<i>Mrs Brown's Boys</i>? <i>Downton Abbey</i>? Seriously?
Photo by Jamie Taete, graphic work by Sam Taylor
People from the past were stupid; that’s why they had less inventions than we do. Even when they stumbled upon inventions, they didn’t really know what to do with them. Take TV. Back when the BBC was basically just a retired Colonel reading the agricultural census into a camera from his study in Crawley, people were freaked out by this invasive technology. In fact, some viewers genuinely worried that their television would be able to control their thoughts.
Now, thankfully, we know that they were right, but we just don’t care. As such, there’s little nostalgia for a past in which the public feared their TVs would convince them to murder a milkman or fund a communist splinter cell. What there has been, in Britain, is nostalgia for a time in which American TV could be derided as the predictably vile scum you’d expect to flow from the hive mind of a nation that couldn’t pronounce “theatre” properly. No, we’ve spent the last decade, drunk on jealousy, leering at David Simon, David Chase and Vince Gilligan, before going home to bed with Phil fucking Redmond.
But if you’re American and you really want to ridicule us, you want to look at our comedy output. This Christmas, our highest rated TV show was this:
Yes, we’re back in the 1970s. Admittedly, Mrs Brown's Boys is a show made in Ireland, but Britain loves it. And what’s not to love? There’s a chap, dressed like a lady, hitting another chap with a pan! You can shove your meticulously plotted 24-episode "seasons" up your Emmys, because we’ve got six episodes of transvestite lulz, each centred around a misunderstanding with underpants. With its innuendos, wigs and catchphrases, it's basically just an Irish version of When the Whistle Blows, the spoof hit comedy in Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s Extras.
To be fair, it’s not impossible to see why Mrs Brown’s Boys is so popular. After all, it’s vastly superior to the rest of the BBC’s comic output. Take Citizen Khan – a show whose development seemingly began and ended with the thought that it’d be good to have an Asian sitcom. Because, beyond that, there seems to be very little thought – just a group of humans herded onto a screen and told to stay there raising their eyebrows for 25 minutes before they collect a pay-cheque. Oh, and there’s a running joke about a badly parked car.
Mrs Brown’s Boys and Citizen Khan both rely, ceaselessly, on broad Irish and Pakistani stereotypes. (Sorry, “Asian” stereotypes – which is obviously a ridiculously catch-all term. What about a sitcom set in Chinatown or a delightfully comic coming-of-age story about three Mongolian brothers growing up in exile in Sunderland?) Outnumbered and My Family do the same with the English middle class, with their olive oil, pathetic dads and kids who get angry about how many days a week mum should work. But not one of these – not even Citizen Khan – was 2013’s comedy nadir. Not by a distance. Next time you get home from work, feeling vaguely useless, open your laptop and dig up a couple of episodes of Ben Elton’s 2013 sitcom, The Wright Way – I promise you schadenfreude so deep that it basically tips into torturous psychopathy.
The Wright Way was Ben Elton’s return to TV and it was given a primetime slot on BBC 1. The show’s very first joke was about how women take a long time in the bathroom. This spiralled into an exasperating piece about how taps that you have to push to operate are exasperating because sometimes the water stops when you take your hand off the tap. I mean, it’s literally what Ben Elton himself attacked 1970s sitcoms for doing in 1981. Even the premise of the show – following a hapless health and safety officer as he enforces petty (presumably EU-spearheaded) laws about ladders, revolving doors, scarves and mops, like a bureaucratic fuhrer – is oddly out of date. New Labour and their nanny-state are long gone; we live in a Big Society now, where the Prime Minister would rather we build our own hospitals than pay for proper ones.
It’s not surprising that Ben Elton wrote something so turdsome – after all, he’s spent the last few decades writing musicals about Queen and producing a weird, rarely seen chatshow, in which he cast his 50-something self alongside Alexa Chung and scripted the banter between them. It was called Get A Grip. He sucks. We all know that. What’s worrying is that the BBC commissioned him again.
But then, listen here, I’ve got a theory – a theory that absolves Ben Elton of at least some of the responsibility for spraying a geyser of shit into the nation’s living room once a week from April to May of 2013. Watch this clip and try to make it up to the bit at 1 minute 28 seconds where he goes on about a "satellite bin":
Lame, right? But is it just me or is the rant relatively well written? I mean, take it out of the cramped set built from pastels, and might it not actually be funny? Imagine if George Costanza went on a rant about a "satellite bin" – it’d be great. I have a theory that if you took this script and re-shot it as Seinfeld, it’d be pretty decent. In a way, it’s the BBC’s own lack of ambition – its belief that the average man only wants to watch something that looks and sounds like a sitcom – that's holding them back.
There is an argument, well put by Mark Lawson in the Guardian, that popular comedies like Citizen Khan and Mrs Brown’s Boys are good examples of critic-proof TV, shows the good honest public love and the snooty, hate-filled critics look down on. “The result is two paradoxical categories – the popular flop (Splash!) and the niche blockbuster (Breaking Bad),” writes Lawson. And he’s got a point. There are, however, barely any “niche blockbusters” being made by British comics. It would be easier to accept the stupid 70s throwback sitcoms if the BBC were still making comedy as good as The Day Today, The Thick of It, I’m Alan Partridge or even Goodness Gracious Me.
In Australia, there’s a show called Fear of a Brown Planet that unapologetically asks difficult questions about race, colonialism and modern society. Watch this clip about “reverse racism”. Then watch anything from Citizen Khan. Britain’s “first Asian sitcom” should be doing what Fear of a Brown Planet does. Instead, it’s pandering to Whitey. The worst thing here is that it’s those cultureless convicts down under who are showing us the way forward. Good comedy needs some anger, so let’s bring anger back to comedy this year.
If TV is going to get better in 2014, this kind of fear – a fear that leads to a reliance on stereotypes and corporate notions of populism – is going to have to be destroyed. The BBC has to believe that, if it supports intelligent comedy, the audience will be there. After all, it has had more (global) success with The Office (a show with a real shot of anger in it) than it ever will with Mrs Brown’s Boys. It’s worth remembering that good comedy has a shelf-life that means it will sell well on DVD and be repeated more often.
In Channel 4’s Fresh Meat, the BBC has a ready-made example of a show that takes a demographic it’s all too easy to stereotype – students – and instead treats them as real characters who we find both loveable and hateable. Fresh Meat has given its writers the freedom to take on all of human life, from jokes about sex and boozing to stories about parental abandonment and taking acid with a horse. It’s even made Jack Whitehall look like a good actor. Programme commissioners need to stop trying to tick boxes, filling the schedule with shows about “Asians”, the Irish, the middle class and so on.
Another way forward for British comedy shows – and indeed all television shows in general – can be found in the US and Australia. The television critic Paul Flynn pointed this out in an email to me about shows that blur the lines between fiction and reality:
"There's still life in real experiences told well on telly. Louie was the game-changer for me and feels like the next realm of reality British producers should be looking at – blogger-age, confessional, touched by memoir, really deftly blurring the lines between real life and fiction. I love those first-person fictionalists making elaborate TV out of sideways takes on their own experience. Lena Dunham's first season of Girls is the other benchmark. I think we're getting to a point on TV where quasi-fiction or fictitious reality is more exposed and raw than actual reality telly. There's a great guy in Australia called Josh Thomas who's just done a fictional version of his own life called Please Like Me, which is funny and true, and looks like it'll launch him in America. Simon Amstell's Grandma's House was probably the closest we've got yet to producing this kind of authored reality, but because he's such a bleak character with so many niche self-esteem issues it didn't quite connect."
Drama also has plenty of room for improvement. While it would be wrong to bury this country’s television drama in a coffin made of Mad Men box sets, a glance at our three biggest hitters suggests we could do much, much better. Doctor Who continues to be a thundering success worldwide, but all that attention only serves as a very depressing reminder that the great Peter Capaldi will spend 2014 re-animating the same tired clichés we should all have started boycotting four decades ago.
Worse still is Downton Abbey, which – as we are constantly reminded – is adored by 100 percent of the American public. It’s written by a class-obsessed old man who doesn’t believe in sub-text, and whose characters sound like wartime radio presenters regurgitating passages about the history of social change in Britain. At least Sherlock, our other big international export, looks great, is based on fine source material and sounds like it's written by someone who believes in something other than blundering exposition as a storytelling device. All three shows have great casts, though, so that’s something that shouldn’t change.
Away from the blockbusters, there’s some very good British drama that offers hope for the future. In 2013, shows like Endeavour, Broadchurch, In the Flesh, Southcliffe and Utopia all heralded the return of the dark British drama – something we’ve always done well. It’s also worth saying that most of the experts I spoke to for this article were relatively upbeat about the future of British TV.
Tony Grisoni, writer of two brilliant Channel 4 dramas, Red Riding and Southcliffe, told me that, while he believes writers need to be proactive, he “couldn’t have wished for a better scenario” with the TV he’s written in Britain. Grisoni talked about the “holy triumvirate” of writer, producer and director, and said that if these three are allowed freedom, then a good show will be made. For him, with Channel 4, this has always been the case.
Southcliffe grew out of Grisoni’s desire to write about the relationship between the dead and the living, and for that story to be guided by a particular place. On the basis of nothing more than that, he was given the freedom to go away and write the series. That’s a wonderful opportunity and it needs to be given to more writers, producers and directors. Armando Iannucci has a story about being given £200,000 to make three episodes of The Thick of It after he sketched out his ideas for a political satire to an executive at the BBC. Geniuses like Iannucci need to be supported in this country, and his replacements encouraged.
I’m not a misty-eyed idealist – I realise that some shows, while not brilliant, make money to support other, more unusual and interesting programmes. But, particularly in comedy, we need to see more of these unusual, idiosyncratic and interesting programmes in 2014, and less of the crap that’s meant to support it (or simply be made for cheap).
Away from comedy, the equivalent of the box-ticking decree from on high can be found in the faddish obsessions that dominate some factual television. Recently, following the success of BBC 2’s Inside Claridge’s, there’s been a trend for making shows about shops. If the shop is staffed by larger-than-life characters – such as the original (and amazing) Chicken Shop – that’s great. If it’s not, it’s just depressing and boring. What people like about these shows, when they’re done well, are the characters and the stories. It would be great if 2014 didn’t see a spate of shows with titles like Living by LIDL, The Fortune of Fortnum’s or KFC Nights, but it seems like we will.
What’s weird about British TV is how weird some of it is. Take I Love my Country, a panel show in which the contestants have to prove how much they love dear old Blighty. It’s almost baffling in its awfulness. If you manage to watch an episode without developing a dark hatred for your country, you need to start asking yourself some questions. Honestly, whether you’re Nigel Farage or Ralph Miliband, this brand of camp, BBC nationalism should be enough to see practically anyone emigrating to France, Germany, South Sudan, Neptune – just anywhere you’re unlikely to bump into someone who’s ever heard of jellied eels, the theme tune to Eastenders, collectively forgotten colonial guilt or Robbie Williams. Seriously, it’s like they’ve found a tunnel into Fearne Cotton’s personality and shot a panel show there. You imagine it's what the rest of the world saw when it looked in at us all wobbling around in the collective patriotic acid trip induced by the 2012 Olympics.
Yet – another yet, there are so many yets – it’s not the weirdest show. Have you seen Fightback Britain? It’s a have-a-go-hero show – an onscreen version of the Daily Mirror’s “Pride of Britain” awards, but instead of celebrating dogs who've saved families from burning trees, it celebrates families who've set up CCTV to catch their Polish nanny stealing loose change from their desk. How the BBC has a reputation for being some pussy leftist organisation when it’s making prime time TV whose spiritual mentor seems to be Tony Martin – the farmer who shot a couple of teenage burglars in the back after they made off with some of his household items – is beyond me. It’s the kind of thing Charlie Brooker takes down so well on Screenwipe, which, incidentally, is the kind of show it’d be great to see more of.
Then there’s the oft ridiculed Splash!, Your Face Sounds Familiar, Jeremy Kyle and that one where Paddy McGuinness encourages eunuchs and pick-up artists to find love. Who says daytime TV or entertainment TV needs to be ruled over by this kind of shit? There are plenty of shows deemed “trashy” that are actually excellent examples of compelling reality-based television. Programmes like Come Dine With Me, Wife Swap, the early series of Big Brother, Made in Chelsea and TOWIE – this stuff doesn’t need to be banished in order for TV to get better in 2014. It’s the thoughtless patriotic debris and fear-mongering talk shows that need to go. If the problem is a lack of money, then I’ve got an idea: allow your talented news teams out of the studio and make some more documentaries.
Follow Oscar on Twitter: @oscarrickettnow
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