Faced with a concept of entertainment in which baking a cake is the icing on it (muddled metaphor, but you get what I mean), I’d rather watch the Potter’s Wheel. The hysterical amount of coverage devoted to a TV programme snatched from the Beeb by Channel 4 says a lot about where we are, really. The farming out of in-house BBC productions to independent companies during the Birt era of the early-to-mid-90s, and the leasing of shows that were already produced by said companies to the BBC, eventually led towards the ultimate redundancy of BBC TV Centre; and events this week re ‘Bake Off’ are a direct legacy of Birtism, as well as the auction process Mrs Thatcher had encouraged during the old ITV franchise rounds (Birt had made his name at London Weekend and wholeheartedly embraced the Thatcherite ethic). A BBC exec appeared on Radio 4’s ‘The Media Show’ the other day and announced that a by-product of the new BBC Charter would be to auction off BBC1 mainstays such as ‘Casualty’ and even ‘Songs of Praise’ to independent companies. The manner in which he explained (or justified) this decision was a master-class in Birtspeak, though the underlying message was pure Tony Hall kowtowing yet again.
Viewing some discs of archive BBC shows that had all, to a man, been produced in-house a couple of days ago, the bar of the quality threshold was undoubtedly far higher than it is today, though the talent was spread far and wide forty years ago, whereas now everything seems concentrated on a small handful of ratings winners. When Saturday night was owned by BBC1, ITV barely got a look in. But since ITV redefined what used to be called Light Entertainment, the Beeb has carbon copied the formula endlessly, ‘Bake Off’ merely being the latest addition. If any man can really be held responsible for that and a hell of a lot more, it is the untalented Mr Cowell.
2004 saw the debut of ‘The X-Factor’, and the willingness of its hopelessly optimistic participants to submit to any humiliation on the exceedingly slim chance that they might become a star set the tempo of the future. With each successive series, the nation’s youth spinelessly submitted to Simon Cowell’s unelected Absolute Monarch without putting up a fight. And, with Cowell the nominated Bad Cop of the panel, X-Factor contestants realised that appealing to the token Good Cop might win them a few favours; thus was born the wearisome sob-story element, whereby tales of dying grannies, children with life-threatening illnesses and carrying wounded colleagues on the battlefields of Iraq infused the programme with a dollop of sickly sentiment that removed each participant even further from dignity.
Every true life tale was exploited to the hilt, as though it were a headline in a cheap magazine on the table of a waiting room in a doctor’s surgery, with contestants seemingly trying to outdo one another by stooping to whatever low it took to make it through to the next round, so desperate were they to grab a piece of Cowell’s profitable pie; and the programme-makers milked the sentiment by inserting footage of said contestant or Good Cop panelist in floods of tears, able to cry at will with the expertise of a cute kid in an old Hollywood weepie. Cue a montage of distraught indulgence accompanied by the obligatory power-ballad to hammer home the required emotional response with all the subtleness of the Reverend Ian Paisley in his fire-and-brimstone pomp, preaching eternal damnation to all Papists from the pulpit.
But desperation was the defining characteristic of the generation raised on Cowell’s vision of pop; the National Lottery may have declared ‘It Could Be You’, but that slogan could equally have applied to the X-Factor mindset, with every supermarket checkout girl or unemployed brickie led to believe they were in with a shout; and a lack of talent was no impediment to the superficial circus Cowell presided over as repugnant ringmaster.
‘I’ve been on an incredible journey’ and ‘this means everything to me’ were reeled off with monotonous regularity as the overinflated significance of the experience was writ large on the ruddy faces of those who fell at the final hurdle. No trailer for any audience participation show today is complete without the money shot of a contestant crying.
The TV talent show had gradually become reminiscent of the horrific dance contests of the Great Depression, where the only quick exit from poverty and anonymity was to dance till you dropped; and as the economic climate plunged into a terrifying downturn at the end of the 2000s, the desire for the quick fix dangled in front of hungry viewers acquired an even greater gravitas. By the late 2000s, British TV was awash with variations on the formula – whether the celebrity brands such as ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ or ‘Dancing On Ice’ to the search-for-a star incarnations like ‘Over the Rainbow’ or ‘Britain’s Got Talent’, the latter another Cowell vehicle, being a spin-off from ‘The X-Factor’ in which contestants were able to exhibit talents other than vocal ones.
The celebrity brand was largely Cowell-free, but the eagerness of pre-reality TV stars to take part in them seemed to speak volumes as to the way in which old-style television entertainment had been usurped since the arrival of ‘Big Brother’. Severe critics of the genre, such as veteran comedian Freddie Starr, eventually ended up as contestants on ‘I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’, finally realising this was the only route back into television now that mainstream channels had handed over all primetime slots to the format that had killed the careers of every old showbiz trouper.
Fanny Cradock’s career had been killed on an early reality prototype in 1976 merely because she had exhibited personality traits that would today make her one of the most sought-after characters on TV; but the game had changed beyond recognition in thirty years.
Of course, with the selling of Simon Cowell’s route to the Promised Land the most dominant rags-to-riches guidebook available to the masses, it is inevitable that the modern media is loaded down with casualties of the journey; after all, the bandwagon can only hold so many passengers, and the road-kill quota is escalating with every rev of the reality engine. Not that such obvious evidence has dampened the enthusiasm for participation. Far from it; for many young people, it seems the glittering prize is all their radar can detect. The same democratisation of celebrity that made Jade Goody a household name is now available to anyone – or at least that’s the theory, anyway.
Forty years ago, children wrote to Jimmy Savile and asked if Jim could fix it for them to be a bin-man for a day. Now they wait four or five years in the hope that Simon’ll fix it for them to be famous.
© The Editor