Archive for richard hammond

Thai TV

Posted in BiogTV, Internet TV, Local TV, Reality TV, Touring TV, TV channels, TV Culture, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2015 by Tom Steward

I’m sure Thai people are as baffled that we spend our evenings watching millionaires shoot ducks (I’m talking about both Duck Dynasty and Downton Abbey here) as I was with some of the curious and absurd programmes I saw in the country while I was visiting last month, so please take what follows with a pinch of cultural relativism. As I’m pig-ignorant about much of Thai culture, I’m going to stick with what I know and talk about Thai TV’s engagement with English language and culture.

Ridiculing Southeast Asian television is a rite of passage for popular TV critics. In my childhood, there were at least two (probably more) shows like Clive James on Television and Tarrant on TV where westerners who should know better giggled and guffawed at clips of Japanese game shows (now British TV from that era is our source of the very same mockery). I’m not much interested in this glasshouse criticism – though it’s hard to let go of the Thai TV show where they did nothing but pick up pens for half-an-hour – but I still have that same voyeuristic fascination as those orientalist broadcasters did when I was watching Thai television on my recent trip to the country. Bizarrely (though maybe not to Edward Said), it’s those moments of overlap with the English language and culture that are the strangest.

A case in point is English Delivery, a primetime educational programme using the comic talents and general enthusiasm of its hosts to teach English to viewers, and teach it well. It not so much about learning English words (and my limited experience of Thai people suggests they already know a lot) but getting the drop on misunderstandings resulting from translating Thai into English. To wit, the hilarious consequences that might ensue from confusing ‘pig’s balls’ with ‘pork balls’. As you can see from the examples they use, it’s more about conveying aspects of Thai culture to English speakers so they can understand it than learning about the culture or customs of English-speaking nations. That’s more than likely because so much of the Thai economy depend on tourists who speak English, or those that speak it so they may be understood by Thais.

I’m not saying that Anglo-American culture (well English culture, well English sport, well English football, well Manchester United) isn’t a big deal in some parts of Thailand, like Bangkok where we visited, but more often it feels like a policy of ‘do what you want…but give it an English name’. I was alerted to Don’t Lose the Money because I could read the title (and even when I know the Thai word it often isn’t recognizable in writing) but the show itself was simply a succession of contestants running back and forth between piles of money and empty boxes trying to carry one to the other with the use of head magnets. Increasingly we have game shows like this but we ruin their uncomplicated fun with ironic snark or over-complicated rules, or Richard Hammond.

I wasn’t surprised that when we got to the touristy island of Ko Samui there was so much European and American TV in our hotel satellite services. What did take me by surprise was the exchange of movie channels like HBO and Cinemax for a feed of someone’s laptop playing jittery, low quality streams of recent American blockbusters simply called ‘Island’. This became increasingly evident when we would return to our room to find a Windows shutdown message on the screen, and we knew exactly how long each movie had run for because whichever tech-savvy teenager was running it left the arrow and all the player information on the screen. With the trade in pirate DVDS they do in Thailand, it makes business sense.

HBO Thailand!

HBO Thailand!

Not all my jarring experiences of watching Thai TV were in English. At certain, seemingly random, points of the day, whatever was on TV was suddenly interrupted by choirs of fidgety schoolchildren singing in tribute to ‘The National Council of Peace and Order’, which is the name by which the military junta that has run Thailand since mid-2014 goes. It’s a startling reminder that you’re in a country under military rule, something G and I didn’t get a sense of as tourists – until we went to places where military officers were being served and the waitresses reacted like they were all Justin Bieber – and that TV is still (overtly) a propaganda medium in many countries. Come to think of it, the titles were in English.

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U.S. Auto Know Better

Posted in British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2011 by Tom Steward

There’s a British show you can’t avoid when watching TV with Americans, and it’s not for want of trying. Not only is it mis-representing what British telly is all about, it’s also drastically underselling us as a people. The American’s televisual window into the British psyche used to be Benny Hill, where Britons were shown to be highly sexist though only moderately successful at defiling women but prepared to go that extra mile to make it happen. Now we’re seen the world over for a whole host of bigotries, thanks to this programme, and for an array of approaches to bigotry. Yes, I’m talking about Top Gear (or ‘I’ve got a car, have you got a car?’ which I have renamed it in honour of the two lines that can substitute for any dialogue in the show). This car review programme has been around on British TV since the late 1970s, but has in the last decade splintered injudiciously into a barn-based talk show, a sub-Terry and June sitcom of endless campsite misunderstandings, and a version of The Cannonball Run without the debonair wit. Whereas host Jeremy Clarkson once saved his idioctavely (somewhere between idiotic and provocative) opinions on politics and news for column inches, he now puts them more and more in the show, and has even recruited a couple of crapprentices, James May and Richard Hammond, to one day be as hateful to the world as he is.

Disgracefully, Top Gear is consistently the most popular and beloved programme on British screens, and has proved to be the BBC’s most profitable export around the globe, particularly in the US market. What is even more baffling about the show’s international popularity is that Clarkson, May and Hammond (the Kirk, Spock and Bones of prejudice) are majorly responsible for its success. American audiences prefer to see the UK hosts rather than having a native re-make, which would normally be how to translate it overseas. The British establishment of TV academics seem resolved to resist explaining the global popularity of Top Gear. At a conference two years ago, a member of the editorial board for the ‘BFI TV Classics’ book range said outright that they would not commission a monograph on the show because ‘we didn’t want another book about Jeremy Clarkson’. Now I wouldn’t want to feed into Clarkson’s publishing empire either, but finding out what makes Top Gear so coveted might tell us something about what viewers are like across different nationalities, if only to force us to recognise our bad habits and change them immediately.

The Twataman Empire

People wanted more than one volume...look at yourselves!

But there’s a few things I’ve learnt from talking to Americans about Top Gear that helped me to understand its appeal in the US a little more. While watching the show with a friend in San Francisco, I asked why Americans were still so taken with the BBC version and remained lukewarm towards Top Gear USA, the US re-make. My friend told me she liked how the programme lambasted some of the major car companies in the US, and thought that this would be impossible to do on a US network show, where the same companies would most likely provide the advertising consideration. So maybe the cult of Clarkson, May and Hammond is not solely responsible for its success in the US. Maybe it’s also the vicarious and anarchic thrill of a programme breaking free of the dependence of advertising and loyalty to sponsors which has characterised American television since the 1950s. My friend openly admitted to finding the slapdick (my term) comedy of the three hosts hilarious, commenting that ‘we don’t have people like Clarkson on American TV’. ‘Fox News’ I thought, but didn’t say.

Nevertheless, the hosts’ freedom from corporate affiliations goes against an industry where hosts, especially on daytime TV, will suddenly starting doing a promotional spot in the middle of the show. Because it so freely flouts the commercial conventions of American television, and the presenters challenge the notion of an US TV host as a corporate spokesman, I can see how the programme would appeal to Americans on the left of the political spectrum, especially those who believe in and thirst for a non-commercial alternative to heavily sponsored and company-loyal TV. For UK viewers, the hosts are outwardly known as right-wing bigots, the competition to get products featured (positively or negatively) on the show is fierce between car companies, and the commercial-free, independent BBC  is accused of promoting consumer capitalism. Something has clearly been lost in the translation.

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