spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London), on the theatre of fear.
What’s on television tonight? It’s Armageddon – again. This evening BBC Two broadcasts the first in its new drama-documentary series, IF . . . To judge by the pre-publicity, it looks like the latest product of the booming Apocalypse-lite entertainment industry.
IF . . . projects some of society’s current fears into the near future, and asks what would happen if the worst possibility became reality. The drama-doc format, using real experts alongside actors, gives plenty of scope for what the publicity material calls ‘interweaving inventive storytelling and rigorous storytelling’, or what some of us still call blurring the line between fact and fiction.
Tonight’s show is entitled IF . . . the lights went out. Set in Britain in 2010, it imagines a dark age of electricity shortages, when southeast England can be plunged into darkness by a terrorist attack on a gas pipeline in Russia. Other episodes will deal with an eclectic mix of ‘what if?’ scenarios, including one in which women rule and men are redundant, and ending up with an obese Britain eating itself to ruin and death. (Both these programmes are set in 2020, though it is unclear whether the two developments are supposed to be connected.) Another episode depicts a generation war between pensioners and everyone else. Presumably IF . . . aims to build on the success of other Apocalypse-lite entertainment shows, notably the BBC drama documentaries about a smallpox epidemic and a completely gridlocked transport system.
Of course there is nothing new about trying to entertain an audience by scaring them, but this is different. Traditional horror movies are understood as fantasies, while the future risks raised in today’s ‘what if?’ films are presented as real. That message is reinforced by the films’ use of experts (which largely seems to mean expert panic merchants). This crossover might seem to increase the credibility of the drama-docs, but it is dangerous to the health of both entertaining drama and serious documentary.
These graphic ‘what if?’ programmes are attempting to manipulate people’s underlying fears and feelings in much the same way as pornographers prey on their audience’s submerged appetites. They can only have an impact insofar as they touch on cultural anxieties that already exist.
According to the series editor, the film-makers are no more guilty of scaremongering than government emergency planners, British Telecom or the CIA are when they create future scenarios. He is right about that, at least. Speculative discussions about the supposed risks of potential grim scenarios now seem to dominate much of our public debate. From the Downing Street Policy Unit down, there is endless speculation about the possible future threat of every unknown – from anthrax to asteroids. Thus the professor of food policy who says of obesity: ‘This slaughter cannot go on!’ in the ridiculous-sounding drama-doc, IF . . . we don’t stop eating, is the same person who dreamt up the ridiculous proposal for a fatty food tax that was almost swallowed by the Government.
The theatre of fear is a cultural expression of our miserabilist times. ‘Only a hopeless optimist,’ concludes the series editor, ‘would make a plan based on the best-case scenario.’ Perhaps. But only a helplessly fatalistic society would always assume the worst outcome to be the most likely. The fact that people in Britain now live longer, healthier lives and enjoy a better diet than ever before would surely be seen as a cause for celebration in a more level-headed present. Instead we seem obsessed with worrying about the ‘demographic timebomb’ or the ‘obesity timebomb’. Everything has to be for the worst, in the worst of all possible worlds.
Writing about the panic over Aids in the late 1980s, the American critic, Susan Sontag, noted how a widespread ‘sense of cultural distress or failure’ was encouraging continual ‘fantasies of doom’. In this peculiarly modern mood of social pessimism, the end is believed to be nigh but never comes. It is a case, as she puts it, not so much of ‘Apocalypse Now’, but of ‘Apocalypse From Now On’. Sontag saw the consequence of living in this perpetual state of fear as ‘an unparalleled violence that is being done to our sense of reality, our humanity’.
That cultural mood poses a more pressing threat to life as we know it than any speculative ‘what if?’ scenario. Armageddon as television entertainment? Gedditoff.
This article is republished from The Times (London)