How to broaden the viewer’s mind

As the BBC’s recent Horizon programme proves, challenging, thought-provoking TV just needs a little time.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

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Back in the 1980s, when hip-hop was actually good, the band Public Enemy hit the headlines for two completely unrelated reasons. On the one hand they were known for their politically-charged rhymes, with lead rapper Chuck D booming out anti-establishment black emancipation anthems, shadowed by Terminator X on the wheels of steel, suited in an appropriately military uniform.

On the other hand, Public Enemy were equally renowned for their bespectacled MC, Flavor Flav, who, instead of having a then customary Mercedes-Benz insignia around his neck, always bore a clock. Whenever the eccentric Flavor Flav appeared as a guest on programmes such as Channel 4’s yoof-baiting The Word, he made no sense at all. He didn’t want to talk about Malcolm X, race riots, the CIA inventing crack cocaine to suppress black people, or ‘the Feds’. Flavor Flav just always asked: ‘Do you know what time it is?’

His repetitive gibberish was usually indulged by white interviewers who presumably thought Flavor Flav was speaking in metaphors. They must have assumed he meant ‘it’s time for change’, or ‘it’s time America woke up’. Contrarily, most of the viewing public thought it was time that Flavor Flav was given medication of some sort, and certainly time that The Word presenters Terry Christian or Mark Lamarr should stop indulging people who were clearly mad.

But I think there was another aspect of Flavor Flav’s appeal. I suspect, and I think others did, too, that he was not talking metaphorically, but metaphysically. Maybe he was questioning the meaning of time itself. This was, after all, the period when Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was becoming one of the most-bought and least-read books of all time.

‘”What time is it?” a question that humanity has asked for millennia’ says professor Brian Cox, in this week’s Horizon: What Time is it? (1) Now, I admire the BBC for aspiring to answer the question ‘what is the meaning of time?’ in a one hour episode, but first things first; the programme failed to explain what mysterious effects time has had on professor Cox. He looks about 17-years-old. He could easily be on Hollyoaks, or a pretty member of a boy-band, and he certainly passes for Tim Burgess out of the Charlatans circa 1991. But he is actually 40.

If Cox could explain how the ravages of time have evaded him, I’m sure the BBC could have stolen a fair few viewers from the likes of This Morning or Loose Women. But thankfully it didn’t. Instead, it went for the high-brow route, featuring loads of professors with highly-complicated theories about the origins of the universe and time.

I didn’t understand a word of it – mainly because I’m fundamentally thick when it comes to science, but also because my mind kept drifting off at the idea that time is timeless. And on top of that, the programme kept teasing us with the Big One: what, or who, created existence itself? This is a tricky one for we atheists.

Horizon: What Time Is It? opened on a much-dreaded moment: professor Cox walking up an ancient Mayan temple, explaining how these people understood time. Oh dear, here we go: ‘Wisdom of the ancients’; ‘non-Western, holistic, non-linear understanding of time’; ‘they were actually cleverer than us’; Kevin Costner pretending to be a Red Indian; Sting’s Amazonian mate with a CD in his mouth; and all that stuff. But, curiously, it proved the opposite, as Cox went on to explain that the Mayans used to murder people to ensure the Sun would rise every day. In other words, the Mayans were morons.

In fact, far from being anti-Western, the programme was too pro-Western. Cox talked of the way in which the phrases we use reflect our obsession with time, such as ‘spending time’ or ‘wasting time’. But there is an argument that such phrases are not eternal universals, but a product of Western modernity, in which time has become commodified. Benjamin Franklin’s famous phrase ‘time is money’ is an expression that gained purchase throughout the nineteenth century when the clock itself became one of the main instruments of the Industrial Revolution. Today, the clocking-in machine reminds us how capitalism is utterly reliant on the rationalisation of time.

The only real worry of the programme is what postmodern sociologists, philosophers and anthropologists would make of its conclusion, that what time it is depends upon where you are and who you are (it’s all to do with gravitational pull, apparently). Cultural relativists have long regarded Einstein’s theory of relativity (it was Galileo who actually first thought up the idea of relativity, by the way) and Heinsenberg’s uncertainty principle as both proof of Western science’s fallibility and evidence that truth is perspectival. But it is both wrong and dangerous to draw metaphors from science: both Nazism and Stalinism did so.

Still, Horizon: What Time Is It? was both superlative and baffling. The Earth, we were reminded, does not have a fixed, 24-hour day; it varies depending upon the Moon’s pull on the tides. And it is the Moon that is causing the Earth’s rotation to slow down. Six hundred million years ago the Earth’s day was under 22 hours, and soon (but not very soon) we will have a 25-hour day. When we see the sun in the sky, we are looking into the past, namely, eight minutes ago – the time it has taken for its light to reach us. When we look at the stars, we are not looking at them as they are, but what they were in the days of the Romans or the dinosaurs. ‘What do they look like now?’ asked Cox, before remonstrating with himself that this was a pointless, paradoxical question.

The BBC should make more shows that challenge the mind and ensure you can’t sleep at night. And it should not be afraid to admit that after an hour’s programme its presenter does not have the answer. Flavor Flav asks ‘what time is it?’ Professor Brian Cox replies ‘I don’t know’. But my god, although we expect the BBC to inform and educate, even the most ardent anti-BBC people such as Peter Hitchens and Charles Moore would not expect it to answer the meaning of life itself. If it did, I would think the £139.50 licence fee rather good value.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) Horizon: What Time is it?, BBC iPlayer

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Topics Culture


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