Rory Sutherland

The Wiki Man: How I learned to stop worrying and love the naff

The building is somewhere on the Pembrokeshire coast, the only one in the world, and I have never managed to find it.

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The building is somewhere on the Pembrokeshire coast, the only one in the world, and I have never managed to find it. It is the Church of St Elvis, commemorating the sixth-century Elvis (or Aelfyw) of Munster, famous only for baptising St David and for giving a name to several generations of Presleys.

I have always thought it would make an ideal site for staging my annual festival dedicated to the many pleasures which belong (with Elvis) in the category ‘brilliant but slightly naff’. Days could be spent jet-skiing or quad-biking. Food would have chips with everything, plus HP Sauce. The fun could continue late into the night, with revellers warmed by banks of patio heaters.

Americans get by without the word ‘naff’, and this may partly be because the concept is less useful to them. One of the gratifying things I noticed when I first visited the United States was that the middle-class English practice of demonstrating how posh or clever you are by affecting disdain for popular tastes doesn’t apply there in the same way. Visit the home of a Harvard professor and you’ll find cupboards full of Pop Tarts, a whirlpool bath and a massive fridge that makes ice.

These differences are particularly pronounced in attitudes to technology or labour-saving devices, which the British affect to hate. It is a badge of honour among some of my London friends not to own a microwave. Likewise the gas barbecue, an utterly brilliant device, is for some reason considered dubious.

But the most extreme British prejudice is reserved for television. There are almost no lengths to which certain people will not go to project the notion that they despise TV. I can’t help suspecting, for instance, that part of Charles Moore’s motive for taking on the TV Licensing people was that it was an extremely effective way of continually reminding people that he did not own a set. My own childhood was slightly blighted by this peculiar obsession: a single black-and-white set was placed under the eaves in a converted attic.

To underscore this loathing, the first middle-class rule is that your television must be small. I admit I followed this approach until last month, with a fairly small television in one corner of the room. Then my brother-in-law left to live in Los Angeles, leaving me a vast 60-inch plasma screen with surround sound. Having experienced the thing for a few weeks, it is almost impossible to convey the delight this brings — it transforms films and documentaries entirely.

The second middle-class rule in Britain is to very loudly claim that you do not need or want Sky or any other kind of multichannel television. This, interestingly, is the polar opposite of the US, where more upmarket households all have cable, and only the poor make do with terrestrial television. The effect this has had on programme-making has been extraordinary. Channels such as HBO have specifically produced television series to appeal to educated males with upmarket tastes — not those who watched most television, but those who paid the cable bills. This approach has been responsible for producing some of the best television ever. It’s worth contrasting this with the approach of the BBC and of advertiser-supported channels, who care more about total audience size.

The upmarket focus shown by HBO and other programme makers is significant, especially in TV. As I mentioned above, there is a huge amount of great, enduring yet popularist music and great, enduring yet popular food. Great cinema is generally mass cinema. Naff things are generally fun. Yet, with very few exceptions, the TV which has enduring value is not the popularist, ultra-mass-market stuff, but is aimed a little higher.

Written byRory Sutherland

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK. He writes The Spectator's Wiki Man column.

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