Does one have to be branded a cynic to request a sick bucket whenever cloying sentimentality is called upon to emotionally manipulate an audience, even if it’s in ‘a good cause’? I appreciate that might not be a question you get asked on a regular basis, but when it seems that everybody else’s tear-ducts are automatically set to respond to certain triggers that mine appear immune to, I do wonder. Good Cause does not equal Good Television, but viewers are expected to put up and shut up regardless. Anyone who remembers ITV’s networked Telethons in the 80s or has ever sat through ‘Children in Need’ (particularly the excruciating regional opt-out segments) will recognise the difficulty in slipping feet with permanently curled toes into shoes. I’m not a callous bastard, but I tend to instinctively laugh where others shed tears when I’m being commanded to cry on cue.
There’s a long tradition of gooey, slushy corn in American popular culture, the kind of nauseating, sugar-coated, insincere faux-emotion that used to induce both hilarity and queasiness on this side of the pond. Hollywood is a past master at it and a noted graduate of Tinsel Town, Ronald Reagan, used the tactics he’d learned from his B-movie years in one of his campaign ads during the 1984 Presidential Election. Who can recall his moving declaration of his love for Nancy in the said ad without vomiting? Yes, we alternately scoffed and puked over what was seen as a uniquely American method of selling a politician, confident no British Prime Ministerial candidate would ever get away with it. And then Labour leader Neil Kinnock aped it in a party political broadcast during the 1987 General Election, with what was labelled ‘Kinnock: The Movie’.
At one time, the only real sightings of a home-grown sentimentality comparable to that which Americans have trademarked came over the festive season, as highlighted in chart-toppers by the likes of Clive Dunn and the St Winifred’s School Choir; but this was mostly packed away with the Christmas tree a week into January, as though letting the mask slip was a shameful episode best brushed under the carpet for the rest of the year. We retained our ability to react to excessive sentiment with characteristic (not to say witty) British cynicism, even if the fawning coverage of the Royal Family by the media tried its best to generate such feelings all year round. However, when Neil and Glenys were seen strolling along the windswept Llandudno coastline as a voice-over from the Labour leader praised his missus, I suspect the stirrings in the pit of the nation’s stomach probably contributed to a Conservative landslide as much as any economic factors.
The memorable promo film for Sid Vicious’ cover of ‘My Way’, in which Punk’s very own Dennis the Menace responded to an applauding audience by eventually opening fire on them and then exiting the stage by giving two fingers to those on the front row who were still alive, was the perfect visual accompaniment to his sneering piss-take of the standard’s overwrought emotional content. A little over twenty years later, when Robbie Williams performed ‘My Way’ at the Albert Hall as the climax to his ‘Swing When You’re Winning’ project, he approached the song with an utter absence of irony and played it straight. Considering Williams was known for his ‘cheeky chappie’ persona, it seemed a strange cop-out. But classic British aversion to US-style schmaltz had taken a battering in 1997 – and we all remember what happened then. I’m thinking Kensington Palace.
In an episode of the unnervingly prophetic 2005 Channel 4 comedy, ‘Nathan Barley’, the character of Claire Ashcroft displays her credentials as a serious documentary-maker by showing footage she shot of a musical collective of recovering drug addicts as they sing their songs of survival before an audience of bewildered schoolchildren. Claire, along with her journalist brother Dan, is portrayed as someone believing she has some substance in comparison to the dim-witted airheads surrounding her, yet by attaching herself to a Good Cause she seems to think it will obscure the fact that she is just as desperate for fame and acknowledged ‘Cool’ kudos as the rest of them. I was reminded of Claire’s toe-curling video when someone pointed me in the direction of last week’s Oscars.
The theatrical profession in this country has always gone against the grain and expressed emotion at awards ceremonies with such ridiculous histrionics that it has been ripe for easy parody; Eric Idle’s impersonation of Richard Attenborough, weeping uncontrollably as he presents an award to a fridge in a classic Python sketch, sticks in the memory above all others. But even the BAFTAs have paled next to the Oscars, in which the ‘God, Mom and Apple Pie’ Republican right and the ‘Looking after the minorities’ liberal left have suspended hostilities for the evening to merge together in a mush of saccharine sentimentality and spew-inducing emotional exploitation. Gwyneth Paltrow’s hysterical 1998 speech when she collected her Oscar for ‘Shakespeare in Love’ was rightly regarded as a notorious low point in the history of the ceremony, but I’ve a suspicion it was surpassed this year.
Lady GaGa, a pop star seemingly intent on rehashing everything Madonna did twenty-five years ago and claiming it as her own invention, performed a song at the piano at last week’s Oscars event, one that was apparently her musical response to a past rape. As far as conveying the horror of such an experience goes, it was hardly ‘The Boiler’ by The Special AKA, closer in spirit to a Mariah Carey exercise in practising scales; what it had to do with handing out gongs to people pretending to be other people is not clear. However, bearing in mind the showbiz backdrop, advertising her own personal suffering wasn’t enough for GaGa or the PC sentiments of the assembled glitterati; she had to bring a ‘Springtime for Hitler’ element into the mix to hammer the point home, and therefore the number climaxed with a choir of Professional Victims joining her onstage, each with their credentials stamped on their arms in a remarkably distasteful echo of concentration camp survivors. It’s a wonder they weren’t clad in Belsen prison uniforms.
Wallowing in victimhood and pleading for sympathy, nay, demanding it, is a virus that has now spread to the stage; we’re just one step away from ‘Rape: The Musical’, and if the tearful ‘we are compelled to get to our feet and applaud this ghastly spectacle because that’s what’s expected of us’ reaction of Hollywood Royalty is anything to go by, we’re halfway there. Should I feel guilty for laughing? Or should I be thankful I’m still nowhere near as cynical as those that sell suffering as though it were Coca-Cola?
© The Editor