We are the real savages of the show
21 November 2008
The celebrities-in-a-wood show is back on TV. A Page Three girl has eaten a kangaroo’s testicle and was worried, rather touchingly, that she might become pregnant. The show is a sort of annual ritual which follows a predictable routine – the pretty one in the “jungle” strips down to a bikini, the mad one gets madder, the presenters giggle on the sidelines, and so on. Outside, familiar controversies are revisited, too.
The RSPCA has claimed this week that there is “no excuse” for the way animals are harmed or distressed for human entertainment. In response, the production company behind the reality show has explained “qualified and experienced animal and insect wranglers” are on site throughout the programme.
The more interesting, wider debate is not so much about cruelty as wildness. The point of the programme is to take a group of pampered, metropolitan celebrities, put them in a TV jungle – in reality, an outside set in a compound near a hotel. They are then pitted against the terrors of nature: snakes, rats, “creepy-crawlies”, testicles.
The RSPCA is right about the exploitation of animals – the most experienced insect-wrangler in the world is of limited use when the insects are being eaten – but there would clearly be no programme at all if nature were not presented to those in it, and to those watching it, as being savage, poisonous, scary, dangerous.
As the late Roger Deakin wrote in one of his notebooks, recently published as Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, these programmes do harm by presenting nature as a threat, “compounding the couch-potato problem by actively alienating nature”.
When the wild is reduced to something scary, full of “creepy-crawlies”, then it is unsurprising that animals are seen as a source of entertainment. The idea that creatures have their own moral integrity, that it is simply wrong and undignified to film some semi-famous idiot eating them, or being crawled over by them, would never occur to those providing the entertainment.
Those people have not, as yet, claimed that by using animals in this way they are adding to popular understanding of wildlife and conservation, but that moment cannot be far off. Fraudulent arguments about education and the environment are regularly deployed by those exploiting wild animals for their own gain.
This week, when the Atlantis Hotel, said to be the world’s most luxurious, opens for business in Dubai, its enclosed Dolphin Bay will, according to the owners, be the country’s first rescue centre for dolphins. The truth is a little more complex. The bottle-nosed dolphins with whom guests can enjoy “shallow-water interaction” were bought in the South Pacific and shipped to the Middle East. The Whale and Dolphin Preservation Society have rightly pointed out the hypocrisy of Atlantis’s claim to be committed to conservation and animal welfare, while supporting the international trade in dolphins. The same hotel had, until a row forced a change of plan, announced that an aquarium containing a 13-foot shark would be in the lobby.
There is a connection between writhing, giggling celebrities in their fake jungle and Dubai’s Dolphin Bay. For both, wildness is excitingly alien, a source of thrills and laughter to be exploited for jaded, sated human appetites and for profit. A few clichés about animal welfare and conservation will divert critical attention away from the squalid and greedy acts of exploitation which are taking place.
As a result of their efforts, there is less understanding of, and sympathy with, the way the natural world works. It is the humans – tourists, television viewers, insect wranglers – who are being demeaned, not the animals.
The new Jim Davidson – only not as funny
Anyone who has become confused by the great debate over what is permissible in the area of public humour after the Brand/Ross debacle might usefully study remarks made by the painfully ambitious jokester Jimmy Carr in an Independent interview this week.
Asked to justify a string of wife-battering jokes, Carr explained that members of his audience “recognise a liberal, slightly over-educated man telling jokes and playing with what you can and can’t say”.
This superficially subtle argument is utterly bogus. A comic routine about beating women up is not rendered harmless by the self-proclaimed liberal niceness of the person telling it; if anything, it reveals the cynical ambition of someone who wants to get dodgy laughs while retaining his credibility. As for the tired old “playing with the form” line, that has been deployed as an excuse for too much unreadably self-conscious fiction to be taken seriously.
Carr rejected a comparison with Jim Davidson – an incomparably funnier comedian, incidentally – on the grounds that he had no respect for him. If this passes for reasoning among the over-educated, our universities are in worse shape than we had thought.
Westminster plays humbug
Glad tidings for all men: there will be no need to hark the herald angels singing outside Debenhams on Oxford Street this year. Westminster Council has ruled the soundtrack, which normally accompanies the store’s Christmas window display of moving reindeer and snowmen, is a form of noise pollution.
Here is the first sign that hard times might just possibly encourage a new, more contemplative Christmas, with the vulgar marketing racket turned down, less bloated consumption and a reduction in triumphalist, aggressive carol-singing. You do not have to be Scrooge to welcome these things.