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Frank Cottrell-Boyce on TV


In November ITV plans to screen a new drama series called a Woman's Guide to Adultery. The
chances are you will have heard something about it already. On Breakfast Time, perhaps, or in the paper. If so, you probably won't have heard about the cast - a dazzling array of high wattage stars including Theresa Russell, Sean Bean and Amanda Donohoe. Nor will you have heard about the blinding radiance of its script - the work of the only authentic genius in television drama. What you will have heard is that Ken Livingstone appears in it, playing a Labour Party apparatchik. Ken 'stipulated no sex scenes'. Now, Red Ken is in one scene of this three part series, but somehow it has become his show. How did this happen?

Livingstone's sex shock is only the most glamorous example of a growing tendency for politicos to turn up on non-political programmes. Paul Boateng, for example, has done the Clothes Programme and a weird little daytime quiz called A Word in Your Ear, which also featured Neil and Glenys (you know...Kinnock). Neil has also done some sad radio shows, Norman Tebbit and Austin Mitchell front a chat show on Sky. As recently as the late eighties, TV was viewed with suspicion by both the left and the right. So, when did they all get married?

In the eighties, investigative ITV documentaries were the only oppositional discourse that even tried to preach to the unconverted. The Tories saw TV as their enemy and waged a war on the TV establishment that started with crude censorship (eg, the Sinn Fein ban) and ended with the virtual dismemberment of ITV. At the same time, however, the party machines learned to manipulate the tight schedules of TV news to their own ends, providing pre-digested sound-bites and picture opportunities that fitted so nicely into the TV format that they were accepted and transmitted more or less passively by both ITN and the BBC.

By the time of the last election, the Tories had got so good at this they were able to provide an image of John Major that appeared to be amateurish, shambling and naff (John on his little soap box), but which was actually a carefully staged riposte to the suspicious glitz of the Kinnock campaign. The interesting thing about this is that at first it looked like the TV news was gunning for Major, had set out to make him look like an ineffectual wimp. Only later did we realise that this was every bit as manufactured as Maggie in her combat gear with a statue of Churchill. It was getting hard to tell the parasite from the host.

The clearest example of this confusion was Spitting Image. At first it looked like satire. It had a great slogan - 'If we all spit together we can drown them'. In fact, having your puppet on Spitting Image became quickly something to brag about, only a step down from being installed at Tussauds. Puppets can't help being cuddly. All caricature is a kind of flattery. When the history of the era comes to be written, it will be seen that Luck & Flaw saved the monarchy when Norman St John Stevas couldn't.

The political establishment absorbed Spitting Image. Is the same thing happening with Have I Got News for You? The first series had an element of danger to it. Angus Deayton and Ian Hislop especially seemed prepared to use the quiz show to publicise political scandals which before had been known only to the readership of Private Eye. Guest politicians who sat next to Paul Merton were likely to be shown up as tongue-tied half wits. For the first time in a very long time, a political conversation appeared that was fun and cool. But mainstream TV has a blanding-out effect that is difficult to control.

The success of the first series made Deayton into a darling of the glossies. The pre-publicity for the present series dwelt on his sex appeal. The banter between the rounds once buzzed with the latest Iraqi supergun allegations; now it is concentrated on Angus' nasal hair. The show's conspiratorial intimacy has curdled into a clubby flatulence. They still tell Maxwell jokes (the news is that Maxwell is dead). The political guests look a lot more comfortable than they used to. But this time I think they didn't win. It is not the political establishment which has absorbed the television opposition, but the blandness of TV which has absorbed the political. Where Spitting Image made its hate figures look driven, passionate and effective, Have I Got News makes them look like a few more celebrity squares.

Of course, politicians have courted publicity and sought to associate themselves with 'apolitical' fun since the days of the Roman Republic. But there is a significant difference between a Word in Your Ear and the Coliseum. Where the Coliseum was a venue of dizzying splendour in which the conflict of life, death and power was dramatised, A Word in Your Ear is a load of crap. Daytime quiz shows are peopled by Z list 'celebrities' - known in the business as Tofats (Turn Out For A Tenner).

There was a time when politicians were regarded as eminent. Suddenly the whole political caste seems to be aspiring to the condition of Lionel Blair. When Edward Heath conducted orchestras or sailed yachts, he was trying to project certain ideas about himself. What is interesting about, say, Edwina Currie on Pebble Mill is its almost Dadaist lack of purpose. You could not even call it self-advertising as there seems to be no self to advertise. It said nothing about Edwina except that she was still alive and available.

Livingstone is a special case here. He has been so savagely marginalised by his party that merely to advertise his existence is a political act, which is why I wrote him into A Woman's Guide. The same cannot be said, however, for Tony Blair, who was apparently seen on That's My Dog. What does this mean? It means that conventional politics has atrophied to the point where politicians no longer have anything to say except 'Hello', over and over again, like latchkey children ringing local radio phone-ins, sending greetings to 'anyone who knows me', finding some proof of their own existence in the answering echoes of hyper-reality, like those forlorn dog owners who stand in the middle of fields and wave at trains, hoping that we will wave back and reassure them that they really are there.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 57, July 1993

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