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Monday, May 23, 2011

The only way is downhill


OK, so The Only Way is Essex. It's a reality television show. It is part of a newly-distorted genre of reality television in which 'real' people are given scripts and told to live out their real lives using said scripts. What happens is generally uneventful - some have even whispered 'boring' - and tends to revolve around nightclubs, beauty salons and the love lives of a small group of unremarkable 20-somethings who live in the county of Essex.
It's completely brainless, full of pretty colours and fake tits and youthfulness, and as such it's become, with crushing predictability, very popular.

What it is NOT - and not so long ago, I'd be laughed at for even suggesting such a sentence might ever be necessary - what it is definitely NOT is a BAFTA-winning television programme.

And yet, and yet: last night, this ludicrous, candyfloss bit of televisual fluff won the audience award at the BAFTAs. Not only did it win, it beat Downton Abbey, which was the MOST WATCHED NEW DRAMA OF THE PAST DECADE, with 12 million viewers.

Now, fair enough, it was the Youtube viewers award, which necessarily means the voting process was going to be utter nonsense: getting the general public's opinion on anything is always a ridiculous idea (just ask David Cameron).
Indeed, the sponsor of the award tells you everything you need to know about who was doing the voting - I'm surprised they were allowed up that late on a Sunday.

But still, there's something depressing going on here that we ought not to really ignore.

I don't DOUBT that the red-topped newspapers this morning will be heralding the show's win at the BAFTAs as a triumph of working class righteousness, a joyous celebration of cultural egalitarianism. And so they must - it was their chuntering on and on about the bloody programme for the last 2 months that helped give it its momentum.

And no DOUBT anyone who complains publicly about this win will be howled down by these same tabloid harridans, who will insist that watching young women called Sherri glueing Swarovski crystals to their waxed and buffed pudendum is a cerebrally-enriching experience on a par with reading Tolstoy.

Palpable nonsense. Tabloid journalists are not idiots, but what they are saying is that it's OK for their READERS to be idiots; nay, their idiocy should be feted, encouraged and fed continuously for fear that if folk looked up from their vajazzles for too long, they might take more of an interest in what the not-stupid folk are getting up to. Or, to paraphrase the mighty Bill Hicks, "Go back to sleep, Britain, nothing to see here".

What this BAFTA win is, once a-fucking-gain, is a celebration of the stupid, a glorification of the not knowing. A world where The Only Way Is Essex is regarded as "like, really brilliant" and worthy of a BAFTA is a world in which thinking is, effectively, something to be sneered at. In this world, to be educated is to be posh, to demand basic standards in one's cultural output is to be stuck up and out of touch. It's a world in which real, 'down-to-earth' folk are not expected to be interested in decent drama that (god forbid) someon talented has actually bothered to write, and which might (heavens above) feature the odd crinoline or multi-syllabic piece of dialogue.

DOn't get me wrong: there is a place in our cultural landscape for The Only Way is Essex. Of course there is. If there wasn't then it wouldn't get such big audiences. But for the love of god, it's imperative that we know it for what it is.
I'm an avid fan of The Apprentice (I particularly enjoy the way Alan Sugar's face crumples like a disappointed sphincter whenever he tries to tell a joke) but I enjoy it for what it is: trash telly. If I wanted to learn anything, or be mentally enriched, I'll watch something else.

Not all television is created equal, just as not all writing is equal: if that were the case, English graduates would be swotting up on Catherine Cookson. Or even (lord preserve me) Tony Parsons.
The fact that they aren't doing so doesn't detract from the intrinsic value or popularity of the trashy stuff, either: Catherine Cookson is still, I believe, the most read writer in the English language.

Say it with me, folks: it's acceptable to watch shit TV. We don't have to justify it by telling ourselves it's worthy, OK?

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