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
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
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