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
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
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
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
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
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
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
'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.