Let's have a heated debate
Victor Lewis-Smith on TVs dysfunctional gabbers
I've never consciously set out to gain an entry in The Guinness Book of Morons Doing Ridiculous Things to Make Norris McWhirter Even Richer, but perhaps the publishers should be contacted, because I must be the first person ever to have had an erection on British television. It was many years ago, on a live Tyne Tees talk show about fantasy, and an old friend of mine was already booked to appear. He's an academic, and was therefore far too intelligent to be taking part in a moribund two-hour regional TV show, but far too modestly remunerated to be able to turn down a tv appearance fee. So he dared me "to come on and make it a bit of fun," a dare that I couldn't refuse.
Fooling the researcher into thinking I was telly-worthy was child's play, once I'd decided to pose as a gynaecologist with an obsession for dressing up as Batman (a combination that would make any halfwit producer drool). True, I was almost rumbled during the pre-programme curry in Newcastle, when she began asking for my professional opinion about her thrush, but I bluffed my way out with heady talk of penicillin and yoghurt (which was pretty well what we were eating), and was soon on live television in full bat-costume, sliding down the bat-pole which had been erected in the studio (with no awareness at all of its manifestly Freudian overtones). Being live, the haughty presenter could only look on in fascinated horror as I pressed the bat-erector button on my utility belt, causing a rubber tyre to inflate to marrow-size proportions inside my bat-tights, before an (unplanned) explosion sent a huge ejaculation of white latex across the studio. By then, I'd taken the programme hostage, the police had been called (but never arrived), and the presenter had gone from lofty and patronising to developing full-blown Stockholm Syndrome. Tyne Tees was never closer to losing its franchise.
And it should have lost its franchise, not because of my bat-antics, but because of the lamentable level of conversation it broadcast in this discussion programme every week. My bat-erection apart, every edition was the same, resembling a coach party from Remploy gathered together in a WRVS hut after an accident on the M1, bemused, bewildered, and trying unsuccessfully to regain their fragile grip on reality. And what was billed as 'discussion' wasn't really a debate at all, just a parallel series of disjointed monologues as the participants tried to discover why they were all there, and viewers were left feeling that what these people needed wasn't conversation, but some blankets and a few mugs of hot sweet tea.
Twenty years ago, that local TV talk show was fairly unusual for the intellectual poverty and triviality of its content, but here in 2003, such standards have become pretty much the norm. Where the likes of Ludovic Kennedy once hosted discussion programmes that were worthy of the name (with opposing viewpoints being given time to debate and interact at length, until some sort of Hegelian synthesis was arrived at), now the channels are infested with sensation-seeking shows of the Kilroy and Trisha type, where only bite-size thoughts are tolerated, nobody listens to what's being said, no opinions are ever changed, and the presenter is continually repeating that enervating mantra: "I must stop you there because we have to move on to the next guest."
Why do we have to move on? And why does television nowadays believe that anything worth saying can be said in one thirty-second soundbite? Sure, E=Mc2 is a neat soundbite, but if you want to know why it does, the explanation will inevitably be complex and will take hours. Yet the intellectual climate of British television has fallen so hypothermically low that (apart from a couple of slots on BBC4) there is nowhere for joined-up thinking to occur any more. And I'm sorry, I'll have to stop me there and move on.
Over the past few weeks, I've been tuning around the nation's talk shows, hoping to capture the Socratic method in action, but finding only inarticulate cries of pain as 'ordinary people' (and by God do most of them merit that description) take part in what Mrs Merton used to introduce as "let's have a heated debate." To be sure, our national love of Schadenfreude ensures that there's a certain pleasure to be found in strangers parading their misery for our amusement (a latter-day vegetarian version of Christians being fed to the lions, I suppose), but Johnny Carson got it right some years ago when he described such people shows as "one big gab of dysfunctional people talking to dysfunctional hosts about their dysfunctional lives."
To prove my point, kindly allow me to quote Verbatim (that's Karl Verbatim, you must have heard of him, he's even more quotable than Oscar Wilde) from some of the people shows I've heard lately:
"Do you think that erm... especially if with marriage, her experiences do you think now that we should marriage is outdated as we know it do you think that affairs are acceptable who thinks it should last forever?"
"There's a lot more niggles, what we call 'social stress'... if London Underground or British Rail, if we judge that they somehow have stopped us they illegitimate in preventing us in doing what we're doing, then we're likely to become aggressive and indeed violent toward others."
"What sort of face was, like, screwed up saying that, that's a generalised, sort of, it's a generalised fing yeh? My mum goes to fortune teller 'cos they go to these fairs that comes on and that."
And it's not just the untrained "punters" (as non-tv people are contemptuously referred to by those who work in broadcasting) who are incoherent, because this is exactly what happened recently when Richard Madeley unwisely attempted to verbalise an entire joined-up thought on live television:
"Do you think just one more thing though, do you think I mean they're to verbal institutions like you would em like you would say if your child woo woo woo then take him to have his injection and now we make shall we say him or her, what do you think about tilting it?" And who could possibly disagree with that? As I say, I quote verbatim.
Once upon a time, we had three TV channels and there was room for a few serious discussion programmes amid the tat. Now we have 300 channels, yet it's almost impossible to find a conversation anywhere that's worthy of the name. A fleeting re-appearance of the open-ended After Dark gave us some hope recently, but television executives are governed by one overriding fear a fear of losing their audience share if they broadcast programmes that require an extended intellectual commitment from the public. For them, an audience of ten million casual and bored viewers will always be more valuable than an audience of a hundred thousand committed and engrossed viewers, and as long as that situation persists, talk shows will remain crass and simplistic, with no thought ever being given the time and space it needs to take wings and fly. But I must interrupt me there, and hurry me along to the final paragraph.
And I welcome you now to the final paragraph, where we'll be asking our invited guests to discuss the question "is conversation killing the art of television?" As usual, we've asked far too many people to take part, because frankly we didn't have much confidence in any of them, so let me introduce you to Jade from Big Brother, an extremely right-wing university professor who's willing to prostitute his academic credentials in exchange for a pitifully small appearance fee, Limahl from Kajagoogoo, Osama Bin Laden, the late Douglas Bader, the entire Dagenham Girl Pipers and, of course, no such programme would be complete without Dr Raj Persaud.
Naturally, none of them will be allowed to speak for more than 30 seconds before I hurry on to the next guest, which is probably just as well, because our bubble-headed researchers did their jobs so badly that not a single guest has anything worthwhile to say on the subject anyway, and that's why our discussion programmes customarily have all the intellectual muscle of a Tupperware party. Actually, that's unfair, because at a Tupperware party, they at least know how to keep the contents fresh.