information films straight after children’s programming which alerted you to a world of road accidents, rabies, drowning in lakes full of shopping trollies, glass on the beach. There were other alarming things in the world: people also seemed to find The Osmonds dangerous and kept screaming at them on TV. (You remember that public information film: BEWARE OF OSMONDS.) I didn’t like the look of the ATV logo at all, and it was hard to draw. The dubbed monkey shrieks on Daktari – horrid.

Furthermore, there was some frightening regional thing after Sesame Street on Saturdays called Orbit, in which a doubtless well-intentioned announcer called Alan Taylor pretended to be in space (rather than a weather forecast studio in Bristol) with only a buzzing gonk called Chester for company. Alan Taylor, for reasons I have never quite processed, absolutely put the fear of God into me. The three minutes of Orbit that survive here – and I defy you not to sing along with the opening theme – provides no clue about what they might have filled the rest of the half hour with. Cartoons from Spain? Showjumping highlights? It’s going to be birthday greetings, isn’t it?

This was all disorientating and scary and yet I couldn’t back out. I had joined a story I didn’t yet begin to understand, but was determined to make sense of. Is that Bernard Cribbins singing the Wombles theme? Why do we keep being told ‘watch out watch out watch out watch out there’s a Humphrey about’? Why is television closing down now with some music – is it tired? Why is Alan Taylor doing this programme as well? Does he ever go home, and please can he do that? And oh god, why ‘The Laughing Policeman’, at all, ever?

And then, somewhere in the background which perhaps should be in the foreground of these memories, there was real life. And I strangely don’t remember much of that. I’m sure I went to the beach a lot with my family, and shopping, and played games with my brother and so on. My twin cousins were born that summer – they lived nearby but I don’t remember the event itself. Maybe I was too busy watching Wait Till Your Father Gets Home to notice.

But all my early hazy memories have television in there somewhere. The first definite early memory I have is of my nursery school teacher, who owned two Labradors, telling us it was time to watch Play School. So that can’t be later than about June or July 1974.  I can remember being on the back seat of a relative’s car snoozing while they went into a shop, and for some reason I can remember it was a Wednesday, and for some even stranger reason I remember that I’d just watched an episode of the stop-frame animation series Barnaby. (Summer 1974, but no later.)

In late August 1974, one week before I started school, we visited Birmingham, partly to stay with friends of my parents, but also probably because my paternal grandfather lived nearby, in Sutton Coldfield. I remember arriving in Birmingham on the Sunday afternoon: 25 August 1974. You must remember!: The Golden Shot was about to start. Three days later, on Wednesday 28 August, after Teddy Edward and Derek Griffiths’s Ring-A-Ding and that’s how I can be sure, we visited my grandfather. Or at least we visited his house. I do not remember my grandfather – I just remember a rather messy house. I sat in some kind of living room area – the decor was brown as most things in the seventies were. My brother may have also been there. My mum definitely wasn’t. I don’t remember much else – perhaps it was because the television wasn’t switched on.

This is all a bit embarrassing. Maybe I had tunnel vision, and didn’t like people very much. Or maybe it’s just that it’s harder to put a timeframe around real life. Unless you were diligent enough to put a date on the back of a photograph back then, you’d have to guess, and that’s not always easy. But in fairness, television is a powerful medium: colourful, urgent even in those more languid days, and yes addictive. But it taught me a lot, and one thing it did was start to explain things to me. Like music, it has frozen memories in time, a counterpoint to everything else that was going on.

I started school on Monday 2 September 1974, but I still went home at lunchtime to watch Pipkins. My grandfather died on Saturday 19 October 1974. But I have no memory of that.

Saint Etienne’s Home Counties is out on Heavenly Records.

David Baddiel’s My Family: Not the Sitcom has completed its London run, but tours the UK in 2018 and 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

ARTICLE 14

What makes you laugh on television? Maybe it’s Xander and Richard bantering on Pointless. Maybe it’s the dog acts on Britain’s Got Talent. Maybe it’s the esoteric songs they choose for Homes Under the Hammer. Maybe it’s when they say ‘soggy bottom’ on Bake Off. Maybe it’s Danny Dyer’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? Maybe it’s when Phil and Holly get the giggles on This Morning because one of them said ‘knob’ in another context, somehow. Or maybe it’s one of the remaining Actual Comedy Programmes that shiver in the schedules due to lack of company and clothing.

Half my life ago now, one sweltering day in July 1995, I attended a final board at BBC Radio, for a position as a trainee comedy and entertainment producer. It was an exciting time for comedy: the BBC Radio and Television entertainment departments were growing closer together. Many radio series had successfully transferred to television – The Mary Whitehouse Experience, Have I Got News for You, KYTV, Room 101, The Day Today – with many more still to come.  And the trainee producer candidates were likely to work in both media. I faced five (it may even have been six) people in that interview room. An exciting but scary experience.

There were four trainee producer positions available. I came in fifth or sixth, I think, probably due to lack of directing experience or simply that the others were better candidates. They would join a department that was nurturing shows like People Like Us, The League of Gentlemen, Goodness Gracious Me!, and later Dead Ringers and Little Britain. I licked my wounds, and applied instead for office jobs and hackwork.

In the 1990s, with a massive number and range of comedy programmes on television, it felt like the torrent would never end, and this was still before the invention of PlayUK, E4 and BBC Three, who all invested in original comedy. Twenty years on, TV comedy seems on the fringes. In one way, there’s no shortage of them, but they’re scattered around the edges: iPlayer, Sky, Netflix, Amazon Prime. Only Harry Hill, these past six weeks, has been able to sneak a designated comedy show into pre-watershed hours on terrestrial television, and even his Alien Fun Capsule, which is great fun by the way, needs the facade of a panel show, despite being nothing of the sort on closer inspection. Comedy is expensive and risky, and so a lot of broadcasting couches ‘funny bits’ within other kinds of entertainment format: competitions, lifestyle, reality TV.

But everyone still thinks they’re a comedian, and some like to pretend that provocation is the same as telling a joke. Ersatz ‘comedy’ often survives in bastardised forms, such as the output of the tabloid columnist or a front page headline: you write a shit pun, one which doesn’t even work, you punch down at a minority or at least people who are ‘different’ from you, and then after jokelessly causing offence, you switch to disingenuous and wonder why people are causing such a fuss. Sarah. It’s easier to get attention by enraging them than by entertaining them.

There have been, of course, some great newspaper columnists, but many are, like me, people who would have died on their arse in open spot after open spot. A columnist on a comedy panel show is frequently and embarrassingly at sea, discovering that, when voiced aloud, their aggravating gallery-playing shtick turns to gravel in their own mouth. In the distance, a lone owl coughs, and Paul Merton has to step in. Even Alexander Johnson had to work from an autocue after his first Have I Got News for You appearance.

The columnist’s attitude of bleak bravado has spread to social media. The more shrill posters there – who tend to type with their nose or whole arm – have to stress that they’ve made a joke, using that peculiar crying/laughing emoji, when in fact they mean that they’ve just said something they can’t begin to defend.

Then again, my relationship with Twitter is not entirely innocent. For a while it seems liberating. It’s liberating to dismiss provocative figures in kind: to liken Quentin Letts to the Viz character Spoilt Bastard; to describe the head of The Sun’s editor-in-chief Tony Gallagher as looking like ‘a dented football trophy from the 1930s that’s just been dug up’; to call Paul Dacre ‘a putrified testicle’; to call Theresa May ‘a Londis Thatcher who attended elecution classes and said “Make me sound like the cane from school”’; to wonder why Alexander Johnson and Donald Trump seem to want to look like Jimmy Savile first thing in the morning.

All of this is cathartic, briefly, I suppose. But then the excitement cools and sours and you feel resigned and powerless. It’s not funny anymore, you feel tired, and then the next day’s news comes, and it’s more dung, and the dung is even worse. It’s as if your attempts at being funny didn’t change stuff.

Because Twitter is so transitory, it’s not just easy to become addicted to it (nods), it also has no shape, no finity. If only one could channel its funniest, most dynamic components into a TV concept, for funny, engaging contributors. (Note: I am certainly not suggesting a TV show about Twitter – the only time TV entertainment really used the Internet effectively was on So Graham Norton, which was pre-broadband.)

But I think there’s another problem with Twitter and again, I’m as guilty as anyone. We all have our Twitter character now, and a tweeting style, and we can be prone to catchphrases and memes and hobbyhorses. And if you’re a heavy user of Twitter (nods), you risk becoming reliant on saying a thing just to say something, anything. You are Mumbler3, hence: bins, Pacman Ghosts, pop trivia. You start to become bored of your own language.

On the other hand, Twitter has been a constant companion to me over the past seven or eight years, through self-employment, bereavement (twice), anxiety, depression and isolation. It’s also made me laugh a lot, and there are close friends I would never have met without it.

But one reason I started this blog at all was to expand Twitter thoughts into something more fully-formed and ‘permanent’, if a blog can have permanence. Mind you, it’s been tricky to write much lately without interrupting with BUT SO WHAT in big capital letters. It’s because the enormity of Britain leaving the EU with so few concrete ideas about how and even why it is doing so (and real solutions, please, not just that Union Flag you jammed in your arse last June, thanks) has given us a sense that not only is the past far away, but so is the future – and so is the present.

We need to step back from the edge. Idiots must not set the agenda. We want real clowns. We need incisive, thoughtful comedy back at the centre of things. Partly to entertain us, but partly to make sense of it all.

FAKE NEWS: BRASS EYE 20 YEARS ON

file_0005I was once roped into attending a trivia quiz night in London which hinged on the life and work of the comedy writer, producer and performer Chris Morris. None of its several rounds acknowledged his esteemed radio work, but at one point we were played a clip from his 1997 TV series Brass Eye. The item parodied the studio discussion format in which a contributor (played by actor Mark Heap) had been booked to talk about living with the AIDS virus. He revealed that he had caught the virus from his boyfriend, rather than through a blood transfusion. ‘So you’ve got Bad AIDS, not Good AIDS,’ accused Morris, in character somewhere between Paxman and Kilroy-Silk. Chaos was seen to erupt in the studio.

When the clip ended, the round began. We were shown images of ten public figures, and asked whether they had died of Good AIDS or Bad AIDS. As we started, sighing, to identify the likes of Freddie Mercury and Arthur Ashe, gloomy that their extraordinary lives had been reduced to this cruddy indignity, one of my teammates leaned over and whispered to me, ‘Haven’t they missed the entire point of the sketch?’

The sketch was, of course, really sending up the tabloid perception that some people deserve their punishment according to lifestyle. But maybe, I dunno, maybe the quiz organisers just thought it’d be funny to do a round about people who’d died of AIDS. I know the argument that, once someone’s work becomes public it no longer belongs to them, but it was surprising to discover that Morris fans had misunderstood something so profoundly. Warren Mitchell, who played the character of the bigoted east Londoner Alf Garnett on television for many years, used to say that he had grown used to people approaching him in the street and congratulating him for ‘having a go at the foreigners’. He reputedly used to retort, ‘No, I’m having a go at people like you.’ Oh, fandom.

All art needs context, and although not strictly topical, Brass Eye needs some background. Before, during and even after its first transmission, it caused unprecedented trouble for a TV comedy show, especially one that was only watched by around 1.5 million people. It was billed as ‘comedy with a strong taste’, and as ‘a satirical look at television current affairs’. Each half-hour episode addressed a broad subject that provoked emotive responses: animal rights, drugs, science, sex, crime and ‘moral decline’. After being scheduled for premiere in November 1996, it was postponed by Channel 4’s Chief Executive, Michael Grade, concerned that MPs and celebrities had been hoodwinked into contributing to the programme.

The series made great use of creating its own fake news footage and campaigns, and then showing the material to obviously uninformed politicians, journalists and celebrities. A lot of the footage was supposedly uncovered abroad: cattle being fired out of cannons in Libya; the dangerous drug of ‘cake’ in Prague making it to British shores; heavy electricity in Sri Lanka which hit victims like ‘a ton of invisible lead soup’; a two-foot bollock being kept alive in a Siberian hospital; the miraculous vision in Ireland of a statue of Mary driving a car through a field; a US senator who couldn’t stop masturbating at press conferences…  It lampooned that quintessentially British way of thinking: we’re normal; the rest of the world’s crazy.

After the series belatedly began airing in January 1997, Grade ordered that a segment about a West End musical on the murderer Peter Sutcliffe – itself commenting on the celebrity of criminals – should be snipped from the final episode. When broadcast on 5 March, dutifully minus the contentious item, it included a defiant flash-frame: ‘Grade is a Cunt.’ The c-word; the c-word about your channel controller; and a flash-frame, in itself illegal on television. Cue further controversy when the stunt was revealed.

In the aftermath, Morris returned to radio, to create Blue Jam. For years, radio had been his natural home; a decade earlier, he had begun creating satirical stunts for local radio, influenced by the likes of Kenny Everett, Victor Lewis-Smith and Viv Stanshall. In 1990, he was talent-spotted by radio producer Armando Iannucci, and the pair created On the Hour for Radio 4, later to reach BBC2 as The Day Today. Brass Eye was then only Morris’s second full television project, but its style already seemed a natural conclusion of his work, a full stop.

Repeats or commercial releases of Brass Eye then seemed unlikely, but it won awards, several of its production team went on to senior positions in TV entertainment, and it was a big influence on TV comedy. Not necessarily in a good way: if Mark Thomas and Rory Bremner continued to pursue incisive political satire, elsewhere hasty, ill-conceived hidden camera shows sprang up, frequently concerned with humiliating the public. It was into this environment that Brass Eye was finally repeated, with cut material reinstated, in summer 2001, along with a new seventh episode: satirising tabloid attitudes surrounding paedophilia. It had laudable intentions, but I was a bit disappointed by its comedy elements. Regardless, many weren’t, it helped make more people aware of the original series, and the tabloids got upset all over again.

Morris’s work could be cruel, but his prime target was ultimately media attitudes – and he and his co-writers were both imaginative and obsessed with attention to detail. His targets were wide and courageous: tabloid media of course (who attacked the series) and public figures, but also gangsters and drug dealers. In contrast, those who followed him tended towards simply humiliating the participants, and more desperate to push the envelope than tell any good jokes. It was often a cold, mean-spirited time for comedy in the early 21st century, and I’m struck by how that strain of material has thankfully mostly disappeared from TV now, but migrated to the Internet, an environment Brass Eye anticipated. (Greetings, Mr Pie – now please quit shouting and write some gags.)

Twenty years on, and perhaps the only thing that dates Brass Eye are the public figures who were stung; most are now forgotten, deceased or, in one notable case, disgraced and in prison. Rewatching the programmes again, they remain contemporary, relevant and surprisingly funnier than ever, though in the face of relentless, unfunny ‘fake news’ – too big a subject to be incidental about here – maybe its humour simply acts as sharp relief. Above all, as fans and quiz night organisers should be aware, little of it should be taken purely at face value.

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With thanks to Kate for videotaping the original run for me, while I was moving house and while my VCR was in storage.

Brass Eye was last televised in 2008 by More4, but it’s on DVD for peanuts and on YouTube for even fewer peanuts. For much, much more information on the series, there are two books: Disgusting Bliss: The Brass Eye of Chris Morris by Lucian Randall (in which I acted as a text consultant and researcher), and No Known Cure: The Comedy of Chris Morris, an anthology of new essays edited by James Leggott and Jamie Sexton, in which I contributed an essay about Morris’s work as a DJ and musician.  

EXPLORING POP’S MAP: ON RECORD SHOPS (PART 1)

file_0004A long time ago now, I worked in record shops for nearly a decade: eventually for two nationwide chain stores, but before that, in a tiny independent shop which specialised in heavy rock and indie but which was on the list of shops for the Gallup charts as used by Music Week, Radio 1 and Top of the Pops. So every time someone bought something you scanned the barcode, or entered the catalogue number on the back.

My first day was Saturday, 25 June 1988. I had just left school, having performed disastrously in my A levels and knowing full well that I’d have to retake them. The main thing I remember about my first day, apart from writing up the masterbags for cassettes to be stored under the record racks, was having to listen over and over again to one of the week’s new releases: a plodding heavy metal instrumental version of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ from The Wizard of Oz. It sounded like some testcard music for when they lost the signal for Tommy Vance’s Friday Rock Show.

The worst thing about this tiny shop was that it was tiny. It was the size of someone’s living room. It was so tiny that we had no stock room area away from the shop floor to process deliveries. We had to crouch on the floor and open the boxes while the customers were there, squinting in panic at invoices while impatient youths stood over you wanting to be first with that copy of Iron Maiden’s new shaped twelve-inch picture disc of ‘Eddie on fire’ or something.

I ended up working there all the way through college and even university vacation. I rarely listened to metal at home, but I had to concede that it was refreshing to listen to something different at work (we didn’t just play ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, we even stocked some other things). Plus I was undoubtedly a useful presence as I knew the poppier stuff, and we sold a lot of that too.

And, in every shift, more senior colleagues introduced me to stuff I didn’t know and hadn’t heard. We had no iTunes, or Spotify, or Wikipedia, where you could check What People Had Released. All that existed was a frantically well-thumbed Music Master catalogue behind the counter, there was a phone, and your own memory where you’d incrementally archived gobbets of info from the music press, radio and TV. And this was a time when a lot of long-deleted records were reactivated via this burgeoning new format: the compact disc. Every day, then, was an education, albeit a badly paid education, during which you might even be subjected to LPs by Helloween.

I would never claim to have an infallible working knowledge of music, but I would say I was – then, at least – brilliant at working in a record shop. Partly because I was polite and helpful, but also because I knew about music that I didn’t necessarily like but which customers did. You’re there to help, whether it’s someone who only visits a record shop once a year, or someone who is in every day, and yes we did have people who were in every day. Mainly, admittedly, the youth who wanted all thrash metal LPs ever and who wondered aloud who’d win in a fight between Joey Belladonna from Anthrax and Kerry King from Slayer.

All the while, in your head, you were absently continuing to fill in a rough exploratory map of music for your own use and pleasure. Facts, figures, tunes and lyrics were stored away for daily pop quizzes with customers. Their questions would be cryptic but usually could be boiled down to: ‘What is this song I’m looking for, and can I buy it, please?’ They would often sing bits of it at you while other, louder, different music was blaring from the speakers. Perhaps my finest achievement was being asked, ‘I heard it on the radio, it’s got a banjo on it, I think’ and replying, ‘Is it “Kiss This Thing Goodbye” by Del Amitri?’ It was. ‘Yes, we have it. Would you like the album?’ SALE. Kerching.

BBC4’s The Secret Science of Pop, shown this week, also began in a record shop, albeit a deserted one (it might have been the Record and Tape Exchange in Notting Hill, west London). In this rather annoying programme, the evolutionary biologist Armand Leroi was seen rifling through the racks while declaring that although he had little knowledge of pop, he had extensively studied fruit flies (‘earworms’, yeah, see what you did there), and so he was embarking on ‘a journey’ to measure pop through algorithms. He assembled a team of data scientists to analyse five decades of hits and sounds, to reduce pop to its bare essentials, aiming to try and make the ultimate pop song. In practice, what it did was suck all the mystery, joy and spontaneity out of recorded pop: the effect was akin to Johnny Ball on Think of a Number chewing some sheet music.

Although the programme was not made by BBC Music but by the science department, it felt as if this wasn’t just an attempt to make a mean/average pop song, but also an attempt to do the same with the whistle-stop tour of pop’s history documentary. I’ve lost count of how many versions we’ve had now of ‘When BBC4’s Ageing Demographic Slumbers Through The Bill Grundy Clip Again and Again’. It might be time to give these things a rest for a while.

For pop isn’t a science (and in any case, there wasn’t a lot of incisive scientific analysis in this programme either). Those who truly excel at pop are conscious of its past but always bring something new to the table. But this programme seemed to encourage the homogenous, the average, like getting a focus group to make a record. Inevitably, the weird and the unusual were left on the fringes. By the end, a young singer called Niké Jemiyo and the record producer Trevor Horn, who both agreed to participate in the process, looked as though their time had been royally wasted. Because it had. ‘Non-linear effects – they’re the hardest to get at,’ concluded the scientist presenter. ‘Given enough data, we will work it out.’ Nah, you’re fine.

Pop expressed as statistics and graphs and formulae is fun in passing, but it’s a bit like memorising Guinness Hit Singles books for trivia quizzes while never listening to the music. The amateur map I was internally constructing in my years in record shops is, I’m afraid to say, now out of date; I took my eye off the ball at some point in my mid-thirties, so to speak, and though I know the map’s changed, and I remain interested in new stuff, I know I could never really work in a record shop again. Because even though all the information is out there, what’s gone is my playful ability to connect it all up, even if those connections only made sense to me. My map is still full of landmarks, but I’ve never been so aware that it’s also full of holes.

 

‘IT’S NOT GOING IN’: ROOM 101’S RADIO YEARS

room-101-illustrationIn early 2015, Len Goodman off Strictly Come Dancing and the Farm Foods advert was on the TV panel show Room 101, more than ably hosted by Frank Skinner, in which celebrities and sometimes comedians compete to have their pet hates consigned to oblivion. Len’s selections included ‘all foreign food’, ‘the Metric system’ which was introduced in the UK forty-six years ago, and, most remarkably of all, ‘too much choice’. I’m guessing he voted Remain.

For me, Len’s appearance underlined the shift between the attitudes of millennial Room 101 – too often a howl of despair at ‘modern life’ (it even has a regular category called that) – and those attitudes of its early incarnation. Because when the programme began, in January 1992, it was less about banishing the Present Day than rejecting the Past. Back then, it was a low-key lunchtime radio series, with one guest not three, and no studio audience. Somewhere between a comedy show, a chat show and a game show, Room 101 launched just a fortnight before Desert Island Discs celebrated its golden jubilee on BBC Radio. And it’s probably one of the funniest radio series ever made.

For its origins, it’s back to the summer of 1990. After BBC Radio 2 aired a short series about all-time worst films, called Talking Turkey, its producer Harry Thompson received some feedback. ‘Two people sent a letter the same week, both suggesting a “bad records” show,’ remembers Room 101’s original producer Lissa Evans. ‘One was called “Devil’s Island Discs”, the other “Desert Island Discards”. And Harry said, “Does anyone want to do something with this?”’

Evans immediately thought of the stand-up and actor Nick Hancock as a presenter, ‘because he’d always made me laugh, he had this emphatic delivery’. She had previously booked him for a spot on a series called The Cabaret Upstairs in 1988, and for a topical sitcom called Little Blighty on the Down. But Hancock had also been a relatively early exponent of comedy about trivia, thanks to a double-act with Neil Mullarkey – where they, with limited resources, recreated title sequences of old television shows – and a series for the satellite station BSB called La Triviata.

A show about hated records had been done – Radio 2’s Hit List in 1982 and 1984 with guests including Kenneth Williams, Denis Norden and Claire Rayner – so Evans and Hancock expanded the idea to also encompass terrible films, books, people, places, TV programmes and objects. Both of them fans of George Orwell’s books, it was the host who hit upon the final title, and which resulted in probably the only comedy show to boast a theme tune by Eurythmics.

Despite what its producer rightly describes as ‘a perfect pilot’ (with Paul Merton as the guest), Radio 1 inexplicably turned it down, and so the series would battle with cruddy medium wave reception over on the newly-created BBC Radio 5. For a show that asks a lot of a guest, Merton grasped its sense of humour almost immediately. When subjected to Kenneth More’s laugh from the film Genevieve, his groan contains proper horror.

Stand-up comedy in the 1980s had been political, observational or surreal, but rarely directly autobiographical. This gave way in the 1990s to a more personal take on comedy, and guests on Room 101 were encouraged to choose items that could evoke personal experience, a way of forcing them away from pre-prepared material and into some quite revelatory and individual anecdotes. The result was not just good comedy, but a superior kind of talk show.

So when Jo Brand chose ‘Angie’ by The Rolling Stones, it was less about the record itself than a misguided early relationship her parents disapproved of. Frank Skinner remembered awful bus journeys in the West Midlands. Caroline Quentin recalled her unsung days in the original West End chorus of Les Miserables and the modest role of ‘Blind Beggar’. Danny Baker lambasted his brief spell as a presenter on a consumer TV show. David Baddiel brought along a lo-fi tape of his own teenage band with a future indie rock guitarist on lead vocals. Jenny Eclair shivered about her early 80s attempt at recording The Kinks’ ‘Tired of Waiting for You’. Steve Punt reminisced about the harsh limitations of the Bontempi keyboard as a Christmas present (‘Look, I’m sorry – I asked for this, but this is rubbish.’) And perhaps best of all, the late John Walters harked back to his personal nightmare: in a recording studio playing trumpet for the Alan Price Set.

This was an exercise in catharsis and closure, about safely transferring one’s past hell from the jail of one’s mind into a dustbin of a room. And relax. Assuming, of course, that Nick agreed your argument was strong enough for the selection to be banished.

In radio days, it was easy to collar willing victims. ‘It was so last-minute,’ says Evans. ‘We’d get the guests the week before, perhaps even the day before recording. Then I’d rush down to the record library to find clips.’ For occasions when the guest’s suggestion was accepted, she would also find material to put ‘behind the doors’, such as Derek Jameson, ‘Seasons in the Sun’, Norman Tebbit and the showjumper Harvey Smith’s rendition of ‘True Love’. Sometimes, she would mischievously rile the host, like the time she put in footage from a cup defeat suffered by his beloved Stoke City.

In all, Radio Room 101 lasted twenty-seven episodes, including a terrific Christmas special where the tables were turned, and Hancock finally got the chance to suggest his least favourite things: ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ by the Singing Sheep, an excruciating single by Gordon Banks, Scrappy Doo, and his own adolescent song lyrics. Guest custodian Danny Baker was aghast: ‘No, don’t read anything called “Dreamland”.’

Partly because ‘no-one listened to Radio 5’, Room 101 in radio days was left alone. When it moved to television in 1994 on BBC2, booking people became trickier. Lissa Evans: ‘I once drew a Venn diagram: people who are funny, people who are famous, people who want to do Room 101. [The intersections were tiny.] It was absolutely nightmarish. [But] it’s very exposing. And a lot of people, especially actors, are so frightened of exposing their personal opinions.’ In Hancock’s words, some traditionally candid performers suddenly went coy in recording mode, and were reduced to choosing ‘supermarket trolleys with wonky wheels’.

Though the television incarnation – hosted by Hancock, then Merton and currently Skinner – has had many memorable moments, I prefer the radio version, partly because there is no studio audience, simply a conversation where the two participants could actually be outside Room 101 itself. On medium wave.

On one level, comedy about trivia and nostalgia has a poor reputation:

‘Do you remember Deputy Dawg?’ ‘Yes, shut up.’

‘Who remembers those crisps?’ ‘Yes, we still have crisps, I had some yesterday.’

‘Remember dogs?’ ‘No, I don’t, but that’s hilarious.’

‘Do you remember eggs, for God’s sake? Come on!’

But, when on form, Room 101 has risen way above this kind of hackery. Sometimes, it’s not just the stuff you love from childhood that stays with you – it’s also the stuff you hate or even fear. Even if the dogmatism has palled with age, it still reminds you of what you used to be, and what you are now. Don’t be Len. Don’t look back. Embrace that Metric system.

Special thanks to Lissa Evans (@LissaKEvans) for her time and her memories. She now writes fantastic novels, notably Crooked Heart and Their Finest Hour and a Half (now adapted for the big screen as Their Finest), and her books for younger readers include the recently published Wed Wabbit.

The television version of Room 101 continues on BBC1 and Dave. Apart from the links to a handful of radio episodes, most aren’t currently online, but hopefully that’ll change.

BASSLINES AND RAYS OF SUNSHINE

fullsizerender3In a radio tribute to George Michael earlier this week, there was an extract from some old interview where he recalled how, with little contemporary music in his family home, he was compelled to rely on Radio 1 in his youth. And then I remembered an interview from Saturday morning TV in the mid-80s, when Wham! were probably the biggest group in Britain, and when a fellow pop star (perhaps Gary Kemp – equally perhaps not) marvelled at his enthusiasm for, and knowledge of all pop: ‘He knows the lyrics to everything.’ That was the thing with George Michael: he really was one of us. He was a pop fan.

Before the Internet, if you had no disposable income or wealthy parents, you had two options if you were a kid into music. Either you latched on to one band and aimed to buy every record, poster and T-shirt they ever put out, or you generalised and sampled a bit of everything – a record collection of oddities is the truly honest record collection. I was struck by how, when first famous, George Michael reminisced about not only liking The Sweet in his formative years but also buying Carly Simon’s ‘The Right Thing to Do’ on holiday, almost as if by accident. To be a pop fan, I reckon – and I suspect George agreed – is to be open to anything. Even if you don’t like it, you hear it anyway – because who knows, thirty years later, a song you thought you detested brings back fond associations of that holiday, that job, that crush, that partner, that family member who perhaps did like it.

Memories occur by accident, and it has become commonplace for professional contrarians to tut away at our reactions to celebrity deaths, as if such things are cordoned off from our real lives. It is immature, it seems, to mourn someone’s life and celebrate someone’s passing, and instead we should return to the usual ten phone-in subjects, like revisiting the same ten stale farts you once locked away in the shed. I wonder if these contrarians secretly resent that few things they say or write will be remembered in a week, let alone after they pass on. Note too that even when they do recognise someone’s death, they rarely refer to the work, merely their behaviour or that they met them. Yet the detail of pop culture is what furnishes our recall, what intersects with our own lives, and are often the elements that help to bring our missed loved ones back to life in our imaginations, momentarily perhaps, but vividly.

As we grow older, so the power of nostalgia grows with us. It unlocks your past, and often makes sense of it. It reminds you of euphoria, of despair, of a need for escape, a craving for entertainment and colour. And for George Michael to die on Christmas Day itself, when we are already at our most nostalgic thanks to family members (both present and absent), is a haunting irony.

George’s death alone evoked several specific snapshots from my own life. I thought of my dad blasting out Wham!’s ‘Freedom’ (off The Hits Album) while he was working on the bathroom and saying how great it sounded – I know you’re meant to hate your parents approving of stuff in the charts, but I’ve always believed it shows they haven’t lost interest. I also thought of buying my first compact disc player at eighteen and choosing, amongst other things, a Wham! compilation – two years after they’d split up. In turn, that CD reminded me of being thirteen, and obsessively playing their Fantastic! LP, which I borrowed off my brother – he never asked for it back. A particular favourite track on that album was ‘A Ray of Sunshine’, a joyous song emphasising the power of pop music.

At the time, thirty-three Christmases ago, I was also a fan of Thriller and The Beatles’ ‘Blue’ compilation, and how I’m now struck by how we lost important contributors to those records too in 2016. And the memories and connections don’t stop there: That time your dad helped Paul Daniels in his live act by being stuck to a chair; when you scoured record fairs seeking twelve-inch import copies of ‘Mountains’ and ‘America’; when you were traumatised by Watership Down, ‘Frankie Teardrop’ and that bit in The Deer Hunter; when you all but wore out your VHS off-air tapes of the As Seen On TV special and Fawlty Towers.

Furthermore in this tapestry: the best Willy Wonka, the first cheery weather forecaster, what the producer said to Ronnie, Hilda Ogden wishing she didn’t live at number 13, the theme tunes to Soap and Diff’rent Strokes, ‘this is the theme to Garry’s show’, ‘down down deeper and down’, ‘‘Ello darling hahahaha’, The Liver Birds, Equus, Shoot the Damn Dog, ‘Nasty Girl’, Yes Minister, Shoestring, Postman Pat and Chigley, ‘first we take Manhattan then we take Berlin’, Skating to Antarctica, Hotel du Lac, ‘you spin me right round baby right round’, Unhalfbricking, ‘September’, The Brady Bunch, ‘I Scare Myself’, Postcards from the Edge, Singin’ in the Rain, ‘Wedding Vows in Vegas’, ‘What’s the recipe today, Jim?’, ‘it’s a wonderful, wonderful life’, ‘Sound and Vision’.

Sound and vision – the fabric of our lives. Once, when a celebrity passed on, if you were lucky, you got a repeat of something they were in, or a compilation of clips. As Spitting Image once put it in a parody of TV news obituaries, ‘The scheduled episode of Quincy has been postponed, unless it was Quincy who died.’ But online interaction now means we can celebrate how moments from their lives enriched ours. Because we lived through such an extraordinary age of popular culture, because we ourselves are ageing, our presents and pasts are going to keep colliding. But it is these passions that keep us young and lively – and in an era when apparently ‘Brexit Means Brexit’ is supposedly a grown-up maxim and where a President-elect wears a fucking baseball cap, we need all the rays of sunshine we can find. If that means seeking out comedy, music, literature and cinema that warms our heart one more time, so be it.

SKETCH APOCALYPSE

fullsizerender2Desolation Jests is a new Radio 4 sketch comedy series which reunites the actor David Jason and the writer David Renwick. The last time the two worked together for radio was in 1980. Back then, Jason was a guest performer in the final episode of The Burkiss Way, a tirelessly inventive series in the vein of Monty Python, and scripted by Renwick and Andrew Marshall. It was, incidentally, the teenage Armando Iannucci’s favourite radio show. Jason’s one-off role in Burkiss was as an oleaginous continuity announcer who persisted with grovelling links regarding the Queen Mother’s eightieth birthday. Radio 4 panicked after its first broadcast, and the repeat a few days later snipped out all of Jason’s royal links, consequently running several minutes short. (It has never been repeated in full, but you can listen to it here.)

Neither David has made a new radio series since the early 1980s. Both became giants in television – Jason as Delboy Trotter, Skullion in Porterhouse Blue, Pa Larkin, and Detective Jack Frost, while Renwick continued his association with Andrew Marshall on Whoops Apocalypse, Hot Metal and Stuff with Alexei Sayle, before creating the hugely successful Victor Meldrew and Jonathan Creek.

In fact, Desolation Jests is Renwick’s first full series of anything since BBC1’s Love Soup. His pursuit of the perfect intricate plot in his television work has somewhat obscured how gloriously anarchic his sketch writing can be, so it’s a pleasure to announce that he’s revived that latter quality. Like Burkiss, Desolation Jests is all about the elaborate, conceptual spoof. In a distortion of Desert Island Discs (note the rhythmic similarity of the two titles), John Bird plays the Plomleyesque host and invites a guest to imagine that the world has been obliterated, that they are the last human being alive, and that they’ve been given the keys to the history of comedy. Which sketches would they choose? First to unlock the archive is the gangster Frankie ‘Flesh Eater’ Harris.

Demonstrating his versatility and superb grasp of pastiche, Renwick has of course created all the archive material, aided by Gareth Edwards’ sensitive production. Harris (Jason) revisits favourite sketches like the legendary ‘endoscopy scene’ from the Klutz Brothers’ classic ‘A Day at the Proctologists’, and a send-up of Mastermind from the 90s series ‘Fatman and Littlegirl’, itself a nod to Renwick’s own classic sketch on The Two Ronnies, in which a contestant’s specialist subject was to answer the question before last.

Renwick’s mastery of form and content has not deserted him, and completing the illustrious cast are Rory Bremner and Jan Ravens. Most encouragingly, his taste for silly character names and angry imagery remains, most notably in an item that imagines a more punitive Honours system, in which recipients are awarded a subscription to the Daily Express, or (in Kelvin Mackenzie’s case) deserved recognition as a health hazard.

The connection between Renwick and Jason stretches way back to October 1971 when the former began contributing to Radio 4’s weekly satirical series, Week Ending, in which the latter was already a cast member. Renwick was a 20-year-old reporter on the Luton News, and was not at university – unusual in an Oxbridge-dominated radio comedy world. When Ian Greaves and I wrote our exhaustive history of Week Ending, he stressed how important the show was to his development as a writer, especially when writing material for regular performers like Jason: ‘It was an early lesson that people are funnier than jokes.’

Forty-five years later, and Renwick is back writing for Jason. And it’s worth bearing this in mind – most comedy sketch shows are the work of several people. Rare is the comedy writer who is flexible and resourceful to shine in so many different styles, although there are a few: Victoria Wood, John Finnemore and (in his great Radio 4 series of monologic items, One) David Quantick. Now – belatedly – we can add David Renwick to that list.

 

Desolation Jests is on Radio 4 on Tuesdays at 11pm, or on iPlayer. My 2008 book on the history of Week Ending, Prime Minister, You Wanted to See Me?, which I wrote with Ian Greaves, is available from here.

 

DON’T GO TO BED ANGRY

qt-panelWhen I first went on Twitter, probably around the middle of 2009, livetweeting disposable TV shows was an attraction of the site. Question Time was undoubtedly one of these. But it gradually became an endurance test where not even Twitter accompaniment could detract from its deathly formula of rehearsed quips, point-scoring and gassy pub opinions you hoped had been silenced with the progress of civilisation.

Question Time began in October 1979 on BBC1 and is likely to continue in its late Thursday slot, along with Andrew Neil’s cartoon series This Week, until we all die. Maybe it is intended to be a release, a cathartic summing up of the week’s talking points, but for many years, it’s felt like a groaning messageboard thread that cannot be locked. The current climate urgently needs a discussion programme heavy with explanation, detail and nuance, but Question Time’s lust for beige spectacle – yes, almost live from a civic hall and part-time theatre in Knobham – means that it both lacks the depth of a documentary and the pizzazz and glamour of a talk show.

Current affairs is complicated and god knows, we need experts to make sense of it all – not just to explain but to explain why it’s complicated. But there is no time for explanation on Question Time. The panel table must (must? really?) house five guests and a Dimbleby, plus an audience baying for blood and exposure. With a maximum of 10 minutes for most questions, there’s little room for much beyond upping the anger ante. No-one is really listening to each other, or even to themselves, and they spend a lot of the allotted time complaining that another subject is being ignored. (Though my favourite – as noted by a friend – is when people call for a discussion on immigration during a discussion on immigration.)

As we know, the loudest, most certain, most provocative voices dominate. The audience are bellowing eggs; the panel a queasy mix of reluctant ministers, frightful backbenchers and people off of Dragon’s Den. The glittery lift twat Neil Farridge is perhaps Question Time’s archetypal panellist these days; despite failing to win seven by-elections, his leathery pillar-box face and ashen racist patter has appeared 32 times on the programme (so far), and its producers know that, quite cynically, if he appears, their ratings will go up. You wish that more measured political voices would appear, and then you reason that the more measured wouldn’t want to do it. Why would they? I wouldn’t want to.

At some point about three years ago, I could stand Question Time no longer. It helped that Thursday nights now had a distraction for me: a weekly pub quiz, a more benign, harmless kind of question time. But my frustration with Question Time already ran deeper. You could laugh at, say, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s head, but then powerlessness took over, and then anger – and it seemed to me that going to bed angry was a bad idea. (So was waking up angry, and eventually, I dropped the Today programme like a boiling turd for the same reason.)

Anger is fine if it leads to explanation and analysis and understanding. But if Question Time used to manage these emotions properly and usefully, it no longer seems to bother. It and others like it confuse ‘balance’ with ‘extremism’. I would be more interested if more effort was taken to engage with the ‘don’t knows’, the ‘not sures’. Surely they are the ones who could inspire fruitful, expansive discussion. But in an environment where we are encouraged to create outrage or to react to it, subtlety is insufficient.

The problem may lie with the word ‘argument’ or ‘debate’. I prefer the word ‘discussion’ in which two or more people (but better if it’s only two) test each other’s viewpoints and their own. Listening to oneself is as important as listening to one’s ‘opponent’:

‘Am I making sense?’

‘Have I changed my mind, and can I admit it?’

‘Am I not sure, and can I admit it?’

Imagine if people said this kind of thing more often on Question Time or Any Questions or Today. Some call it dithering. I simply call it thinking.