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The Sunday Times

March 14, 2004

Television: AA Gill: Oranges are not the only fruit

On Panorama's What's the Point of the BBC? (Sunday, BBC1), I'm told, David Attenborough complained that Auntie had fallen short of her remit to show and explain more science. Sadly, I didn't see this lacerating exposé of public-service broadcasting — I was watching television at the time. It seems a slightly odd thing to complain about because I'm seeing a vast laboratory of science on the box. Every daytime couch show has a team of resident scientific experts: psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists; dozens of medical and forensic experts with isms and letters and salacious specialisms. Then there are the most omnipotent and omnipresent scientific experts, who plague all factual programmes: the psephologists. Statistics are god on television. The morning after that Panorama, producers will have asked “What did we get?” and huddled over their audience-share percentage.

Programmes live and die on the internal war of statistical attrition. If I were to make a single change, at a stroke, to improve the BBC's public-service output, I'd ban the commissioning and use of statistics. They are used to justify a lot of bad television and cancel some worthy broadcasting. They are also used as the basis for a lot of softly factual programmes. I realise that this sort of redbrick science is not what Attenborough probably meant. He was thinking of the classic disciplines, and I would agree with him: we're long overdue a series on geology, rather than yet another examination of forensics and pathology. And an awful lot of science on television is — in fact and fiction — quackery and self-publicity on behalf of book writers and pro- fessional pundits.

But when wasn't science like that? It has always been swaths of misinformation, half-truths and special pleading, with occasional nuggets of brilliant discovery. Newton spent a relatively short time on physics: most of his scientific life was devoted to proving the mathematics of the Bible and trying to change lead into gold. The trouble with most trivial television is not just that it makes science look nebulous and facile, but that it makes it look cynical. There's a difference between popularising science and making it merely fashionable.

Last week, two similar programmes used a scientific premise for popular television. The Carrot or the Stick? (Thursday, C4) was a better-than-average series in a crowded market of quasi-military endurance gameshows. It began by asking an interesting sociological question: do people do better if they are constantly praised and supported, or if they are constantly punished and threatened? It makes for disturbing viewing. The end result became unimportant (the Stick team won by a shaven head), but there were so many variables, and the result was so close, it didn't prove much. What was interesting was where the audience's natural sympathy lay. As a decent, liberal child of the 1960s, naturally I wanted the Carrots to do well, to validate my belief that society needs hugs and kindness rather than threats and fear. But this same liberal humanism made me more sympathetic to the Sticks, who laboured under hardship and resiliently became a supportive unit, whereas the Carrots indulged in self-doubt, navel-gazing and annoying individuality. They came across as spoilt. The lesson was that what we would like for ourselves and our children is not necessarily what we find engaging or attractive in others.

This was also true of The Truth About Killing (Monday, C4), based on a piece of 1947 American research that found that most soldiers would do almost anything to avoid killing. Indeed, almost all the killing in wars is done by less than 2% of soldiers. It was presented and written by Grub Smith, one of the best rollicking lad-mag journalists. I'd never seen him before. He made quite a good fist of the small screen, selling the story well, pitching it at just the right level, between bloodthirsty prurience and nerdish psychology. There was some frankly gratuitous use of film of people being killed, and some first world war footage that was supposed to be of people being killed, but was actually a military propaganda exercise. And there were some deeply sad weekend warmongering wannabes who were on for too long and didn't seem to prove much of anything. But in general, this was a good idea, well explained, with a jaunty pace.

Television has long been looking to translate the success of men's magazines onto the box — men are its most fugitive audience — but it has never really worked, mostly because the Tristrams never get beyond slapstick, tits and burping, and despising their target audience. But anyone who has written for lads' mags will tell you that their success is based on huge amounts of information. Men like facts and anec- dotage and morsels of opinion. In fact, what men like inexplicably more than anything else are statistics and Jeremy Clarkson. Having discovered that only 2% of men did 90% of the killing, and that of that 2%, half were psychotic murderers, we learnt that the remaining 1% of all soldiers were proper heroes, driven by altruism and civic duty to acts of supreme heroism, despite their natural reluctance to kill. “Phew,” went 98% of the male audience. “That's me sorted.”

For an embarrassingly long time, I watched The OC (Sunday, C4) and thought its title stood for Officer Commanding, which, from my limited time with men who kill, I know is not the same as CO, commanding officer. And as I watched this story of rich Americans, I kept waiting for the military to turn up and kill them all. But they didn't, and I now know that OC stands for Orange County — though I'm still no wiser about what that signifies. Perhaps it's just full of visibly shallow rich people with orange faces. It certainly looks like Cheshire.

The premise for this drama is the same as that black American daytime comedy about a poor boy from the ghetto who goes to stay with rich folk; only this time, the poor boy is white, so it's not funny. It's serious and sentimental, a drama about the redeeming goodness of charity. Dozens of films on similar subjects were made during the Depression. They pretended to show audiences that the valuable things in life were eternal, spiritual and moral. Actually, they were long advertisements for the glory of cash and capitalism, avaricious escapism wrapped in a thick marzipan of religious sentiment, the moral being that poor folk would be better rich folk than rich folk, if only they had the money.

This is a common American delusion, sometimes called “the American dream”. If you believe that popular entertainment is a subliminal measure of the zeitgeist, then the success of series such as The OC ought to be worrying someone. Television dramas and movies that offer stories of ordinary Joes getting phenomenal, unrealistic dollops of good fortune are the precursors to high unemployment and deep anxiety about the future. Then again, this is only television: another American feelgood drama with a lot of babes and bad acting. A carrot and a stick are much the same thing, depending on whose hands they're in.