1990s >> 1999 >> no-1138-june-1999

Socialist activity in Gambia


All Our Yesterdays

Rumour has it that Esther Rantzen is the most objectionable person to work for in the entire BBC. This may well be true, though the competition is likely to be great. Far less of a challenge to her dubious talents are the current talk show programmes competing with her BBC2 offering, Esther. They are, without exception, uniformly miserable. There are now so many of them, and so narrow predictable are the subjects they typically address, that they have reached a point of market saturation. It is entirely possible they are in the process of disappearing up their own sphincter, and that won’t be a bad thing.

Most of the competition for the dreary British offerings from Esther, Kilroy and Vanessa Feltz et al comes from the United States, the country which pioneered this particular form of televisual flatulence. The one programme of this type which is unparalleled in its venality is the Jerry Springer Show. This is a show which makes a virtue out of insulting the intelligence of its audience, serving up supposedly real-life but nevertheless half-baked social traumas which are played out for the cameras by people who are for the most part third-rate actors and actresses. The plot—and it is a plot of sorts—usually revolves around a particular individual who has “cheated” on their lover. Of course, you just know when it starts that the featured woman’s lover is really going to be her brother, and that he has come on the show to say that he has caught a terrible sexually transmitted disease from next door’s alsatian and therefore can’t provide her with children. Not that this will matter as she herself has gone on the show to reveal that she’s about to elope with the entire Harlem Globetrotters who then come on stage for the big fight finale. To get a real handle on this, think of ITV’s Saturday afternoon World of Sport wrestling from the 1970s, minus Reg Gutteridge and half-decent acting.

With competition of this calibre even Esther Rantzen could put together something which seems almost convincing. And one tea-time in the middle of May she actually did!

Goodnight sweethearts
Esther’s programme on this occasion centred on a young couple who have decided that they have had enough of the 1990s. In many respects, this is a quite understandable sentiment—indeed, after seeing the Jerry Springer Show, an entirely rational one too. But it was their response to their negative views about modern living which set them apart. This couple made for entertaining television because their solution to their unhappy situation was to go back in time. To be more precise, to act, dress, eat and behave generally as if they were living in the 1940s. They eschewed television, refused to use modern electronic devices such as computers and washing machines, wore clothes straight out of Goodnight Sweetheart, drank cocoa and brown ale and ate powdered egg. Of course, some compromises had to be made with the outside world of the near-21st century, but they attempted to keep these to a minimum.

Rarely can a couple of guests have captivated the interest of a studio audience so completely. One audience member who was beside himself at the thought of a couple of thirty-somethings wanting to live life like the 1940s was Gyles Brandreth. That they refused to acknowledge the wonders of late twentieth-century capitalism was incomprehensible to him. Indeed, he claimed—as did one or two other guests—that they may have mental problems. Now Brandreth, whose main contribution to the progress of humanity was securing the record for the longest after-dinner speech ever made, and whose other newsworthy trait is his status as a failed Tory MP so fanciful and lightweight no-one ever thought it worthwhile bribing him, was on a sticky wicket here. And the reasons the 1940s couple gave for choosing the lifestyle they’d adopted didn’t sound nearly as ridiculous as Brandreth in any case, even on one of his better days. A more relaxed pace of life, a greater community spirit, higher levels of trust and lower crime—all the things modern capitalist society isn’t and can never be.

The problem with their approach of course—as they recognised as well as anyone—is that no-one is an island and it is impossible to escape the “modern world” in its entirety (though perhaps they should also have been more cognisant of the fact that Britain in the 1940s wasn’t quite they idyll they perhaps pictured it to be). There can be no escaping the modern market economy as it relentlessly devours all before it in the name of “globalisation”. The real tragedy of this situation was that this was an intelligent young couple, recognising the very real nightmare represented by today’s market madness, but content to look backwards towards an imagined past instead of committing themselves towards creating a more humane future. Misguided they may certainly be, but mad? Probably no more so then the members of the studio audience who giggled nervously at them. And as any amateur philosopher knows, isn’t insanity nothing more that a sane reaction to an insane world in any case?


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