The vices of post-holiday telly

Sex, smoking and drinking: the past week’s TV schedule was filled with investigations into simple pleasures.

David Bowden

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Topics Culture

Much like the Coalition government, any cuts I’ve been making recently have been for purely fiscal, rather than moral or ideological, reasons – but it’s a distinction no less unpleasant in practice. After the shock to the system of last week, which was at least buoyed by the Christmas break and New Year optimism, this is when January starts to bite. At least those abstaining have virtue to cling to, or at least something to cling to with grim determination.

2012 heralds the much-advertised national switchover from analogue to digital, which was probably the point in conversation where a million families across the nation decided to get the niceties over with and commence getting suitably drunk in front of Christmas Day telly. It is appropriate, however, that the two digital BBC channels launched in this past decade chose very different approaches to tackling contemporary sin.

BBC3 has kicked things off with its Sex Season, which is apparently different from every other sex-themed season the youth broadcaster has felt obliged to air. Perhaps due to fatigue, it was somewhat less schlocky than some sex programmes have been of late, with only the mildest of a furore generated by showing a 17-year-old virgin deciding to get a bikini wax before going on holiday but not remembering to pack any condoms. Even the signature role of any BBC3 ‘issue’ season – vague moral panic fronted by a soap star – was tame by recent standards. This programme had former Hollyoaks actress Nathalie Emmanuel examining the somewhat loaded proposition ‘Websex: What’s the Harm?’

Entertainingly, while its younger sibling has been attempting to act incredibly grown up and serious by uncritically parroting various alarmist things said by older authority figures, the more adult-orientated BBC Four has been bringing in the new year by deciding it was too old and stubborn to start giving up its few remaining pleasures at this stage. The remarkable Timeshift series, exploring various topics through extensive archive footage and genuinely interesting talking-head contributions, took a pleasantly surprising journey through the history of smoking and drinking – and came up with some unexpected results.

The Smoking Years was an elegiac, if unsentimental, look at the shifts in social attitudes to the ‘evil weed’. It plodded a familiar tale from tobacco’s background as a cheap-fix relaxant during the Industrial Revolution and First World War (a time when lives were mainly shortened for other reasons than smoking) through to its status as a forefront luxury good and semiotic plaything for the ‘Mad Men’ during the prosperous postwar era, and its gradual slide into public health nemesis. Although the programme’s lack of nostalgia for the smoky Tube carriages and pubs of yesteryear was palpable, it was simply astonishing to be reminded how quickly a culture steeped in tradition and forged by the numerous upheavals of the twentieth century could be so quickly stamped out.

More striking, however, was Wednesday evening’s The Rules of Drinking. Taking up the thesis that drunkenness today is fundamentally different from yesteryear, this was social history of the highest order. The programme focused on the shifts in drinking culture and the different social contexts in which alcohol is enjoyed. It was particularly interesting to find out that working men’s clubs started out as attempts to pacify and regulate their visitors with various forms of self-improvement, while being used by its members to get around the licensing laws and provide a self-regulating hierarchical atmosphere more akin to the private members’ clubs designed to keep out the proles.

Unusually, the stimulant and lubricant properties of alcohol were celebrated: tales of hard-drinking Fleet Street hacks let loose on the streets of Troubles-era Belfast were particularly enjoyable, offering a reminder in these unit-counting times that alcohol consumption is sometimes beneficial to leading an active life. A similar sense of goodwill was extended to all aspects of attempting to enjoy good drink and company as shifts in licensing and (more importantly) personal wealth moved drinking from pub to club to dinner party – and, more recently, out into the streets.

Unlike The Smoking Years, this was far from an elegy for a forgotten time. Although stark contrasts were drawn between the hierarchical and complex drinking cultures of the working man’s club – drunkenness being frowned upon, responsible drinkers being rewarded by fellow boozers allowing them access to better bits of the pub – and the hedonism of today’s city centres, it was charmingly nostalgia-free. We may get romantic about the old days of enjoying your pleasures sensibly with your fellow working man down the boozer but, given the rewards on offer primarily meant standing on lino instead of a bare floor, you might not want to rush back to that epoch in a hurry. There are some pleasures worth forsaking for an extra couple of beers in a Yates in Weston-super-Mare, as Kingsley Amis might’ve said. Actually, the programme observed, public displays of drunkenness may be more of a problem than they were yesteryear but the amount we’re drinking is not.

The programme avoided the tougher questions about how and why the temperance movement has shifted its colours to match these shifts in drinking culture, only touching upon drinking clampdowns in the context of football hooliganism and social deprivation. Not much has changed, was the mantra of the programme, except we seem actually to enjoy the social aspect less now. Quite how that came to pass would make an interesting programme in its own right.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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