Monthly Archives: October 2013

Murder Most Normalised

Two and a half weeks on, and TV fans are still talking about Downton Abbey and the scene in which Anna, one of the genuinely nicest characters ever, was raped. The Telegraph, the Mirror, the Metro and the Independent, to name a few, each ran several stories on it, there were dozens of complaints, and this week’s edition of the Radio Times has put the story on its cover, with comments by both Alison Graham, the TV editor, and Sarah Millican, the celebrity columnist. Other than the crew and actors involved in creating the episode, everyone in the world seems to be shocked and horrified at the audacity/stupidity/insensitivity/sadism (delete as applicable) of including such an event in the programme, especially – and this is perhaps what has drawn the most scorn – when it’s used as a ‘plot device’.

Granted, much of the criticism comes from the fact that people see Downton as a pleasant family programme, where not having the right tie for dinner is the disaster of the decade. In contrast, no one bats an eyelid when the issue of rape comes up in crime dramas – the investigators in CSI, for example, are always running ‘rape kits’ (an unpleasant phrase), and sexual assault appears with reasonable regularity on this and other hard-boiled procedurals as part of the torment that serial killers inflict upon their victims.

Certainly, Downton is not one of those hard-boiled procedurals… but it’s hardly carefree and fluffy either. Yes, very often the major crisis of the episode is caused by the arrival of an electric whisk or a young woman suddenly deciding to wear trousers – TROUSERS! – to tea. But other, more depressing things have also occurred throughout Downton’s history: sickness, death, war, suicide. People were upset when Lady Sybil died (very graphically) in childbirth, but there was no mass movement to announce that ‘I will never ever watch it again’. It’s true that, up to this point, Downton has never actually had a murder (despite the murder trial), but I get the feeling that if it did, there wouldn’t be such a big fuss as this.

Which is odd, because, you know, murder is quite bad. I don’t think anyone would disagree that, in the real world, murder is as heinous and horrible a crime as rape. In TV, though, while rape as a plot device is frowned upon, death and murder are a whole different story – bring ‘em on.

There are programmes that depict violent times and settings, where death and murder are commonplace: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Rome, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones (to be fair, there was a bit of unrest at the mass slaughter of the infamous Red Wedding episode, but a couple of people being bumped off each week up to that point was A-OK). There are dramas and soaps where murder is rare but does pop up from time to time, and deaths from other causes are just part and parcel of the genre: Holby City, Eastenders, Star Trek, Doctor Who. Hell, there are out-and-out comedies where death is occasionally used as either a springboard device or a joke: the body episode of Fawlty Towers, the One Where They Kill Off Phoebe’s Grandmother In FRIENDS So That Phoebe Can Finally Meet Her Father, not to mention the episode of Green Wing where two of the characters murder a man (it’s funny, though, because he’s a dwarf and they beat him to death with a stuffed heron, see?).

And of course there are the crime procedurals I mentioned earlier, where murder is not just a plot device – it’s the entire premise of the show. Sure, the murderers are the bad guys and the main characters are the heroes out to catch them, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that every single week on CSI, NCIS, Law and Order, Luther, etc., at least one person (and usually several people) will be brutally killed just so that we can have our hour of dramatic TV. In Broadchurch, an eleven-year-old boy is thrown off a cliff so that we can spend the series working out whodunnit. And the argument about gritty drama vs. cosy family viewing doesn’t exactly bear up: Agatha Christie’s Marple is about the most genteel programme on TV, and even that wouldn’t exist without a nice grisly murder at the start of each episode. Let’s face it: if we’re going to talk about horrific events being used as plot devices in TV, then maybe we should be including some of this stuff?

Of course, if we’re trying to put things in perspective, it’s important to point out that none of these murders is actually real. In crime dramas, comedies and soaps alike, the ‘people’ involved are fictional characters ‘killed’ by other fictional characters. Of course, if you listen to Lucy Worsley in the recent documentary A Very British Murder, there’s not a lot of difference: the murder mystery is a continuation of the nineteenth-century fascination with killers, and both come from a sense of “ghoulish enjoyment” with the viewer “repulsed and gripped in equal measure”. But I happen to disagree with her on this point – I think the impulse to read about real murders comes from a very different place than the enjoyment of trying to solve what is essentially a puzzle (albeit one where someone’s died), and the viewer’s attitude to a TV murder doesn’t generally reflect their attitude to murder in real life.

But Anna in Downton is also a fictional character, as is Lisa Dingle, whose rape in 2011 on Emmerdale was also widely discussed in the media. The issue in these cases is presumably that, although these characters specifically are not real, rape is, and is awful and harrowing, and so fictional representations of it need to take that into account – this much is true. But why not the same with murder, also awful and harrowing in real life, but treated with a much lighter touch in pretty much every programme under the sun? Can you imagine a jolly historian dressing up in period clothes and licking her lips to present A Very British Rape?

Murder may be, in Lucy Worsley’s words, “the darkest and most despicable of crimes”, but somehow, for some reason, it’s practically normal on TV while other dark and despicable crimes are not. You have to wonder why.

Playing Favourites with TV Talent Shows

Ah, autumn. The acrid smell of bonfire smoke, the fast-encroaching night, the crunchy red leaves that turn to sloppy brown mush as soon as the rain hits… and, of course, the autumn TV season. The delights this year are too many to mention (Downton Abbey, the Doctor Who fiftieth anniversary special, Sherlock, The Wrong Mans, Have I Got News for You, Atlantis, Agents of SHIELD, Moone Boy – OK, so I may have mentioned one or two). But this particular post deals with those two most edifying of shows, Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor (if you’re not a fan of either, read on anyway, please).

Neither The X Factor nor Strictly is my special favourite talent show. That accolade went to the now apparently defunct series of programmes dedicated to finding a new star for a variety of musicals directed by Andrew Lloyd Webber – How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, Any Dream Will Do, I’d Do Anything, Over the Rainbow and the appalling Superstar, which caused the demise of the whole concept (ITV has many virtues, but in the case it took a fun, warm, jolly BBC show and turned it into a trashy, cold, stagey piece of nonsense. It’s fine, I’m completely over it).

But nonetheless we must talk about Strictly and X Factor because they are huge – I trust I will not have to use the phrase ‘talent show behemoth’ to make the point. Strictly, of course, takes a bunch of minor celebrities and teaches them to dance, and we viewers get to vote for whoever has (a) the lightest feet or (b) the heaviest and therefore most humorous feet, while X Factor takes a bunch of not-yet celebrities and teaches them to sing, and we viewers get to vote for whoever (a) sings the best or (b) looks most like our other favourite singers. On X Factor, the winner gets a recording contract and a butt-load of publicity, while on Strictly the winner gets… actually, I’m not sure what the winner gets. Some kind of glittery plastic trophy, I’d imagine.

Of course, any talent show has both terrible and wonderful elements, quite aside from the quality of the contestants. The Great British Bake Off: terrible = the dissonance between Paul Hollywood’s looks and his voice; wonderful = cake. Britain’s Got Talent: terrible = performing dogs (even Pudsey. There, I said it); wonderful = surprise opera singers. Masterchef: terrible = the hyperbole (‘Baking a soufflé DOESN’T GET TOUGHER THAN THIS’*); wonderful = this song.

So there are terrible parts about all talent shows, even the major ones. This week’s X Factor, for example, included a nasty new segment where each singer performed one by one, and some were chosen by the judges to sit in the special winners’ chairs at the side of the stage – BUT if all of a particular category’s chairs filled up and there were still singers left to audition, one of the chair-sitters who’d already been told they were through to the next round could be replaced by one of the new singers. In theory, it sounds complicated; in practice, it was brutal, and everyone – judges, contestants, viewers, the papers – hated it (except, presumably, whatever sadistic producer came up with the concept, placing viewing figures firmly above behaving like a human being). But even after this stage of the competition is over and the voting process becomes marginally less cruel, my bugbear will continue to be Louis Walsh, who to my mind is inexplicable. He’s managed some of the UK and Ireland’s most successful bands (Westlife, Boyzone, Girls Aloud, JLS), and yet he seems completely unable to recognise musical talent when it warbles at him. Innumerable are the times when the other three judges have said, ‘Hmm, I like you but you’re not right for this show’ and Louis has retorted, ‘What are you talking about? S/he’s perfect for this show!’; or, in contrast, when the other judges have said, ‘You, sir/madam, are the greatest singer since the human voice was invented’ and Louis has grumpily added, ‘I wasn’t that impressed’. In principle I support a politely challenging viewpoint, but all the time, Louis? ALL THE TIME?

Strictly, though much more jovial, also has its fair share of irritants. The music is one of these (though this may be rather a specialist grumble). I understand that the Song Choice Master wants people to hear songs they know, preferably with lyrics, but you can’t just pick any song with the right tempo and expect it to be suitable for dancing a paso doble. I mean, everyone loves a bit of Shania Twain (fact), but when was the last time you heard ‘That Don’t Impress Me Much’ and felt your feet slide naturally into a cha cha? And dancing the tango to Duran Duran? Come on, now. It’s especially distressing because it is possible to make great ballroom dancing music out of popular songs – Exhibit A: the fabulous tango version of ‘Roxanne’ from Moulin Rouge! As if that wasn’t enough, I get annoyed by the fact that I’m not allowed on the show simply because I’m not famous. I’m good at ballroom dancing, dammit!

But, all of that said, these kinds of talent shows have obviously become immensely popular and show no signs of disappearing (apart from How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, sob). The key, I think, is a simple one: we like to be rooting for one of the contestants. The point was well made on Radio 4 a few weeks ago, during the programme It’s Not What You Know (which you should listen to, by the way, if only for the dulcet and delectable tones of Miles Jupp). One of the guests said that she could watch pretty much anything (motor racing, synchronised swimming, darts) as long as she had chosen her favourite competitor; it didn’t matter why she picked them (‘Sometimes I like their hair’), only that she had, and she was now invested in the programme because she had an opinion about it.

So here are my choices for this season’s competitive shows. Great British Bake Off: whoever makes the best chocolate cake. Masterchef (when it returns): whoever makes the best chocolate cake. Never Mind the Buzzcocks: Phill Jupitus, because Noel Fielding wears stupid clothes. Only Connect: the Board Gamers, because the captain is the one with the funny hair from last year’s University Challenge. Relatedly, University Challenge: Exeter College Oxford, because it’s my alma mater and we never do very well, bless us. Strictly: Rachel Riley, because she’s very sweet and incredibly patient on both Countdown and 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, both of which are probably hell to work on, for very different reasons.

And now X Factor – hmm, that’s a tricky one. It would have been Tenors of Rock, because they could actually sing and were a bit different from some of the clone-a-likes thrown up in the other categories, but of course they were unceremoniously booted out during the Sadistic Chairs of Hell round because they ‘don’t represent today’s music’ (i.e. they’re actually quite talented**). Out of the girls I like Hannah Barrett, because, man, can she properly sing; in the ‘Overs’ category (without getting started on the patronising title and the absurdity of the fact that the category starts at the decrepit old age of 25), I’d be chuffed if either Lorna Simpson or Shelley Smith won; most of the boys seem identical to me (not helped by many of them singing the same songs), so I’m going to have to vote for Paul Akister; and Brick City are my favourite of the groups because they were the only ones who managed not to make their harmonies sound like kitty murder. So there we go. If/when all of those get knocked out, I guess my X Factor dream, like theirs, will be over, and it’ll be back to watching reruns of old westerns where you can confidently get behind the one in the white hat in the safe knowledge that he’s definitely not going to get voted off.

Cake, anyone?

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*Does one even bake a soufflé? I neither know nor care.

** Bit of satire for you there.

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Just in case you didn’t click on it earlier, this song is genuinely amazing. It will make your day. Possibly your life. Mash-ups don’t get funnier than this.