Melvyn Bragg on TV: The Box That Changed The World (BBC2, Saturday) was just what you would have expected of a critical appreciation of 75 years of TV, filmed at Bafta and presented by one of the BBC’s pre-eminent house luvvies. As an antidote I had to switch over to ITV2 to watch Love Island.
Yes, I hate Love Island too — every episode leaves me feeling soiled. It’s a mating game show, in which couples compete to shag one another in Majorca for a £50,000 prize, and, with ratings of around 1.7 million, it’s probably the most talked about programme on TV, which fashionable people are pretending to enjoy to show how down they are with popular culture. But I only watch it to keep Girl company and to reinforce my prejudice that we are fast approaching the end of western civilisation. Had reality TV existed in Rome in the late 4th century, I’m sure they would have made programmes exactly like this.
All the boy contestants are heavily worked-out lummocks who wouldn’t have a clue what to do with an aubergine unless it was something quite disgusting; all the girls wear revealing costumes, often with skimpy briefs that ride up their bottom cracks. But though there’s lots of talk of sex — rude charade games, naughty banter, plus some actual bonking (twice so far, though by previous series’ standards this is apparently quite abstemious) — it’s all weirdly unerotic. With their false eyelashes, collagened lips, whitened teeth and baked flesh the girls look like animated sex dolls designed on the cheap by someone in eastern Europe. None of them reads a book. And when they express an opinion — e.g. when Camilla, the nice but boring Fettes-educated posh candidate, talks about her feminism — it’s so achingly vapid and conventional you realise it would be better if they just stayed in default mode: whining and simpering and bleating.
Still, I like the way it so effectively refutes the Whiggish view of TV history proffered by Bragg on his programme. It went something like this: in the bad old days the country was ruled by people with Etonian accents, women were chained to the stove and no one had even heard of the North. Also, politicians were treated far too deferentially.
Then a magic box came along and changed everything: Coronation Street made whippets, racing pigeons and hairnets more fashionable than bowler hats; Spitting Image — gosh, not since Swift and Pope had our politicians taken such a drubbing. Still we need more of this, much more, especially black, Asian and female people — and here to prove it are some old clips of Desmond’s and me being hilariously mock-interviewed on that Kumars chat show that no one watched, plus some gender- and race-balanced talking heads, plus Ken Loach and Joan Bakewell, to remind us that TV still isn’t nearly left-wing or multiracial enough, and by the way, isn’t it just awful that as recently as the 1960s TV still encouraged women to do stuff for which they’re patently unsuited like cooking and housework and looking after their families?
With a bit of editing it would have made a great programme. If they’d cut out Melv — Lord Bragg as he has become, which shows how ridiculously we’ve come to overrate the significance of the gogglebox and those who sail in her — and the boring guests, what you’d have been left with would have been a thrilling montage of TV’s best bits: the Queen’s coronation, the Twin Towers, the dead parrot sketch, Dennis Potter’s ‘blossomest blossom’ interview, ‘I counted them all out and I counted them all in.’
What ruined it was all the bien-pensant drivel in between, which told us rather less about TV than it did about the narrow cultural assumptions of the liberal elite that has largely controlled it for the past three quarters of a century. Writer David Olusoga’s claim, for example, that we can all remember where we were when we saw the TV news that Nelson Mandela had been released from prison. 9/11? Yup. The moon landings? Sure. Madiba being finally let out of the nick? Erm…
Melv nearly put his finger on the real problem when he acknowledged: ‘Television wasn’t a free-growing plant. It was, from the start, those in charge who decided what was fit to be shown on this medium of mass communication.… Did this mean it should be comforting or challenging, feisty or a nice cup of tea?’ The thing people like Melv will never understand is that these are not — and never should have been — questions to be decided by ‘those in charge’. We should have had a free market in broadcasting from the start. We didn’t and what we’ve had ever since is what amounts to endless worthy left-liberal propagandising. No wonder braindead filth like Love Island is such a breath of fresh air.