Consumerism is evil? Don’t buy it

BBC 2’s Shiny Shiny Bright New Hole In My Heart shows that moral messaging can get in the way of good TV drama.

Shirley Dent

Topics Culture

Good TV drama depends on strong depictions of human relationships. Sometimes the most interesting and gripping dramas depict messed-up relationships and their fallout. But there is a new style of show that has been seeping on to our screens for some time now which spoils any chance of decent drama in its desperate efforts to show just how screwed up a particular relationship can be.

These new dramas are part of the moral messaging that occurs when TV gets involved in promoting policy – like those soap-opera storylines written to coincide with government campaigns about domestic violence. These dramas have a very particular take on morality. They explicitly suggest that some behaviour is morally wrong while also depicting the characters who engage in that behaviour as not responsible for their actions; instead the characters are depicted as being prey to all sorts of compulsions beyond their control and in need of professional help. And just in case you – the viewer – have been affected by anything you’ve seen in the programme, there are a list of helpline numbers after the credits have rolled.

Shiny Shiny Bright New Hole In My Heart was a prime example of these new morality tales about behaviour modification – the mod-morals, as we might call them – and how they can be a recipe for dramatic disaster.

Shiny Hole presented us with a morass of bizarre relationships. Many of the relationships were explicitly demonised as consumer-driven. The opening scene showed the hero-addict Nathalie (Sally Hawkins) bedazzled and swirling in her glad rags before zipping off to a penthouse in Millbank. Gorgeous in taste and looks she may be, but it turned out that she was a stylist shopping for her client. The moral scene was set: a woman in danger of being seduced by a desire for a better life(style). Such a desire for more stuff has become the eighth deadly sin of modern life.

The long drawn out panning shot over the Christmas presents under the tree (paid for only by Nat racking up a huge credit card bill) reminded me of a particularly nasty piece of local authority propaganda from a couple of years ago: a Christmas tree with presents under it was used to warn people that they could end up in serious debt and be evicted from their homes, turning the desire to give your kids a good Crimbo into a finger-wagging exercise about the horrors of shopping.

Shiny Hole took this horror to its limits. The relationship between Nathalie and her daughter became a crass vehicle to warn us about our wicked ways. The child was depicted as little more than a consumer monster in the making who had a better relationship with the TV than she did with her parents. There was even a repeated shot – reminiscent of Poltergeist – of the back of the daughter’s head as she sat mesmerised by the TV screen and its demonic adverts. Mummy is little more than a willing pressie-giver. Criticism of the way human relationships get skewed by market forces is not new, but this was simple-minded in the extreme and it ripped away the resilience of human interaction to such external forces.

Nathalie had one of the strangest client relationships imaginable with the rich flash bitch Mia (Daniela Nardini). Why would you pay to have someone sit in a bar with you and fess up to their angst-ridden, bulimia-riddled adolescence? Because this is all about telling a mod-moral tale that a) sets the grounds by which Nathalie’s love of shopping can become pathologised and medicalised and b) shows the degradation of relationships in this terrible world of buying and selling.

The Nathalie/Mia relationship came to a head when Mia told Nathalie ‘I pay you to support me, not the other way round’. But it was the bloody husband, Jeremy (Stephen Hawkins), who took the biscuit in this modern morality tale. A hard working and reticent GP, he was the foil to the nasty ‘want want want’ consumerism around him. He challenged Mia in her posh villa about why she needs to buy six new pairs of shoes, asking ‘What if you couldn’t?’ – to which Mia replied ‘I’d jump off a bridge’. Okay, we get the message. Mia is as shallow as a kiddies’ paddling pool. But at least she didn’t talk to her partner like a bank manager, which was all I could think of when Jeremy confronted Nathalie by saying ‘I really think you should curb your spending’.

Is this really the way that two people who intimately share their lives talk to each other? Legend has it that when Malcolm Bradbury taught creative writing at UEA, the way he could spot if a student had potential was if they could handle dialogue. It’s a good test. But Nathalie and Jeremy’s dialogue was utterly wooden because the characterisation played second fiddle to the moral point.

This point reached a crescendo when we got to the heart of the message here: the medicalisation of irresponsible shopping habits. The fact that Jeremy is a GP came in handy. There was a painful exchange between Jeremy and an older colleague about a ‘friend’s’ excessive shopping in which Jeremy trotted out what sounded like a lot of cod science to me to try and explain his wife’s behaviour. Nathalie gets packed off to a ‘drying out’ clinic where she sits in a circle and says: ‘My name is Nathalie and I’m an addict.’

According to Shiny Hole, we live in a world that is a permanent purgatory, where each man is an island besieged and vulnerable. One of the most ludicrous moments occurred when Nathalie went on a crazed shopping spree and bought a 24-grand watch. As she made the decision, we got a close-up of the sales assistant’s glowering demonic eyes tempting her in. For pity’s sake, in the real world he’d be a lad who sells posh watches for a living, not one of Satan’s little minions….

This is no way to write a drama or see the world. The last shot of Nathalie’s daughter pushing a trolley with a flag saying ‘trainee shopper’ was intended to fill us with dread for the future. After watching this, I needed to indulge in some retail therapy of my own.

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