Remember, TV and film start with writers
23 January 2008
Jon Stewart, the American TV presenter much adored by American liberals for his show The Daily News, is not quite himself at the moment. Although on screen he looks the same as ever – smooth, blandly handsome, generally pleased with himself – a certain bounce in his presentation, a fluency, seems to be missing. The inevitable Bush jokes are there, but they are slightly laboured. The conspiratorial mugging to camera lacks confidence. Even the studio audience, which usually can be relied upon to laugh obsequiously when their hero so much as raises an ironic eyebrow, is rather subdued.
There is a reason for all this. Stewart is doing that very daring thing for a TV presenter: he is speaking his own words. Having been off the air for some time as result of the writers’ strike, he is now back without his team of scribblers. “I got a problem here,” said his sidekick Stephen Colbert, apparently addressing the director during the first writerless show. “There are no words on my teleprompter.” Told about the strike, Colbert was bewildered. The prompter was a magic box that read his thoughts and dictated them back to him, wasn’t it? It was a labour-saving device.
The strike has been impressive on several levels. Writers are by nature competitive – when John Cheever wrote that “the rivalry among novelists is quite as intense as that among sopranos”, he could have been referring to anyone who tries to put sentences together for a living. Yet the American writers’ strike has been solid and pitilessly executed. Here, the approach would have been rather more nervous and tentative, starting with a work-to-rule restricting the use of metaphors and similes, escalating under pressure to something tougher – perhaps an all-out ban on adjectives.
But the American writers, in addition to arguing very sensibly that they are owed a decent share of any digital and downloading cash that may be going, have made a larger, incidental point. Colbert’s joke about the teleprompter reading his thoughts and dictating them back to him has an element of truth. Until the strike, the ability to read or learn someone else’s lines was invariably mistaken for genuine charm or intelligence.
Taking those words away has been a useful reminder. The various descriptions of TV interviewers and frontmen – witty, sincere, perceptive, hard-hitting, sympathetic – should really be presented in heavy inverted commas. An essential part of their act, the back legs of the donkey, was provided by a scurfy, unlovely writer. So were many of the thoughts, quips and insights of the celebrity guests.
The culture is now so enslaved to the image of things, their glossy surface, that even those who should know better fall for the illusion. A newspaper article commenting on the luck of authors whose books have been made into successful films – The Kite Runner, Atonement, No Country for Old Men – included a comment from a publisher who was thrilled that books were reaching a new audience.
As usual, the truth is being turned upside down. It is Hollywood and publishers who should be grateful – the films were successful because one day a person, sitting alone in his or her room, put together characters and a story that would later translate successfully to the screen. In fact, the fate of the Oscar ceremony, currently in the balance because of the strike, might serve as a useful metaphor for most of the entertainment business. Take away the writers, and all the gloss, fame and glamour that money can buy is as nothing.
Ringo, you forgot to pretend
Poor old Ringo. Ever the innocent, he has made the terrible mistake of telling the truth on a chat show. Having done his bit to launch his home city of Liverpool as European Capital of Culture, the ex-Beatle told Jonathan Ross that, although he loved the place and had enjoyed his return, there was nothing about it in particular that he missed.
Forty years ago, such remarks would have amused us all. The game of celebrity – pretend you are the boy next door even if you are a billionaire – was widely understood. Now, in a touchier, sillier age, all hell has broken loose. On this showing, Liverpool deserves to be re-nominated as the European City of Sentimental Self-Importance.
* In Blackpool this week, there is serious discussion about how best to liberate the great sport of pigeon-racing from the ghetto of class prejudice. “Fanciers have had the cloth cap and whippet image,” Peter Bryant of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association has complained. “It is pretty hard to rebrand, but that’s what we’re trying to do.” So at the British Homing World Show of the Year, something called “one loft racing” is being launched in an attempt to lure the young, middle-class and aspirational into the sport. For an annual fee of £100 per bird, owners can have all the thrill of racing without having to keep pigeons themselves. It is a superb idea. Pigeons are fast, brilliant navigators, and brave, having to negotiate not only the wind and the weather but also vicious birds of prey, like the Harris Hawks hired by Ken Livingstone to patrol Trafalgar Square. Pigeon-racing would also be a great sport for punters. We bet on everything else, so why not a flutter on the birds?