COMMENT: Let's All Be Elitist
First published December 2000
Let's All Be Elitist
Okay, you lot. Let us reiterate our opinions. Let us ossify our position. Let us think the unthinkable and sally forth with our heads held high.

Intelligent comedy which aims for an intelligent audience is great. Plebbed-down comedy which aims for great fat middle-ground audience of 'ordinary people' who don't know naffink about naffink sucks big time. If we have one wish, then it's simply that comedy performers attempt to gain their coveted successes in the most honest and decent way possibly - by creating material which pleases without pandering. Erudite, middle-class comedy is glorious; no-nonsense working-class comedy can also be enjoyable. But so-called 'People's Comedy' should be stamped out immediately.

Is this snobbery? Is it insidious fascism? If you like. The fact remains, we need more elitism. Even if we straddle the class divide in our viewing habits, television itself must forever know its place.

You see, in the good old days, the pap and the perfection were clearly segregated. There was a nice two-tier system of television apartheid in operation, where never the twain met. If you wanted yer Little & Larges and yer Jim Davidsons (or indeed yer Never The Twains), they were there on BBC1 and ITV. And, if you wanted comedy that treated you with respect, like Rutland Weekend Television or Absolutely, you looked towards BBC2 and Channel 4. Was this a bad system? Not even slightly. It was cool. Everyone was catered for, and - by a process of education - you could work your way up: from Tarby to Muggeridge, and back again. The intelligentsia could enjoy their programming, yet still dip into and enjoy a bit of tack if they so desired. The plebs could devour the mainstream, yet the clever stuff was always there, tucked away neatly in the schedules, waiting for them if they ever fancied raising themselves above sea-level to experience something other than the middle-ground toss stuck in front of their council-house faces.

There used to be a time (up to and including the mid-1990s, if truth be told - we have the videos to prove it) when the middle-classes would stand up for the comedy they loved. Viewers, in those days were more political in their viewing choices - if anyone had dared dumb down their little televisual corner, they would fight against it, or - at the very least - write a few stiffly-worded letters. Thankfully, however, television was so fantastic they didn't need to. They had James Burke arguing that the Telecom tower doesn't actually exist, followed by fourth-series Monty Python - hey, why would you complain? But nowadays, when there is a need to protest at the decline, everybody feels so awkward and guilty and scared by the 'elitist' accusations which would inevitably follow such a protest that they remain silent. Because to defend 'intelligent', 'middle-class' television is pretty arrogant, isn't it? And we live in Tony Blair's classless society, after all. So they plough on, grit their teeth, and say everything's groovy when their tyres are flat.

And this has two devastating effects. On the one hand, the erudite comedy continues to be dumbed down, which is tragic enough. But even worse than that, the plebby stuff - which normally wouldn't enter the middle-class viewer's frame of reference - is given ideas above its station. So just as the Alan Partridge character was simplified for a mass audience in I'm Alan Partridge, cookery and gardening shows (once the inoffensive reserve of irony-free daytime TV) are now wheeled out in peak viewing hours as if they are somehow equal in stature to serious programming. What happens? Everything is morphed into this horrible bland pottage, where distinctions are deliberately blurred - not for right-on, 'hey, television's for everybody' reasons, but in order for TV people to make their jobs easier. As such, the current output of BBC1 and BBC2 (once poles apart) is now completely interchangeable.

These days, you see, everybody has a problem with the terms 'working-class' and 'middle-class'. In fact, it's a liberation (and a benefit to everybody) if these labels are identified and employed as often and as brutally as possible. Because we really have no problem with either extreme. What we hate is this new class that has been created - the 'People's Class', if you will. It takes with it the worst excesses of middle-class behaviour (glory-hunting, shallowness, thieving received opinions and passing them off as your own) and mixes them with the worst excesses of working-class behaviour (tunnel-vision, fear of education, knee-jerk prejudice) to produce a ghastly hybrid. Alison Graham from the Radio Times is the obvious embodiment of this: as middle-class as coriander puree, but - in terms of attitude and motivation - a televisual peasant.

The appalling thing is that this 'People's Class' doesn't actually exist. It's a marketing man's invention, devised to give producers and schedulers an easy ride. But it will exist pretty soon, because there's too many brain-dead sheep out there who are, almost wilfully, incapable of questioning this state of affairs. And most of them have degrees, so fuck knows what happened there.

What's depressing is that individual TV-makers don't fight against this nearly enough. Remember the opening episode of Harry Enfield's second Television Programme series? It featured the characters Lee and Lance in a sketch making use of the phrase 'Is that what you want, 'cos that's what'll happen'. It was quite amusing in that one sketch, and - as such - it became a massive pub/office/playground hit in the week that followed, with everyone taking delight in quoting it ad nauseam. And quite right too - it was a funny phrase, and brilliantly delivered by Enfield. Unfortunately for him, however, the line was a one-off, and was not reprised in any of the (already recorded) subsequent Lee and Lance sketches in the series. So what did he do? He made sure that in the Christmas Special, which followed six months later, he upped the 'Is that what you want, 'cos that's what'll happen' quotient tenfold, delivering the line with an over-stressed, knowing-wink, here's-the-bit-you-like holler. And the audience? They sounded a bit embarrassed, and didn't greet the routine with the unanimous cheers Enfield had clearly anticipated. Why? Because, in being proud of their middle-class demands, the audience felt justifiably patronised and insulted.

Contrast this with the League of Gentlemen team, who had exactly the same problem with Papa Lazarou - a one-episode character whose popularity took them completely by surprise. The difference here is that, when he made an appearance onstage during their recent 'Local Show for Local People' tour, he was greeted with wall-to-wall sycophancy from all the muppets in the auditorium. These days, it seems, nobody gets the feeling they've been cheated - or, if they do, they keep quiet in case they spoil everyone's fun.

Television programmes like Time Gentlemen Please, Never Mind The Buzzcocks and The 11 O'Clock Show take advantage of this apathy - despite being created by educated, middle-class writers (ie, people who should know better), they represent a new televisual underclass. Too sneery and cynical to be genuinely mainstream, but not even remotely good enough to be embraced by the erudite classes either. Those three shows, in particular, aspire to be seen as television perennials - shows which viewers are so used to seeing that they eventually accept them as part of the furniture (à la Have I Got News For You), with the quality of the comedy itself becoming increasingly irrelevant. In attempting to please everyone, television has become a dip-in-dip-out tabloid, appealing to everybody and nobody.

It's mainly BBC2 controller Jane Root's fault. Or at least the attitude to television she represents - the reduction of television to the status of airline food, compartmentalising programmes into 'zones' (comedy, art, history), removing completely the ambiguity and surprise that multi-genre shows hitherto offered, and thus denying working-class viewers the opportunity to stumble into secret television gardens. A mixed metaphor, but you get the point. She's even got the continuity announcers involved - all of them being told to make it VERY VERY CLEAR when they are introducing a comedy show by including some gushing reference to the viewers' lack of intelligence ('Now, don't worry - this is BBC2...'), and babbling loud bits of puff over the end credits in case the fickle viewers switch over to Frasier. Contrast this with the way announcers treated television programmes in the past - ie, as art treasures, worthy of respect. They used to introduce programmes in the same way that Radio 3 presenters introduce symphonies; these days, it's more like a DJ on Generic FM introducing Steps.

Proper middle-class television, far from being fascistic or taking pride in its exclusivity, simply embodies the attractive traits of the educated viewer: experimentation, a desire to open one's mind up to new things and understand different ways of appreciating what television can achieve. To do this, one needs to question everything constantly, and unfortunately this doesn't fit in with the People's Class take on 'the way things should be'. Take Baldrick mugging "I have a cunning plan" in that bloody awful Blackadder millennium film, for example. A working-class hero (ie, one who aspires to be middle-class) will be quite bilious about how insulted he feels, and the true middle-classes will join him in his attack. But the People's Classes will be incapable of questioning it - because, in the selfish universe they've created, Baldrick saying 'I have a cunning plan' gives them a team mentality with which they feel cosy. It's almost a raison d'être, something which defines their folklore. Hey, never mind the quality of the comedy - feel the warmth of the crowd applauding your understanding of a reference.

It's the same thing with those idiots who continually quote Life of Brian very badly, and - in doing so - demonstrate that they have little understanding of the film's humour. What's depressing is that you could correct them, but they wouldn't feel shame or modify their views as a result. Why? Because what's important to them is not that they comprehend the comedy itself, but the fact that they're making a statement about themselves in the act of quoting it - ie, defining their role in the pub/office/playground as 'Bloke who likes Monty Python'. It seems that these days, arguments themselves have disappeared completely, mainly because people don't like that annoying habit facts have of getting in the way (which also explains people's constant need to sneer at 'trainspotters'). Most people don't care one way or the other about a given subject, and that's the worst thing - to them, the idea of holding an opinion is more important than actually proving it.

Can the problem be solved? It would take a brave or selfless person to even attempt it. Your average green trainee may well be bursting with great ideas, marvellous thoughts and enormous balls, desperately wishing to change the media for the better. But what happens? They get it beaten out of them by besuited bastards, all following a salesman-like patter, who insist that you need to follow the rules. Don't alienate anybody - recut, revamp, or otherwise destroy anything clever and reshape it for the masses. Yes, you can be bolshy, you can be brave, you can fight your corner - but ultimately you'll lose, because there are enough chancers, coasters, egomaniacs and twats out there to take your place if you don't play the game. And they'll always win. As comedian Andy Kindler says, 'Losers stand up for their beliefs - winners cave in early to avoid the rush.'

That's why this system is wrecked beyond repair. Who wants to lose?

Intelligent comedy which doesn't pander to a mythical pleb audience is possible. And, when it occurs, it's fantastic. Consider how The Royle Family delighted pretty much everyone across the board without resorting to laugh-tracks, reference comedy or obviousness. Consider how Caroline Aherne had to fight to get it shown at all against a BBC which didn't understand it and simply wanted more Mrs Mertons. In fact, it was originally only commissioned as a tokenistic nod to Aherne's admirable stubbornness - she refused to live by Mertons alone, and would only do another series if they also allowed her also to do The Royle Family, and to do it her way. They agreed, mainly to keep her quiet, and paid Granada a pittance for the first series. When it became a success, however, they couldn't gush their eggy faces over it quickly enough (Granada subsequently demanded a small fortune for the second and third series), and the Radio Times - alarmed to discover a load of catchphrases they hadn't learnt yet - began back-pedalling furiously, insisting that everyone was 'baffled' by its initial popularity. In truth, nobody was baffled (save perhaps Sue Robinson and her mewing pussycats); the series was good because it was an original vision of comedy which refused to compromise.

And have the BBC or their listings mag learned from this supposed anomaly? Learned from it, my arse.

Jane Root will leave the BBC eventually, but she'll only be replaced by someone equally bad - or at least someone who fails to identify precisely why she was evil. Because BBC staff in general are infested with this People's Class attitude to television - none more so than Greg Dyke, with his plan for seven new digital channels geared towards different breeds of viewer. We welcomed this initially, believing it represented the very 'keep the plebs out' segregation television needed, but we soon became dismayed and angry. Why? Because the Dyke channel specialising in 'serious arts programming' will not feature any comedy shows; instead, comedy will be exclusively dumped in the 'popular entertainment' channel, where it will be expected to compete with light family entertainment and quiz shows. Intelligent, middle-class comedy's days will be numbered as a result. Is that what you want? 'Cos that's what'll happen...

We need more snobbery, not less. Moreover, we need people to be snobbish about snobbery itself - we should accept that intelligent TV and trash TV are two different beasts, and treat them with the respective respect they deserve. We need a 'talent elite', as Jan Ravens once argued. Intelligent, middle-class comedy, though, will always be better. Think of The Day Today. Please, please think of The Day Today.

'Television should be for everybody' whine the nouveau-plebs who want to live like common people. Yes, absolutely - television should be for everyone. Which means that, at some point, there should be some television for us too.