Monday, 19 February 2007

The Year Of Living Vicariously

Here, as promised, is the first of my invited contributions. I'd imagine it might spark a bit of debate - I hope so.

It is ironic that the death of the legendary scriptwriter Nigel Kneale at the end of October last year went relatively unnoticed and unlamented by the medium that he had done so much to mould in its early days.
A repeat of a two-year-old documentary on his work was relegated to post-closing time airing on a minority interest digital channel - BBC4.
Yet the father of "Quatermass" once emptied British pubs as punters dashed home to catch the latest episode and see if their post-war British doldrums would be shattered by a successful invasion from outer space. Millions crammed around their small, flickering black-and-white sets to watch Professor Bernard Quatermass protect them from something the like of which they'd never seen before.
A resolutely intellectual hero, Quatermass reflected the character of his creator, of course, but he also represented those people who had secretly laboured away to save Britain from a very real menace only a decade earlier. The Great British Boffin as hero: a man we could trust. Appearing on our televisions: a medium we were quickly growing to trust.
But the series, shown during the summer of 1953, also pioneered many of the methods and ideas that made British television distinctive. None of it would have been possible without  Kneale's brilliantly tense script.
One of the litmus tests of science fiction is often said to be its "prophecy index". Did a writer successfully predict this great leap forward, that social trend or the other technical doohickey that is now firmly clamped to everyone's arm/head/torso?
Some writers pass the test with flying colours, while others don't even get out of the starting gate. Kneale falls into the former category.
His most relevant piece of prophecy is something he wrote for the BBC a decade and a half after his debut with Quatermass. And the nightmare children he foresaw in it are now top of the TV ratings tree.
In "The Year Of The Sex Olympics" there are no comforting boffins to help us gently out of harm's way. In fact, they seem to have pushed us firmly in front of a speeding truck.
The play, broadcast in 1968, shows a dystopian future where the masses have willingly acceded to subjugation by total television. Although their surroundings are brightly coloured, their inner lives are drab and drained. Outside their controlled environment the world is an environmental nightmare.
Language is reduced to a set of meaningless slices of jargon interspersed with advertising cliches. People's desires are lived out vicariously through television shows - overpopulation is controlled by sating people's desire for sex with programmed pornography: the Sex Olympics. This removes 'tensions', with war, love, hate and personal loyalty all just unpleasant memories of a discredited past. "Sex is to watch, not to do," runs a typical slogan.
But what do you do if you're a TV executive and the ratings start to fall? A pre-Rigsby Leonard Rossiter plays top executive Ugo Priest, who stumbles on the  secret when a disturbed employee (Martin Potter) accidentally falls to his death in front of the cameras. Live. On TV.
Noting the delighted reaction of the jaded audience, he conceives the idea of the "Live-Life Show". In this programme a couple and their child will be stranded on a remote island, completely separated from all the modern conveniences they are used to, and their struggle to survive will be filmed 24 hours a day.
Needless to say, the more that goes wrong the higher the ratings climb. And hopefully the odd death or two will really push the ratings up.
At this point of the DVD, you can press 'stop' and flip to Channel 4 or BBC2 and view exactly what Kneale predicted back in 1968.
In 'Big Brother' (a perverted jollying-up of Orwell's nightmarish vision if ever there was one) we can see mind-numbing bitchiness and brain-dead racism masquerading as entertainment. The worse it got, the more damage done, the more Channel 4's executives rubbed their hands in glee. It even affected 'real life'  with politicians scuttling around to try and stick plasters over Britain's damaged international reputation. The Reality TV tail wagged the dog far more successfully than any incisive political commentary or determined investigative documentary ever could.
Should the channel's executives intervene to stop it? How naive a question. Climbing ratings translate directly into climbing salary scales.
But even the proletarian mud-slinging of barely-educated breathing machines can't compete with the actual whiff of death. "Yes, we know the story ended happily-ever-after, but maybe it will be different on the replay," we all said as we tuned in to 'Top Gear', hoping that this time Richard Hammond wouldn't survive that 232-mph crash. This time perhaps we'd get to see severed limbs flying away from an already fire-blackened corpse as a car powered by a jet engine(!) stole the chirpy commentator's life away from him.
But nobody was hurt. Nobody did die. Not this year.
- Mark Howard Jones


Ros Barber said...

Great writing by Mark Howard Jones. An empassioned cry for quality writing, powerfully eloquent itself. I particularly enjoyed the description of Jade Goody as a "barely educated breathing machine".

Great blog, Matt. I'll be coming back.

Matt Merritt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt Merritt said...

Thanks very much, Ros. Glad you like it.
I enjoy your blog a lot too - it really overflows with a passion for writing. When I was going through a period, a few weeks back, of finding excuses not to write, it reminded me how much I love writing.

Kirk Wisebeard said...

Quatermass.... still one of my faves... and I was expecting at least to see the fim version of Quatermass and the Pit on somewhere.... but Kneale's death seems to have met with the same apathy as that of Patrick Troughton so many years ago... perhaps proper sf is just too difficult for people nowadays, with our Starbucks and MacDonalds mentalities... even Dr Who has been dumbed down, a story that would have filled 6 half hour episodes for Tom Baker being relegated to fifty minutes of david Tennant... sad really.....