There was nothing edgy about Wossy
It is elite self-flattery to think Jonathan Ross was hounded out of the BBC by a Puritanical Middle-England lynch mob.
Last Thursday, the broadcaster Jonathan Ross announced that he is quitting the BBC after his current contract expires in July. Following criticisms for ‘risqué’ interviews on his TV show Friday Night with Jonathan Ross and the Sachs debacle, whereby Ross and comedian Russell Brand left lewd messages on actor Andrew Sachs’ answering machine, some media commentators say the departure suits both parties. Many others, however, are warning that the outcome will encourage the growth of asinine, ultra-safe ‘beige’ broadcasting. Writing in the Guardian, one columnist reckoned that Ross’s departure will be ‘middle-of-the-road music to the ears of the new puritans’ (1).
It is certainly the case that the BBC has lacked the courage of its convictions in the ongoing Ross/Brand saga. If the corporation was happy to pay Ross £6million a year, a concrete indication of how much it valued his talents, then it should have stuck by its original decision to keep Ross on board. Clearly the BBC’s management has caved in to demands for Ross to go, which made renewing his contract awkward for both parties.
Nevertheless, there have been striking double standards over accusations of a ‘witch hunt’ and ‘intolerance’ regarding Ross’s position at the BBC. The same figures complaining about a campaign against Ross, such as the comedian Stephen Fry and journalist Charlie Brooker, are not averse to a little lynching-by-media themselves. Last November, Fry and Brooker were quick to hound Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir over allegations of homophobia after she suggested that gay men’s ‘hedonistic’ lifestyles were possibly to blame for Boyzone singer Stephen Gately’s death. So while columnists are outraged at the display of intolerance regarding Ross’s chatshow filth, they demand intolerance towards opinions and jokes that don’t chime with liberal elite etiquette (hence the chorus of liberal disapproval after Jimmy Carr made jokes about Gypsies on the BBC Radio 4 programme Loose Ends three years ago). This is a case of ‘good mob’ (those who attack Daily Mail bigots) and ‘bad mob’ (those who complain about Ross’s rubbish jokes).
In both cases – in both the complaints about a witch hunt against Ross and the supporting of a witch hunt against Moir – the target of liberal hostility is the same: the much fabled Daily Mail constituency, or ‘disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’. The staggering conceit of the metropolitan elite is to imagine that while they are broadminded, sophisticated and edgy, the Middle England masses are easily offended simpletons who can’t handle anything beyond The X-Factor and Strictly Come Dancing. This elite believes that creeping censorship and intolerance towards anything sweary on TV is slowly gaining the upper hand. It is therefore the job of metropolitans to save the TV schedules from the uptight, narrow-minded masses.
Yet a recent poll on what were the best TV shows of the Noughties suggests that this is actually not the case. At the start of the decade, there was no Daily Mail-inspired campaign to get The Sopranos off our screens for its graphic sex and violence and endless stream of profanities. Instead it was praised across the board for raising the bar of quality TV drama. One of the most lauded comedies in living memory, The Office, is universally adored (it remains the BBCs biggest-selling DVD ever) despite featuring sexual references (‘Five minutes with her and I’d be up to my nuts in guts’, as Finchy memorably said) that apparently only liberal journalists and celebrities can tolerate. Elsewhere, ultra-rude (but ultra-funny) and swearingly offensive hit comedies such as The Thick of It and Peep Show don’t register complaints from the middlebrow tabloids either. Audiences are far more broadminded than the self-congratulating snobs suggest.
Nevertheless, discontent and unease about the rather trashy state of television is palpable today – and with good reason. When some 40,000 people registered their complaints over the Ross/Brand debacle, it was at heart censorious, yes, but it was also a way of lashing out at the juvenile and patronising bilge that can be found across the networks these days. Some argue that Ross has been singled out because of his mammoth, millionaire salary, and no doubt some of the anti-Ross sentiment is bound up with the current fashion for ‘fat cat’ bashing. But viewers’ hostility towards Jonathan Ross is more instinctive than merely kneejerk economic resentment.
First of all, many adults found Ross’s chatshow filth and sex obsession to be embarrassingly immature rather than edgy or funny. When he suggested that Madonna, a performer not averse to risqué shows herself, might be up for a ‘bit of swinging’ with Ross and his wife, the pop star looked at Ross’s wife and said ‘why do you put up with this nonsense?’. It’s a question she could have asked the audience, too. Anyone who views Ross as some dangerous heir to the likes of Lenny Bruce, an outsider smashing social conventions, needs to think again. Indeed, the late and very great American comedian Bill Hicks would often wind up unresponsive audiences by saying ‘don’t worry, the knob jokes are coming up later. Knob gags on the way – promise’. The inference was that only the very immature would find such material funny. To say that those of us who don’t find such material funny are the ‘new puritans’ is utterly ridiculous.
What offends many of us is that the BBC really does think we’re only deserving of flaccid knob gags, the kind that Bill Hicks used as a threat rather than as a form of entertainment. On top of this, Ross’s adolescent banter was also a transparent exercise in sneering at the imagined conventions of his audience. It is fair to say that in most company, even down the pub let alone on TV, constant sexual references elicit uneasy embarrassment rather than laughs. This is why most adults avoid them – they are simply not the grown-up or witty thing to do. By transgressing this code of adult behaviour, Ross and his champions are suggesting that we’re all a bunch of Middle England tossers for complying with it. As a rich entertainer, Ross and others like him are looking down their noses at the little people and their silly bourgeois conventions – always a favourite get-out clause for influential people who start to lose their moorings from wider society.
Of course, Ross’s bizarre chat show is only a symptom of a much bigger cultural malaise. The main problem is how television executives seem to believe that yoof culture is culture and that therefore having an adolescent mindset is equivalent to being innovative and risk-taking. Both the likes of E4 and BBC3 seriously believe that execrable teenage viewing, such as Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, Coming of Age and Porn: A Family Business, is good enough for their audiences. On the main TV channels, programmes promoting conspiracy theories, modern-day freak shows and, of course, Big Brother, are designed to appeal to the very young and immature. Incredibly, TV content for serious grown-ups is now considered niche viewing over on BBC4 and More4.
It’s always ill-advised and often inaccurate to hanker after a ‘golden age’ in TV broadcasting. Nevertheless, the dramas from the 1970s and 1980s, currently being repeated on ITV3 and ITV4, are striking in showing what is missing from the schedules today: an adult presence with articulate dialogue and all the messy, complex stuff that goes along with betrayal, adultery and work-based power struggles. Far from being ‘Beige TV’, as one pro-Ross columnist puts it, these old dramas offer a tougher but less degraded adult universe that appears alien compared with today’s broadcasting landscape.
The departure of Jonathan Ross from the BBC has provided another excuse for cultural liberals to flatter themselves. They imagine that Ross’s crass drivel strikes a blow for edgy, controversial comedy and exposes how awfully narrow-minded the Mail-reading masses are. Anyone who criticises Ross must be a dull puritan and uptight bore, darling. This is as absurd as one of Ross’s suits. Viewers and listeners are simply tired of being treated like giggling adolescents and they don’t want entertainment that insults their adult sensibility. As Detective Inspector Jack Regan from the Sweeney might say to Ross and his equally silly champions: ‘Act your age, son.’
Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.
(1) Fans of the tame rejoice – TV’s Beige Age is on its way, Guardian, 9 January 2010