Nadine, you’re not a celebrity

Why do we want to put stars in our children’s eyes?

Nadine Dorries (MP, Mid-Bedfordshire), asked that very question in a blog, in which she defended her parental duties to protect her daughter against the explicit nature of the celebrity culture world on TV screens and (somewhat bizarrely) the Reading Festival stage. Indeed, Nadine, the celebrity culture world IS setting up our children for a fall, isn’t it?

Many moons ago, Channel 4 launched the British version of ‘Big Brother’. In its earliest years, ‘Big Brother’ did very little to accelerate the celebrity of those people who took part. Some made low-level impact in television presenting jobs and music careers. Suddenly, and without much warning, related reality television programmes appeared on all national channels which thrust unknowns into the spotlight – this wasn’t just a big cheque to a quiz show winner, this was a recording contract, this was glossy magazine photo opps, this was Hollywood treatment to a British postcode and the bright lights of fame and fortune shone directly into the hearts of people who wanted instant success for little work. And who wouldn’t want to have a celebrity career at a fingerclick?

On the flipside of all this, celebrities whose careers had faded through the years found themselves using the same processes to win back a little of the bright lights they thought were lost. Celebrity versions of Big Brother, Fame Academy and others made it acceptable to strip celebrities of most of their charm as a ‘payback’ for their desperation to return into the centre of people’s attention. They danced, sang and wandered around naked for the benefit of nobody but their own attempts to make it again in the changed celebrity world. This new reality, fed by and made for reality television, made celebrities as hungry for fame as the ordinary people who wanted more than a quiz show first prize.

The extreme conclusion of this is ITV’s “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here”, the natural consequence for the urgency with which faded celebrities wanted coverage in the tabloids. ITV couldn’t have known  just how far they could push famous people to do whatever they asked. Insects were eaten, dung was swam through, flesh was revealed and dignities were prostituted. As long as office workers could guffaw on Monday morning about a has-been crunching on spiders, then the production team had done their job.

Viewing figures for “I’m a Celebrity…” topped 16 million people. That’s one of the highest viewing figures on British television, far over-shadowing the viewing numbers for most soaps. Up with other ITV stables such as “The X-Factor” and its predecessor “Pop Idol”, it’s a huge success story for advertisers, producers and celebrities alike.

Nadine Dorries is not a celebrity by many definitions of the term. She’s a member of parliament, representing the constituency of Mid Bedfordshire. At the 2010 election, just shy of 29,000 people voted for her to represent them, over 50% of those who voted. Those 29,000 people probably knew before hand that Nadine was a controversial and divisive figure. Her provocative views on abortion law reform has set her apart from many Conservative MPs. Perhaps most infamously, she attempted to take through the Commons an “abstinence Bill”, an old-fashioned, out-dated “won’t somebody think of the children” legislation.

She justifies taking a televised holiday in Australia to eat  kangeroo anus because politicians are considered out of touch, and that a potential audience of 16 million people want to be taught by her. She believes ITV would allow her to talk about abortion reform law. She could not be more wrong, and goodness knows she has been wrong plenty of times in her career. She’s misunderstood the point of a prime-time reality show if she thinks long speeches about abortion law would be shown amongst shots of models and pop stars camped around a bonfire. She’s misunderstood the point of prime-time reality programmes entirely if she thinks politicians can appear without production choices making them look embarrassing.

This isn’t to say that we should keep MPs on BBC Parliament and pop stars on ITV1. There is a need to make politics and politicians relevant to people today, especially young people. Nadine Dorries can speak about getting her fingernails dirty all she likes; the role of an MP is not to appear on a phone-in reality show where producers have all the power. With Parliament currently sitting, laws are being debated and voted on, and alongside those MPs from Sinn Féin who refuse to take their seats, Nadine Dorries is deliberately absent. That’s not a responsible act from an MP however you measure it.

I’m not against MPs getting out into the real world, but “I’m a Celebrity…” is not reality. Getting an MP to be a bin man for a week or sit in A&E is just as ‘finger nail dirtying’ as anything Nadine pretends will happen whilst being filmed eating a cockroach with a Page 3 model, and it’s more likely to produce something approaching respect with voters.

I doubt watching Nadine eating an arse rather than talking out of one will bring her into a new light. It won’t win her respect as an MP who is taking a holiday on full pay because she feels that nobody is listening to her on Question Time. Already semi-detached amongst her colleagues, the natural conclusion from her jaunt is a permanent exclusion from the Conservative Party. If she wanted to do the decent thing, her next job will be in the Chiltern Hundreds.

telly addicts

So, farewell then, analogue television.

From tomorrow in two English regions, and Wales, the second installment of the national switch-off begins. For people of all ages an era ends: for my generation it is perhaps the final installment of a gradual up-grade process from the four channels in the 80s, through basic Cable television, to the ability to pause live programming in a fashion not even predicted by the usually excitable studio of Tomorrow’s World.

Looking back through my memory banks shows just how important in my life the box in the corner of the room has been. As a child, I was particularly over-excited by regional-opt outs, icons and logos, anything it would seem except the programmes themselves. The faintest echo of the Children In Need “Let’s go round the regions” anthem still filters around my head, a triumph of my anorak nature and the ability of the Beeb to write a catchy tune which could withstand the slight delays inherent in switching from the studios in Edinburgh to a car-park outside Eccles. If you want to help – DRUM – help Children In Need. It’s all flooding back….

In the early years of cable television in this area, I would tiptoe to the front room to channel flick until the sun came up. In later years it was, I concede, more to do with the promise of untold thrills during The Adult Channel’s preview adverts, although at first even the chance of watching a channel close down that wasn’t the BBC interested me something rotten. In those days – how odd does that sound, and yet how true! – BBC One still closed down, playing the national anthem over a spinning globe before fading to black.

As a defender of the licence fee I hope talk of “top slicing” the funding to other channels does not occur if the consequence is a weaker, lesser BBC. That most of my viewing and listening comes from the BBC is not just an unwillingness to channel-surf; I happen to prefer most of the Corporation’s output to that on ITV and, sadly I have to say, a lot of what is now broadcast on Channel 4. There was a time when it felt daring and exciting to watch 4, often with the sound turned down and a pillow under my bedroom door to ensure nobody spotted I was watching The Word, or the “red light zone” themed programming seemingly broadcast for the benefit of my youthful development (if I can phrase it that way).

Channel 4 maintains some high standards, although even its own time flagship programmes Cutting Edge, and Dispatches, have become sensationalist and boring.

Tomorrow will mark the next-step in the advancing of Britain’s digital broadcasting age. I must look back with some nostalgia at the advances of yesteryear which somehow seem terribly quaint by today’s standards: flick a switch on a channel now to access the all-day broadcasting schedules of a hundred channels, on the former Cable North West service there was one screen with a scrolling schedule information display and a 30-minute cut-off.

Maybe the box in the corner will be pushed back even further into the shadows if television-on-demand, iPlayer, downloads and so on continue to become more popular with the viewing public. Maybe television itself will cease to be thought of in terms of separate channels and networks as commitment to single brands continues to dissolve. All I know is, the manner of watching the screen has certainly changed beyond all recognition but the little child inside is still humming the theme tune to Live & Kicking and wondering if he’ll ever see the HTVWales logo again…..

Derren Brown – after the event

Earlier this month I explained the letter sent to Channel 4 following Derren Brown’s “prediction show“. With no reply from them the letter was forwarded to OFCOM, the UK Office of Communications and broadcasting watchdog.

Their reply has not upheld my concerns about the broadcast.

Derren Brown claimed he would broadcast a live lottery prediction show on 9 September, followed by an “explanation” show the following Friday. My concern focused on the misleading nature of the trails, and the lack of a disclaimer advising viewers that the programme would not, in reality, be an actual live prediction.

OFCOM have replied in the following terms…

…[A]fter reviewing the material we do not judge there has been a breach of our regulations.

Whatever solution viewers believed, or whether [his explanations] was all part of the ‘showmanship’ as he indicated at the start of the programme, is a matter for individual viewers to decide.

That he did not definitively clear up how he guessed the lottery numbers is not a problem for us as the regulator.

And there shall I leave it.

Derren Brown’s balls

“Please tell me you haven’t complained to Channel 4 about Derren Brown…”

Well…”complaint” is very strong, although that is the word I used in the letter. Ultimately my request has been for Channel 4 to explain a couple of points rather than a green-ink rant demanding cancellation of the series or such like. It wasn’t an angry letter at all, to be honest, more concerned. Both the so-called magician Brown and Channel 4 themselves should be able to handle themselves against a cynical northerner.

Throughout August Channel 4 broadcast a number of teaser-trailers and commercials for “The Event”, a Derren Brown fronted programme in which he claimed the Lotto numbers would be predicted…live. He even paused just like that, as they do when revealing the winners on Big Brother. With some further information on the months of preparation, Brown claimed in the days immediately preceding the broadcast on Wednesday, 9 September, that the prediction would go ahead live. The claim was followed up in national newspapers earlier in the week.

What followed of course was not a live prediction, the main point of query in my letter to Channel 4. Using a mix of “as live” recording techniques and split-screen recording, Brown did not predict – live or otherwise – the lottery numbers. He even went on to broadcast an “explanation show” the following Friday attempting to fog the issue further by inventing a concept of “Wisdom of the Crowd”, sounding more like something from a David Icke book.

On a number of Brown websites and forums, questions about the “live prediction” have surfaced from fans and cynics alike. Some fans have used the phrase “jumping the shark”, slightly angered that Brown’s live prediction claims were nothing more than a mild case of false advertising. His “stunt” has been “rubbished” by mathematicians who claim his “averaging” technique made no sense at all. I have known people use far more convincing reasons behind Grand National selections than his contrived “averaging” explanation.

Illusionist Brown’s pretend magic is as entertaining as any end of the pier “turn”, which effectively he has now become. Like a Uri Geller for the digital age his career is somewhat behind him, now having to “sex up” his claims, such as being able to literally do the impossible by predicting the workings of a lottery machine. Had Channel 4 broadcast a simple disclaimer advising viewers that the show was merely entertainment and not a prediction, no letter of complaint would have been sent by me.

So was my letter pedantry? Jealousies? Were any ordinary person to claim they could predict the future only to come up with an obviously faked stunt there would be understandable outrage and derision. Channel 4 may well have tricked many viewers into thinking the show was real. I have not made a habit of complaining about television programmes, nor do I see fans of Brown as being of questionable intelligence for liking him. My issue is with his attempt to call a staged and partly pre-recorded stunt a “live prediction”, something Channel 4, his producers, and of course himself, knew to be false.

No reply as yet, I’ll update if anything comes.