TV UK, 25 March
‘The scenario you are about to see is fictional, but the issues raised are real.’ That’s quite a ‘but’ clause, so it’s fitting that it should precede each episode of If… (BBC2, Wednesdays at 9pm).
This week’s episode, If…The Generations Fall Out, posited a future in which vast numbers of pensioners have formed an unbeatable electoral block in order to extort massive taxes from the young to pay for their own luxurious lifestyles. Meanwhile, the young (starting in Germany, of course) are organising a fightback against the pampered pensioners.
This is a particularly outlandish spin on the conventional wisdom that an ageing population is about to become a major social problem, and while it was supported by an array of breathless experts, the argument was really carried by the drama, in which an angry young man organised demonstrations against the appropriately irritating baby boomers, under the slogan, ‘They play, we pay’.
spiked contributor Phil Mullan popped up to challenge the doom-filled predictions of inter-generational strife (‘In 2004,’ the narrator explained, ‘not everyone was so pessimistic’), but of course he had already been ‘proved wrong’ by the programme’s premise. So while his argument that an ageing population could be of benefit to society rather than a burden was convincing (1), he was made to look like Neville Chamberlain promising ‘peace for our time’, or the record executive who turned down the Beatles.
The programme’s editor Peter Barron insists that the scenarios are based on painstaking research (2). Inevitably, though, each programme makes political assumptions, and indeed promotes certain political ideas. Nothing wrong with that, except for the pretence of cool-headed objectivity. Significantly, the idea of increasing immigration in order to change our demography was dismissed as soon as it was raised (on practical grounds, you understand). There must be no easy fixes in this subjunctive clause.
Amid all this warning of dramatic social change, the polemical thrust of next week’s episode, If… Women Ruled the World, is almost reassuringly sexist. Apparently after a couple more decades of storming boardrooms and outperforming men, women will decide that what they really want is to stay at home and have babies. Interestingly this suggestion is made with varying degrees of straightforwardness by thinktankers of left and right.
The dramatised scenario combines familiar ideas about female efficiency and emotional skills trumping redundant male aggression and competitiveness with a suggestion that all this success is fundamentally unfeminine, and that the real revolution should be in work-life balance (that’s thinktank-speak for the call of the kitchen sink).
The last bastion of maleness will supposedly be parliament, allegedly because the hours are family unfriendly (not because parliamentary politics only attracts losers, then), but this desperate dig at old-fashioned sexism barely conceals the newfangled sexism promoted by the drama and the experts.
The programme is further confused by the intervention of geneticist Steve Jones, who is drafted in to give a scientific basis to the speculation. Now, I have no idea what it means to say that the Y chromosome has been ‘in decline’ for millennia, but I’m quite sure it has nothing whatever to do with sexual politics in the twenty-first century. Jones’ comparisons with voles and potatoes don’t help much either.
It seems that the dramatic premise comes first, and the painstaking research comes after, in an attempt to make a case for that premise. The result is neither dramatically satisfying, nor intellectually convincing. If… this is the current affairs programming of the future, then maybe it is time to do something about it.
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)).
(1) See A mature response to ageing, by Phil Mullan
(2) Is the BBC telling tall tales?, BBC News
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