TV UK, 16 November

BBC2's War Zone: why should rolling around in the mud for a few days change your political outlook?

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

Now that Our Boys of the Northern Alliance have taken Kabul with a few bits of chain and a catapult, all that early talk among Western commentators about the Western Alliance coming a-cropper in the Graveyard of Imperial Ambition seems even more outlandish. No doubt we are in for the long haul, though, and BBC2 has established a regular slot to deal with the issues raised.

Warzone follows Newsnight at 11.20pm with a variety of films looking at the political situation in the Middle East, as well as the mood in the West. One of the most interesting so far took a group of young Britons on an SAS training course to see if a better understanding of soldiering would change their opinions about the war. It was a stupid idea, really. I mean, why should rolling around in the mud for a few days change your political outlook?

Actually, one dopey but perfectly charming girl did convert from naive pacifism to vague support for the idea of war in certain circumstances. I think it was the patrician old soldier that swung it. But what was really interesting about the programme, though, was the use of the reality TV format for a current affairs programme.

Of course, the exaggerated sexual tension was replaced with periodic political discussion, but the general idea that you get to understand something properly only by experiencing it directly, or by watching people like you experience it, is a TV doctrine we are now used to in history programmes, but not in current affairs.

The combination of this approach, and its focus on individual responses to artificial situations, with arguments about something that really matters in the real world, was intriguing. Perhaps the next series of Big Brother should include seminars on economics, new theories in education and continental philosophy. Just imagine the water cooler talk.

I caught the final episode of The Mitchell and Webb Situation on Play UK last week, a programme I had previously ignored on the grounds that all British comedy is rubbish. In fact it was quite good, especially the recurring sketch about the army unit organised over mobile phones. ‘We’ll all parachute in and then rendezvous at.…Well, I’ll just give you a call, shall I?’

Inevitably somebody’s mobile ‘switches itself off’. ‘Is he “busying” you, because if he is it’s a fucking court martial!’ When the soldier in question discovers his mistake, he leaps to his feet. ‘NINE messages!’

Other sketches, like the one about designers who sit about coming up with naff ideas for new and not-so-new products, are also very contemporary and perhaps even very British. The focus on actual experience as opposed to comedy convention is refreshing, and it would be nice to think that this sort of thing will take priority over UK TV’s feeble attempts to imitate the American classics in future.

Of course, maybe the vogue for hybrids will continue, and we’ll be treated to a sitcom about six attractive young civil servants who go to Kabul to advise the new government on managing diversity. In episode one, Steve’s attempt to come out as gay is misunderstood by Mustapha the shepherd, with hilarious consequences.…

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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Topics Politics


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