So it was true, what the champions of multi-channel television told us. One day, they said, the variety of programmes on offer will herald a bright new dawn of choice. It will be incomparably easier for viewers to plan their evenings. How right they were. Viewing selection is certainly a straightforward matter these days. One looks at the list of programmes on offer, and quickly reaches the conclusion that there are better things to do than sit in front of a screen, having one’s intelligence insulted.
Commercial television leads this Gadarene rush towards mediocrity. Channel 4, once so edgy and interesting, increasingly depends on tired reality shows and medical freak documentaries. Channel 5 is, well, Channel 5. Just occasionally, there have been pleasant surprises on ITV. Last weekend’s one-off play Compulsion was intelligently written and directed, not to mention daringly incorrect in its attitudes. Melvyn Bragg’s recent interview with the skittish veteran screenplay writer William Goldman was enough to restore one’s faith in The South Bank Show.
Two excellent ITV programmes within days of each other: it seemed too good to be true, and it was. It has just been announced that The South Bank Show will be terminated from next year, and Bragg will soon relinquish his position as controller of arts programmes for ITV. Without its celebrity interviewer – and dogged champion of seriousness – the channel seems unlikely to be taking the cultural high road in the future.
When did British TV fall so deeply in love with stupidity? Why do so few broadcasting executives challenge the idea that the only way to survive is to feed their audience a diet of undemanding pap? On these occasions, the sad, defeatist rationale is always the same: the need to reduce costs, the decline in advertising revenue and what Channel 4’s chief executive calls “the digital migration of audiences”. It seems to be unquestioned that intelligent programmes by their nature only appeal to a small elite and therefore lose money.
Yet, if one looks elsewhere, the signs are that people are not getting stupider. In a bland, market-led culture populated by politicians and commentators eager to tell us what to think, there is a significant, growing minority which has no desire to be treated like morons. So BBC Radio 4, a grown-up station once more after its brief, unwise flirtation with populism, has just announced its highest ratings for years. Debating societies are thriving. New arts festivals are appearing across the country. The West End and fringe theatres are proving to be surprisingly recession-proof.
It may suit TV executives to see culture and intelligence as things of interest to a small, self-indulgent, metropolitan elite – lowest-common-denominator television being relatively easy and cheap to make – but they are wrong. The way to reverse any digital migration to two-men-and-a-dog satellite channels is to lure back the discriminating audience currently being lost to other media.
The South Bank Show represented the best kind of seriousness by treating its subjects as part of everyday life, rather than something rarefied and specialised. It showed that arts programmes do not belong in a broadcasting ghetto but can make connections between the rarefied and the populist, can ask questions, generally stir things up. Stupid TV, by contrast, appeals to a supine, surly audience. It encourages people to be distrustful of intelligence, wary of the unexpected. Unquestioning consumers, they become cynical, and yet easily led.
Can Liz Hurley solve my image crisis?
That’s torn it. The clever and beautiful Elizabeth Hurley has given away what used to be a closely guarded secret. Country people, she reveals, are not only more attractive than town-dwellers (she was nothing special, for example, before she moved to Gloucestershire), but also have a lot more sex.
“Next time you go to someone’s house in the country, be sure to check out if they have warm, possibly fluffy, rugs in front of the fire,” Hurley writes in Tatler. “No prizes for guessing why they’re there.”
Friends from London visit her simply to be able to gaze at building workers, or shelf-stackers in a Cirencester supermarket.
It is a relief to know that one is not alone. Those of us who live in south Norfolk are forever being pestered by Londoners who long to stay the weekend, just so that they can hang around Somerfields in Diss, ogling the staff.
Here surely is a marketing opportunity. Rural Britain, with unemployment, livestock diseases and disappearing local shops, is suffering from an image crisis. Hurley, once the face of Estée Lauder, could now, with her own lovely hills and valleys representing the swelling, yearning eroticism of rural Britain, be the face of the countryside.
In his days as a bouncy little fund-raiser, Jeffrey Archer briefly had dealings with the Beatles. “That bloke,” Ringo Starr reportedly said, “would bottle your pee and sell it for a fiver.” Since then, celebrities have become more valued, as have their bodily products. An enterprising DJ has scooped up the hair clippings of comedian Frank Skinner and has sold them on eBay for £1,000. It is perhaps one of the odder microtrends to emerge from the recession: selling celebrity body waste to fans.