Happy sanitised, overcautious New Year
Recent complaints about Big Fat Quiz of the Year and Miranda show the culture of offence is alive and well.
Well, merry bloody Christmas and a miserable New Year to you all, too. After the giddy mood of positivity that crept onto the cultural agenda towards the end of 2012, basking in the glow of a successful Olympic and Paralympic Games and the begrudging (in some quarters) jubilation of the Diamond Jubilee, 2013 is hitting our screens with a splash of cold water to a very po face.
Top of the wilting Christmas tree of New Year cheerlessness, those returning bleary-eyed to the news cycle after a festive break will have been greeted with the chastening thought that Channel 4’s Big Fat Quiz of the Year and BBC1 sitcom Miranda are apparently a bit too daring and risqué for some viewers’ tastes. The former has apparently motivated 160 viewers to complain to dour-mongers Ofcom for its apparently offensive material around Susan Boyle, the Queen and – gasp – showing people enjoying a Christmas tipple. The latter stands accused of misogyny in its studiously old-fashioned stereotypes of shrill female stereotypes.
Perhaps the furore surrounding both shows has been dreamt up as a stunt by exasperated TV executives attempting to warn us what a completely gutless TV landscape would resemble. The Big Fat Quiz… series – where C4 routinely dumps a bunch of comedians du jour in a studio and lets them engage in matey banter with host Jimmy Carr – is certainly a lazy and tedious smugfest of the highest order, but to single it out for inappropriate humour regarding Susan Boyle and the Queen implies that the laziest in-crowdy hack comedians in the business accused (James Corden, Jack Whitehall and Jonathan Ross) have a smidgen of originality.
Certainly, the debate around Miranda has the hallmarks of mischief-making: Miranda Hart’s studiously retro sitcom – which is centred around the proprietor of a joke shop, filmed in front of a live studio audience and signs off every episode with a Dad’s Army-style ‘You Have Been Watching’ roll-call – is tasteless only inasmuch as it aims to avoid anything flavoursome.
Many of these debates can be dismissed as the usual background hum of the offencerati during the traditionally slow news cycle of the festive period. Nonetheless, it is difficult not to feel a pang of sympathy for creative types in such a climate, particularly in the wake of the tumultuous impact of Savilegate at the end of last year. Indeed, one of the BBC’s final acts of a traumatic 2012 was to be rapped on the knuckles by Ofcom for the curious crime of failing suitably to protect one of its child actors during the shooting of a torture scene of Jed Mercurio’s darkly comic drama, Line of Duty.
Such small details, brought about on the basis of a single complaint from a viewer, do more to explain the weakness of British TV drama in comparison to the rich seam of US and Scandinavian imports dominating our screens than anything else: Line of Duty, which took plenty of sideswipes at the difficulties of health-and-safety conscious policing, was one of the few genuinely engaging examples of homegrown drama in recent years.
Lest we forget, such complaints and the general fear of anything edgy are consequences of the far-reaching compliance guidelines brought in during the wake of the equally childish row over Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand’s run-in with actor Andrew Sachs in 2008. Those guidelines have had a notoriously corrosive impact across BBC comedy, drama and even factual output. It was in such a climate that the ‘New Boring’ brand of inoffensive, throwback comedy such as Miranda and Michael Mcintyre was heralded. While the goings on of light entertainment and the crowing of the terminally offended may seem insignificant to many, it should be obvious that a cultural mainstream which can turn no-marks such as Corden and Whitehall into Lenny Bruce is not a happy one. That Ofcom, the sanitiser of broadcasting, could be turned into the ultimate arbiter of the print media post-Leveson should offer a chilling thought to all for the year ahead.
By comparison, a quick glance at the kind of qualitative debates generated by the likes of HBO series Boardwalk Empire, for instance, would be enough to make British TV viewers weep. Having just completed its third series, this lavishly made Prohibition-era drama continues to divide critics in what is an increasingly familiar debate (around high-end American drama, at least): is it seriously good drama or is it simply seriously good-looking?
After a slow start, where it struggled to live up to the kind of hype surrounding a TV show produced by Martin Scorsese and starring indie-flick darlings Steve Buscemi and Michael Pitt, the show seems to be in danger of falling into that odd category of being overhyped yet underrated. While suffering from failing to find one single zeitgeist-defining take on its historical moment, as The Sopranos and The Wire did, it has evolved into a genuinely compelling take on the well-worn historical period that helped create the mythology of American gangsterism.
Boardwalk Empire is a rare example of a show that gets more surprising and more confident as it goes along, increasingly willing to intermingle the stories of real-life mobsters with the tumultuous period of postwar modernism. It is difficult to imagine a British series currently being able to produce a character as unnerving and unpredictably violent as Bobby Cannavale’s Gyp Rossetti, nor an IRA hitman as coolly charismatic as Charlie Cox’s Owen Sleater.
Whether the show manages to become more than the sum of its parts is the question, but it is one which becomes more (rather than less) fascinating as it develops. An ultra-violent and stylised gangster drama may seem to be a strange place to look for reasons to be optimistic in 2013, but in contrast to the grimly Puritanical happenings currently hitting our screens, it seems a more promising place to get your kicks.
David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.
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