Watch out! Grumpy old folk on television
29 May 2008
“SHUDAAAP!” A burly, stubble-bearded man growled yobbishly at a younger woman who was trying rather nervously to speak. “You’ve got a mahf like the Blackwall Tunnel.” The woman briefly looked as if she were about to cry.
A scene from EastEnders? In fact, it was from this week’s episode of The Apprentice. The boorish bully was that eminent knight of the realm Sir Alan Sugar. On each side of him, as usual, were his two dead-eyed, grey-haired sidekicks, Nick and Margaret, who inform and enforce for the boss in much the same way as the sinister duo of Erlichman and Haldeman once did for Richard Nixon.
Once this programme seemed merely unpleasant. It celebrated and promoted a crude and old-fashioned form of entrepreneurialism. Its entertainment value derived from a clever formula: find a group of painfully ambitious young people, who have been rendered prattish by their desire to succeed, and then reveal their personal weaknesses for the pleasure of viewers.
Now the programme’s nastiness has another element to it and is part of a trend developing within television – and perhaps beyond. The Apprentice is about the hatred of the middle-aged and old for the young. It is the revenge of the wrinklies. Sugar and his grim sidekicks are essentially grandparents gone feral, veteran teachers whom the years and bitter classroom experience have turned toxic.
In the normal world, people in their fifties and sixties can be stern towards those blundering around in early adulthood, but the lessons are tempered by at a least a small degree of sympathy, even kindness. Here those with power and experience on their side do as much as they can to destroy any feelings of worth in their young victims. It is the strong bullying the weak for our delectation. In the episode that I saw this week, a perfectly nice woman, who clearly is not going to win, was told that she was useless, a waste of space, did nothing for anyone. The attack on her was sustained and unnecessarily personal.
What makes the programme morally revolting is that the lesson communicated by this embittered trio and their cynical paymasters at the BBC is aimed at the young. Be pitiless is the message. The more you bully the weak, the better you will do in life.
To judge from the television schedules, it is not youth that is running riot but the resentfully ageing. Perhaps executives are experiencing a mid-life crisis and are expressing their flabby rage through their programmes. Earlier this week, there was an edition of The Weakest Link in which all the contestants were Wags, the wives and girlfriends of footballers.
But what was the point? It was, of course, to allow TV’s Madame Whiplash to reveal to the nation how stupid these young woman were, and then laugh at them. By all accounts, the Wags obliged. “In waterfowl, what D is the general name for the female equivalent of a drake?” one was asked. “A dragon” came the answer. How triumphant Anne Robinson must have felt as, on behalf her generation, she wreaked her sour revenge on a group of younger, prettier women.
The grumpy old men and women are now in control, and their idea of entertainment is to lash out at future generations, implicitly encouraging them to behave with the kind of sneery, bullying yobbishness embodied by Robinson and Sugar. It is pathetic and harmful.
Kirsty’s knees? It’s a scandal!
Kirsty Wark has been inflaming the passions of Newsnight viewers again. After she chaired a discussion in Cannes while wearing a skirt which clearly revealed her knees, there were calls of complaint to the BBC.
All this is oddly familiar. Nearly 30 years ago, Henry Root, a randy right-wing bigot invented by the writer Willie Donaldson, wrote a fan letter to Esther Rantzen, pointing out that her dress was rather revealing for family viewing. “One doesn’t want to see women’s legs in one’s lounge-room when kiddies are still up and about,” he wrote, adding, “Could you possibly oblige with a photo?”
Standards of clammy-palmed censoriousness are clearly being maintained. Mary Whitehouse would be proud.
* For lawn-obsessives and golfers, there is grave news. Moles are burrowing their way across our land in increasing numbers. There are 65 per cent more of them today than there were 10 years ago. The current population estimate is 33 million.
There are various reasons why now is a good time to be a mole. The EU has banned the use of strychnine in their control. A series of mild winters has helped. And it is claimed that the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak restricted the work of molecatchers.
Moles enrage people because, like grey squirrels, they tend to have the last word. My aunt, not a notably pious woman, swore that the only way to move them on was to kneel beside a molehill and pray. In fact, we should be cheering them on – moles are doing heroic environmental work. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, “The ground swells greenest o’er the labouring moles.”