The harsh truth of the camera eye

When Esther Rantzen complains that Simon Cowell, Alan Sugar et al are too cruel when judging participants, she forgets one thing: that’s life.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

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Is it cruel to be truthful? Or is it kind to be a liar? It is an age-old quandary, but according to some television people these days, the latter is the more ethical avenue of pursuit. So when it comes to television and morality, nothing receives more unfavourable attention currently than ‘reality TV’. No one likes reality, because no one likes the truth.

‘I hate reality TV shows’ is a declaration that is invariably, and inexplicably, one I often hear uttered by people who boast that they don’t like or don’t watch television. I really do wish critics would make it a priority to read or watch things they intend to criticise. This is an age-old journalist foible, and one that is getting much worse; boasting that you despise the Guardian or the Daily Mail, while simultaneously and proudly announcing that you read neither, seems to be one of the most curious declarations I hear these days.

Anyhow, back to ‘reality TV’, which has become a fashionable whipping-boy of late. It’s cheap to make, crude, crass and cruel comments about ‘reality TV’. But they never fail to strike a chord. In other words, everyone agrees: reality TV is crap.

Having watched the latest installment of The Apprentice, featuring Alan Sugar, on Wednesday night, I reflected on sentiments recently expressed by Esther Rantzen in the Daily Mail. (Yes, I know having a go at the Daily Mail is, as previously mentioned, predictable – but it is also irresistible).

Under the headline ‘A CURSE ON REALITY TV!’ (capital letters, and exclamations marks, are apparently mandatory in Daily Mail headlines, as are headlines which end with a question mark, for which the answer is always: ‘No’), Esthter Rantzen – front woman for one of the most dismal programmes of the 1980s, That’s Life, the kind of programme that actually made you want to go to Mass on Sundays and listen to priests gibber in Latin, or long for school the next morning – complains of today’s ‘[r]ude, brusque interviewers, humiliating formats and unfair editing’. According to Rantzen, the likes of Simon Cowell, Gordon Ramsay and Jonathan Ross are encouraging rudeness, bad language and coarseness. In short, alleges Rantzen, ‘reality TV’ is responsible for school bullying today.

Now, let’s get some things straight. Simon Cowell is a rude vulgarian who dresses even worse than I do; Gordon Ramsay is an annoying prick who has yet to master the art of swearing – it’s about quality, not quantity, Gordon; Jonathan Ross’s interviewing technique consists mainly of small talk about wanking. And as far as Alan Sugar is concerned, I’d be far happier taking advice from Bill Gates and Steve Jobs – who have actually created global computer empires – than from someone who created the abysmal second-rate electronics firm Amstrad and who backed an even more useless and risible firm: Tottenham Hotspur FC. Why should you, or anyone, care if Alan Sugar shouts at you, ‘You’re fired’? You might as well take affront about being sacked by Steptoe & Son or Derek Trotter.

Most importantly, let’s also remember that That’s Life was itself based on cruelty, schadenfreude, and derived amusement from the misfortune of others; indeed, That’s Life was a progenitor of the genre long before Jeremy Beadle arrived on the scene.

Esther Rantzen’s That’s Life ostensibly sought to be humorous. It usually had stories about carrots and potatoes that looked like penises, or dogs that could skateboard or say ‘sausages’. But its main thrust was in exposing dodgy tradesmen, much as in the criminal field, Crimewatch still seeks to uncover villains today.

Both programmes were, and are, noble in their intentions, but both have, or had, an element of sensationalism about them. But not in the way you’d expect. Crimewatch literally turns every crisis into a drama, which I cannot imagine is funny for the victims of crime.

Similarly, That’s Life had noble motives – on the surface. Yes, most of us have had bad experiences with dodgy plumbers, electricians, builders, and so on. That’s Life‘s mandate was to expose rip-off merchants in these fields. But the end result was not a public information service hilighting bad practitioners. The real reasons why people tuned into That’s Life in the 1980s was because viewers enjoyed these criminals being exposed, humiliated and made a laughing stock. That’s Life was not really or honestly Reithian, public information broadcasting. It was about delighting in the cruelty suffered by strangers. It was ‘reality TV’ before the phrase was invented.

Which is not to say That’s Life was, in essence, wrong. Crafty tradesman should have been exposed. But equally so, Simon Cowell should be encouraged to tell a singer that he’s rubbish. Jonathan Ross should inform us as to what film is not worth watching. Gordon Ramsay should make us aware, in expletives, as to which restaurant is fucking shit.

Modern society labours under the delusion that cruelty is wrong per se. Esther Rantzen seems happy to attack schadenfreude as an abomination, when she perversely made a career from it. I’m sorry to sound like a Victorian conservative, or someone who has read far too much Nietzsche, but there is often nothing essentially wrong with enjoying the suffering of others. Victory at others’ expense can be delightful. All football fans know this to be true. And victory at the expense of those who genuinely deserve to get beaten is especially satisfying – not to mention judicious.

Sure, ‘reality TV’ can be coarse, and it is admittedly, largely rubbish. But at least it is honest. It is a rude medium for meritocracy – not mediocrity. And if you find being a failure at something difficult, or being told ‘you’re fired’ heart-breaking, well, that’s life.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist. Visit his blog here.

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