ITV's decision to kick the has-been comedian out of a reality TV show says a lot about the network's low view of its audience.
Rob Lyons thinks that ITV’s decision to kick the has-been comedian off a reality TV show says a lot about the network’s low view of its audience.
In December last year, Jim Davidson appeared in pantomime in Kent, England. In the first act, he asked the audience: ‘Do you know who I am?’ A 15-year-old boy scout, in uniform, shouted back, ‘Yes, you’re a fucking wanker!’ The audience roared; Davidson sulked. He even went in search of the offending heckler during the interval, to no avail.
‘A fucking wanker’ is a pretty good summary of what most people think about Davidson, a ‘comedian’ out of time. His rather mean-minded, racist and misogynistic humour got him national recognition just as ‘alternative comedy’ started a backlash against such old-fashioned stand-up. (He’s still bitter about ‘leftie’ comics.) But unlike the recently deceased Bernard Manning, who also liked to rip people apart on the basis of their race, sex and any other prejudice that was going, Davidson just wasn’t – and still isn’t – funny.
Davidson has now been booted off a reality TV show for making offensive anti-gay remarks on camera. Many will approve of the programme-makers’ actions as a useful reminder that society no longer thinks such attitudes are acceptable. But the real message is that the audience, and even the contestants, are too suggestible and weak to be allowed to hear anything supposedly shocking.
Having started out in the 1970s as a wide-boy stand-up making ‘nick-nick’ jokes about the police, and racist ones about his mate ‘Chalkie’ (complete with comedy Caribbean accent), Davidson became a respectable household name presenting bland quiz shows like Big Break and The Generation Game, where his incapacity to be funny was no handicap to success. But the gameshows have long since dried up after Davidson left The Generation Game in 2002. Between his numerous divorce settlements (four marriages and counting), his failed businesses and his tax bills, Davidson was declared bankrupt in July 2006. You know he must have fallen on hard times when he agreed to take part in ITV’s reality TV show Hell’s Kitchen, a programme stuffed with ‘celebrities’ you’ve never heard of and ‘celebrities’ you hoped you’d never hear from again.
Davidson’s decision has proven to be the biggest PR disaster since Jade Goody returned to the Big Brother house. He has shown himself to be a middle-aged moaning git who has pissed off pretty much all of his fellow contestants. This is not necessarily a problem – in fact, this kind of grumpiness can make great television, as John McCririck proved on Celebrity Big Brother in 2005.
The problem is having the wrong kind of argument – which is just what Davidson had the other night with former Big Brother winner and late-night quiz presenter Brian Dowling. Davidson says he is ‘white, male and normal’; Dowling, as he described himself earlier in the series, is ‘a little bit G-A-Y’. During another hard shift in the kitchen, Davidson told his fellow contestants he’d been given a funny look by some diners: ‘Why do shirt-lifters pull that same face?’ Dowling, rather offended at this derogatory reference to gay men, challenged Davidson later about it back in the dormitory. Whatever Davidson’s intentions, Dowling interpreted his attempt at an explanation as a further insult. The evening ended with Dowling launching a tear-fuelled rant at Davidson.
The next day, Davidson told the producers that he wanted to leave. But the programme-makers were having none of it: they were going to kick him out. The Hell’s Kitchen website says: ‘Following unnaceptable remarks made by Jim, producers asked him to leave the show. ITV does not condone comments which could cause offence.’ Or as host Angus Deayton put it in last night’s review of the whole affair, ‘Jim Davidson now begins the long journey home… to the 1970s.’
It’s not the first time that the current series has caused controversy. In an earlier show, the star of the series, chef Marco Pierre White, had used the term ‘pikey’ (a derogatory slang term for Irish travellers). ITV defended its decision to broadcast that word: ‘The choice of language was flagged as “controversial” at the start of the programme and the term was described as “offensive”. The use of the word was clearly, forcefully and robustly challenged by one of the contestants. In this context, we feel that the broadcast of the word was responsible and justified. In addition, all the cast of Hell’s Kitchen have been briefed that the use of the word is unacceptable.’
The producers of reality TV shows positively revel in this kind of petty, politically correct controversy. After all, we’re not watching this programme to pick up cookery tips. This is all about other people’s misery, in this case watching celebrities flung together in a stressful situation with the aim of creating conflict. It’s a point Davidson and Dowling apparently agreed upon while talking earlier in the series:
Davidson: Well you know, you’ve done this reality TV shit before, haven’t you? That’s their game, isn’t it?
Dowling: Yeah – more so, now.
Davidson: To put you and me together…
Dowling: Yeah, probably.
Davidson: Yeah, you’re going to hate me cos I’m a homophobic arsehole.
Dowling: I wouldn’t say ‘hate’…
Davidson: I wouldn’t say ‘arsehole’ or ‘homophobic’!
The later, apparently offensive run-in between Davidson and Dowling was thus top entertainment, with Davidson too tired and tipsy to be polite and Dowling degenerating into a soon-to-be-legendary camp tantrum.
But why kick Davidson out? The decision sends out two messages. Firstly, that being homophobic – or even just appearing to be homophobic – is no longer acceptable. After all, ITV doesn’t want to give the impression that it condones such behaviour. It thinks so little of its audience that it fears people might think this is giving the green light to gay-bashing; it views us as automatons who might possibly be triggered into action by the unfunny words of a clapped-out comedian. If a few morons think there’s something morally wrong with being gay, it’s not because of an old fart like Jim Davidson.
Secondly, it suggests that the powers-that-be must step in to protect victims of ‘bullying’ like Dowling. While Dowling may be as camp as a row of tents, he’s perfectly capable of standing up to a has-been comedian. But the idea that we’re all vulnerable and need a higher authority to protect us is just the kind of anti-bullying message that now pervades schools and workplaces. It sounds like the decent thing to do but it denies those on the receiving end of such behaviour the chance to discover that they can deal with it – whether by standing up for themselves, getting their peers on their side, or just punching the offending person in the face.
What is particularly snide about ITV’s decision is the fact that Davidson had already realised that he was not going to get along with his fellow contestants and he would be better off leaving. ITV couldn’t just let a sad old reactionary git walk away from its reality cookery programme; in order to preen itself about how ‘responsible’ it is, the network had to make a meal of it.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.