Watching TV With Britons Part 2: Same Same Same

The second part of my exile’s guide to British television looks at the unwelcome familiarity of the programmes I watched during my recent visit to the UK, as any vain hope of something changing for the better while I was away is quickly crushed under my muddy, slushy Wellington boot:

The Royal Variety Performance (ITV):

Who is the least talented person in this picture?

Who is the least talented person in this picture?

As both variety (our version of vaudeville) and royalty are anachronisms in British popular culture, this annual broadcast of theatrical entertainment staged in front of members of the monarchy seems to exist for nostalgia alone. Tellingly, there’s no variety on offer but merely alternating stand-ups and singers. The addition of William and Kate – presumably as a reward for breeding – meant that the event was no longer attended by a couple famous for their dislike of showbusiness but they still couldn’t help appearing like a benign Statler & Waldorf. It’s hard to believe that host – and redefinition of the term ‘comedian’ – Michael Mcintyre remains popular in Britain but given the programme’s commitment to the regression of our culture, artist and medium have never been better matched.

The Railway: First Great Western (Channel 5):

Public transport documentaries have been the saving grace of British reality television in the past few years, but the UK’s TV network-in-the-attic Channel 5 has, by focusing on this year’s closure of the Dawlish rail line due to storms and flooding, turned it into weather porn – one of the less commendable reality genres to emerge on British TV after the advent of climate change! Still, it was interesting to see that Home Secretary Theresa May is as inept at forming sentences as she is at politics.

Black Mirror: White Christmas (Channel 4)

A Christmas Hamm!

A Christmas Hamm!

British TV critic and screenwriter Charlie Brooker exists in a categorical limbo between Clive James and Rod Serling, alternating parodic weekly TV review shows with anthology sci-fi horror. This festive (in genre alone!) edition of techno-fear playhouse Black Mirror was, in keeping with the British Christmas special, more conventional than we expect from the series. The formulaic storytelling was partly a satisfying return to the Christmas TV horror plays of old but also revived some rather retrograde attitudes to gender and race that I’m sure we’d all have rather left in the TV of the 70s. A surprise Christmas gift came in the form of an outstanding star turn by Jon Hamm, leading the effort to turn British migrant labour in American TV into a hostage exchange (P.S. You keep James Nesbitt, we’ll have Steve Buscemi!), which, as Mad Men comes to a close, more than proved – at least to doubting Thomases like me – that he could credibly be something other than Don Draper.

It Was Alright in the 70s (Channel 4)

Several people told me I should watch this programme, which runs clips of contemporaneously controversial British TV from the 1970s alongside commentary from the people involved as well as aghast modern-day viewers. The clips themselves have the requisite shock and entertainment value, but I was uneasy with the tone and project of this documentary. It seemed to suggest that the bigotry and exploitation that appeared in 1970s television was somehow a thing of the past and that all the problems of representation had subsequently been resolved, whereas I saw plenty of examples, if perhaps more latent than pointed, of prejudice and cruelty in the TV I watched while in the UK. It’s also a very selective history of 1970s television in the UK which continually declines to mention how experimental, challenging and innovative a great deal of TV was in that era, perhaps more than now, and certainly with more frequency. When this is acknowledged, it’s usually passed off as the inconsequential ramblings of a cultural historian in the editing, and only ever associated with content that would be hard to defend on a representational level, such as The Goodies’ (literally!) savage attack on apartheid involving racial slurs and minstrelry. But perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the programme is its lack of originality. It’s a cursory spin on a clip-based nostalgia format that’s been around since the turn of the millennium, and almost matches the exploitative tendencies of the TV it lambasts by offering recent revelations about the sex crimes of 70s British celebrities as a unique selling point.

Autopsy: The Last Days of Elvis Presley (Channel 5)

briton 6

Dr Richard Shepherd, Graduate of The University of Stating The Bleeding Obvious!

Like asking which bullet killed a person shot 24 times. Worth seeing for the Elvis curl on the lips of the actor portraying Presley whilst dying on the toilet.

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