No Longer Gagging For Gogglebox.

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Telly apocalypse-predicting sci-fi The Truman Show has one of the best and most chilling final lines in cinema history. As Truman begins to realise the truth about his soon-to-burst bubble, the director increases the amount of times we cut to the viewers, who stare gormlessly into the camera and offer their banal views on Truman’s plight. These die-hard fans ultimately (spoiler alert!) urge Truman out of his metallic cell, whooping euphorically as he makes the final steps away from his own reality show. When the madness has calmed, we cut to two security guards, avid fans of the 24-hour feed. One turns to the other and shrugs: “What else is on?”

For a film that was released before Big Brother, this final line does wonders to predict both the addictive nature of television and how easily it can be discarded. We are inhabitants of a fad culture that demands more, harder, sooner, quicker before we get bored and move onto the next most popular thing. Remember who won at the Brits last year? The Harlem Shake? Twerking? No, me neither. In an attempt to capitalise on our ‘What Else Is On?’ mindsets, more and more television shows have the USP of being ‘topical’. This is a fad that started somewhere in Elstree and has so far culminated in structured reality shows and the sleeper hit of last year, Gogglebox

As predicted by The Truman Show, what people really want to watch is other people watching telly. There were moments in Gogglebox last year that were a meta-theatrical triumph, as television was accepted as a communal, multi-cultural, multi-emotional experience. For every snide comment about Miss Dynamix, there were moments of true poignancy, particularly in sections which dealt with current affairs and charity events. At the heart of all this, of course, were the viewers themselves, a broad slice of our great country who delighted and surprised with their honesty and idiosyncrasies. However, as with all shows that are filmed dangerously close to transmission, there is a risk of filler, and the later episodes of Gogglebox were straining under the weight of the Tapper family.

And so, before you could even find the next box set to binge on (Hannibal, by the way) Gogglebox has invited us back into the living rooms of Britain’s weirdos. Unfortunately, if the show looked leggy at the end of the last run, it had moments of wheezing to a standstill in this week’s opener (4od). 

While the chosen viewers must represent a wide tranche of British life, the truth is that some of them aren’t interesting enough to be on telly. Like an armchair Cowell, I find myself tuning out when the boring ones start to talk, and offering subtle congratulation whenever the gay hairdresser says something catty. Well done, Stephen. You can go through to the next episode, and take your cheap vino with you. Lovely Stephen effectively acted as the voice of the audience in this episode, realising very quickly that he had been forced to watch arse-numbingly dull programming for our viewing ‘pleasure’. In a segment focussing on Dragon’s Den, Stephen accurately noted how the beast had lost its fire:

“When was the last time someone said to you, ‘Did you see that thing on Dragon’s Den last night?’

When indeed. When that bloke from the pension ads was on it, perhaps? Later in the show, the Channel 4 producers showed their sadistic side when they forced the Goggleboxers to sit through another show hosted by manic-eyed Evan Davis (take note, BBC) about how London is the tenth circle of Hell or something. The viewers yawned their way through it, and so did I, before wise, lovely Stephen concluded: 

“Well, that bored the shit out my arse.”

Why Channel 4 thought that it would be interesting to watch people watch a show comparable to a colonic irrigation is beyond me. I can understand watching terrible telly; I can understand watching amazing telly; but surely no one gains anything from realising their lack of brain oxygen in a primetime Friday night slot? 

Predictably, Gogglebox has shown all the traits of a show that is suffering from its own success. In an attempt to strike while the social media buzz is hot, the show now clocks in at an hour where it used to be 45 minutes. This is clearly an attempt to sell a few more ads on a Friday night, but it is detrimental to the end product. For a show that is stitched together a couple of days before it airs, there simply isn’t enough material to cover sixty minutes. While it was fascinating to get some views on Ukraine, this was swiftly undone with a final segment on Grease, a film that we have been talking about for 35 years. Gogglebox, a show that has prided itself on being immediate and topical, need not tell us that Danny Zuko had me a blast, nor relay Sandra Olsen’s claims that it happened so fast. 

In short, Gogglebox has become yet another victim of our fad culture; attempting to produce something popular in great volume before we all forget about it about hear about the next up-and-coming drama from Tellyland. By doing this, the show will struggle to retain interest for a long period, and has evidently settled for a quick fix instead of that illusive concept in the 21st century: longevity. Gogglebox will be gobbled up by its viewers and eventually spewed out, leaving nothing but a faint taste on the tip of the tongue. 

Well? What else is on? 

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Catch-Up Clinic #1

In what may become a regular feature, I take you through the top three shows with which you should be catching up. Warning: contains weird-sounding but totally correct grammar. 

Inside No. 9

Catch Up On: BBC iPlayer

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Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton have been experimenting with anthology since the final season of The League of Gentlemen, and went on to hone this Hitchcockian voice in the Rope-inspired episode of Psychoville. The dark duo have long been experts at combining chilling psychological explorations with silly, almost Carry On style humour, and Inside No. 9 finds them at their subtle best. Drawing inspiration from Hammer Horror to Charlie Chaplin, each episode stands alone, telling one story in one location. In a TV climate full of big budgets, big names and big plot holes, Inside No. 9 stands out as tight, simple writing over a tight running time. Very few shows can maintain total interest over 29 minutes, but Shearsmith and Pemberton ensure this by drip-feeding plot points to the viewer and keeping them guessing until the credits roll. As expected in an anthology series, some stories will be more successful than others, and so far Episodes 2 and 3 (‘A Quiet Night In’; ‘Tom & Gerri’) have been the highlights.

What to say: The anthology series totally reflects modern society’s commitment issues.

What not to say: Is this like Through The Keyhole? 

My Mad, Fat Diary

Catch Up On: 4od

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The second series of this teen drama, based on the diaries of Rae Earl, has recently started on E4. As the title rather flippantly suggests, this is the story of an overweight, mentally ill teenager growing up in Stamford in 1996. I haven’t seen the first series of the show, but it was recommended by a friend and certainly has enough originality to make it one of the more worthy things beaming out of the telly box of late. My hesitancy about My Mad Fat Diary largely stems from how tonally problematic it is. Yes, it is an accurate depiction of an angsty, V-plate obsessed late-teenage life, but I can’t quite work out how exploitative the whole thing is. At times the show resembles the illustrated frothiness of Georgia Nicolson, but it can rapidly become uncomfortably dark. Rae (played superbly by Sharon Rooney) is irrational and lacking in any confidence, often envisaging a world where she is tormented and mocked as she walks down corridors. Put frankly, there are times when you want to give her a mad, fat slap round the face.

But, this must be the point. We see a much similar story in the fantastic Girls, where protagonist Hannah is equal parts endearing and infuriating. There’s just something about My Mad Fat Diary which doesn’t quite work, and it may be that the attempt to appeal to a teenage audience (bouncy soundtrack, primary coloured credits, hunky male lead) is completely at odds with the themes of the show and Rae herself, who is borderline suicidal.  

What to sayMy Mad Fat Diary should be compulsory viewing in all secondary schools. 

What not to say: Are there any gypsy weddings in this? 

Ja’mie: Private School Girl

Catch Up On: BBC iPlayer

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While My Mad Fat Diary attempts to ground itself in reality, this latest mockumentary from Chris Lilley is completely rooted in parody. Taking a character from Summer Heights High, Lilley explores the spoilt, bitchy, faux-glam world of private school girl Ja’mie (she added the apostrophe in Year 8). In every school (particularly in girls’ schools) there is one student who rises to the top of the social ladder without being in any way impressive: this is Ja’mie. Somehow she has become the pride of Hillford Girls’ Grammar School, largely by sucking up to the right people and shitting on the people who don’t matter. Ja’mie has cultured a sycophantic gang of prefects, without whom the queen bee would be nothing. While Chris Lilley is fantastically feminine (and almost invisible) as Ja’mie, it is her cackling, straight-haired cronies who create the true parody. Some have complained that Private School Girl is one-dimensional, and of course it is. Ja’mie and the girls speak and giggle in an endlessly rotating lexicon of boys, tits, lesbians, Facebook and Coke Zero, completely mocking the dramatic emptiness of the spoilt brat. To spend half an hour in Ja’mie’s company is exhausting, but we are merely getting the same experience as her Hillford peers: we are the incredulously gaping extras in the MTV music video that is her life.

What to say: After the sincerity of Educating Yorkshire, it’s easy to forget that teenagers can and should be mocked for their institutionalised idiosyncrasies.

What not to say: Is this Tory propaganda?  

the nightclub toilet: engaged, never vacant.

“If the club was, like, the main bit, the main plot, then the toilet is like a sub-plot to the main club. It’s like the underneath; the workings of the club.”

Thus spake Charlie, an 18-year-old from Crawley who would soon be off to study Psychology at Reading Uneh. If you were waiting outside in the queue, worrying about whether or not your Nikes count as ‘trainers’ and eagerly awaiting an evening with Channel 4’s new series Up All Night, you might not be expecting much more than a surreptitious grope. Superficially, this episode looked to be Channel 4 at its best and worst, as minicab-loads of Crawley folk descended on JJ Whispers nightclub for an evening of osculation and urination, all to the sound of your favourite MASSIVE CLUB BANGERZ.

And yet, once you navigated through the dry ice, peeled your feet along the Jaegermeister-stained dancefloor and entered the titular toilet, you soon realised that this was not your bog-standard sexploitation show, but rather fifty minutes of sustained, microcosmic genius. Student Charlie was right: in the toilet we see the unravelling of life itself played out in the guise of sub-plot. The nightclub is the Athenian woodland, where the shallow Helenas and Lysanders of suburbia can be lusty by moonlight; but in the toilet we meet the Mechanicals, and the true tragicomedy of the modern world.

Oddly, in another Channel 4 revelation, Gogglebox, The Nightclub Toilet was panned by the armchair critics. It seemed that the ‘normal’ families couldn’t see past the sleaziness of it all, and were too perturbed by bodily functions to actually listen to the narratives of the clubbers. Curiously, the most touching tales did not come from the clubbers, but from the people so affectionately known as toilet attendants. I was unaware that toilet attendants were not employed by the club, and make money simply from the tips they receive from choosing the right product. Some stick with deodorant and aftershave; others have branched out into lollipops and flip-flops. They are twentyfirst century rag-and-bone men, and some have even come up with catchy sales techniques. Desmond, a Nigerian national who has been working in nightclub toilets for three years, encourages tips with poetry like ‘No spray, no lay’ and ‘No splash, no gash’. Before you are outraged by this misogyny, consider that Desmond’s female equivalent, Dami (also Nigerian – apparently it is the easiest work for an African immigrant to acquire) entices her female customers with this ditty, sung to the tune of ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’: ‘Freshen up your punani, for your boyfriend!’ Unlike Desmond, Dami is at least promoting monogamy, and the extra pennies earned through a comedy song are vital.

Often, the toilet attendant has his or her own story to tell, but is instead resigned to the role of confidant(e), listening to the comparatively banal anxieties of the weekend clubbers. Off-shift, Desmond tells of his family plight in Nigeria: he has lost his mother, father and sister, and came to the UK, naturally, for a better life. Dami needs to provide for her children, and naively thought that after five years in the country, she would have more to offer them. Unfortunately the details of her story are silenced, as she listens with boredom to tales of online-dating and backcombing. At one point she has to rip some toilet paper for an inebriated reveller, too weary to wipe herself after urination. Demi nods and smiles, in a post-slavery ‘ahyessir’ mutation, static in her toilet, showing so much of the futile determination of a Beckettian heroine that she may as well be buried up to her neck in sand.

ImageHowever, all this pessimism is not entirely fair on the clubbers who, more often than not, are genuinely interesting to listen to and observe. Charlie picks up on this in his point about sub-plots, but the fascination of the nightclub toilet begins in its architecture. In the loud, sweaty, whirling environment of the dancefloor/bar, the toilet is a sanctuary: a quiet place which gives great opportunity for discussion, revelation and reflection. The presence of the toilet attendant even gives the space an air of confession, where one can puke up their soul as well as their vomit. The staff of JJ Whispers are quick to gender stereotype: in general, men take minutes in the toilet while gaggles of women chanting ‘Here Come The Girls’ spend hours doing their hair, reapplying their makeup and gossiping with strangers.

This stereotype is largely accurate, but this is not to say that men do not go through moments of self-discovery in the loos. Perhaps the most affecting of these moments came from military man Daniel, who was adopted at a young age and has only just discovered his cousin, Michael, with whom he was out on the lash. Michael looks up to his cuz, and having been dumped by his wife and estranged from his young son, he has decided to follow his new hero into the Army. Daniel, bathing in the praise, slurs his poignant advice back to his Padawan, telling him that Michael can’t join to the Army just to get over his missus, and must consider the effect on his son. But Michael won’t budge. He could be a builder, or a tree-surgeon, but all that is just ‘bullshit’ compared to slipping on an IED in Afghanistan and getting your limbs torn apart. Nothing will make little Mike Jr more proud that to see his daddy with a bionic arm, right? In their exploration of pride, masculinity, the motivations of war and the art of the man hug, Daniel and Michael are two Hemingwayan juggernauts in the already brimming literary maze that is the nightclub toilet.

Before Charlie’s concluding words (which began this essay), we see the student inspecting a twenty pence coin that has nestled in the urinals. It was there when he first soberly entered the toilet, and it remains at the end of the evening, a strange symbol of continuity amid the chaos in Crawley. In his drunken state, Charlie considers picking out the urine-stained coin as a kind of trophy, but instead leaves it, not willing to conclude his club experience with piss-soaked hands. The fact that this coin stays put for next weekend’s party people seems somehow mimetic of the shining nuggets of real life that can be found in this usually dirty environment. The nightclub toilet is a place where fools become wise men; where the vacant become the engaged.