Monday, March 26, 2007

TV REVIEW: North Korea - Crossing The Line

BBC4, 22.3.07, 21.00
Pa, what is eternity for? said the little boy. To see a cricket match played through, said Pa, if you believe the sage. Balls. Eternity is what comes between now and a show of North Korean art, anywhere.

If art is the manifest of fantasy, as opposed to the erection of marble monumentalism, then all of North Korean life is art. Korea is famous for introducing Buddhism to Japan, for early printing, for war. Its only artistic endeavours of international renown are those of self-delusion in which art's trickery of the soul is played out without canvas or stage or amplifier. Jim Dresnok, a GI who defected from the south to the north in 1962, is an adept in this art as as Daniel Gordon's excellent and deserving film quietly and forgivingly showed.

Dresnok was one of a handful of grunts who went over the 49th Parallel to the people's paradise that was so paradisiacal they wouldn't share it with anyone.. They kidded themselves that in a place where everyone else kidded themselves or were coerced to, they'd find a place to get along, and for the most part they did. They were caged in gilt, appeared in a feature as dastardly Yankees, were allocated looker wives usually purloined from around the world by Kim Il-sung's lovable intelligence agents). Things were great, they told the world, and by North Korean standards they were; tables groaning with colourful repasts in a famine-beset land, a communism where the deaths of thousands were the result of sins not of commission but of omission (protein, vitamins, tractor wheels). Kids got scholarships to good schools, hobnobbed with cadres and Party toadies. Millions, meanwhile, starved; Dresnok's explanation was the machinations of the US. The flapping of pig wings became deafening.

Daniel Gordon's fine film was crisp, informative, unclichéd and uncomplicated, the sort of uncluttered essay in visual discourse that Soviet film makers once wanted to aspire towards when the final victory of the proletariat was achieved. There was adequate testimony to what makes up the Korean peninsula - destruction, race hatred, orphaning, unimaginable discontinuities since Japan's 1910 colonisation that can surely make normal life a concept rather than a reality.

But there was little sentimental and obvious stuff, judgemental neither on commies or capitalist pigs. No grainy Pyongyang agitprop of singing Pioneers and ranked tanks. Dresnok, the last of the defectors still in North Korea, untouched by re-defection or death, is a slightly pathetic butterball of a man, whose frame is almost spherical and nearly fills the meagre matchbox of an apartment the regime ascribes him (the twin Great Leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, are in every shot). For a man who protests so much about the benevolence of North Korea, his consumption of fags and alcohol (three quintuples of what one assumes is the clear spirit soju (40% abv, est., at best) within a few minutes on a fishing trip with mates on the banks of the river in Pyongyang belies a litany of constant contentment. The smell of the little rooms, the staleness of the nicotine, doesn't come over; the footage of Pyongyang only has dilapidation in unfocused background. Dresnok attends a hospital (Pyongyang's best, one surmises), where the doctor, with telling frankness, informs the camera (but not the patient) that unless a change of lifestyle happens soon, the prognosis is bleak.

It is the nearest thing we get to the truth from the mouth of any one human throughout the whole hour; North Korea is a nation based on a primal lie and surviving on lies (much as is its southern neighbour, similarly a creation of an artificial political settlement). Dresnok's reality is similarly invented. He lives out his own duplicate deception of the addict twice over, that he stays in the pink with ciggies and drink. But in the end, the lies conceived by the human mind cannot overcome fundamental scientific truths - apples fall downwards, cars aren't alive, intelligent design is tautologous, Davina McCall must be locked up for the good of humanity, and too much booze and fags will kill you. Posters can lie; the body can't; Dresnok's wheezing, the fact he 'doesn't get out' because of the pains in his chest, tell you all you need to know.

Dresnok speaks Korean (a notoriously difficult language for westerners to master) but speaks plainly like the good ol' boy he still is. He goes bowling. There's little doubt that the life he leads in Pyongyang is a better one than that of a punk south of the Mason-Dixon Line. He may have a shotgun if he had a pick-up to stow it in. His disgust at the conduct of a co-defector, Charles Jenkins, when the latter flees to Japan to be with his wife, a Honshu abductee, who returned there and stayed during an amnesty in the mid-90s, is gruff and rough. 'Son of a bitch'... the presence of three North Korean military personnel, in sweat-soaked serge, might have prompted this, although one doubts it. It's hard to dislike Dresnok's straightforwardness. He believes - he really does. He believes in the Great Leader, as he once believed in Ike, in pinwheel hats for every American, in the efficacy of ducking and covering against nuclear assault.

He was, of course, kidding himself then, sure as he is kidding himself now. But he's happy. Who's complaining? Not me - in the Korean world of mirrors, I am not going to be the one throwing stones around.

TV REVIEW: The Trap: Whatever Happened To Our Dream Of Freedom

BBC2, 25/03/2007, 21.00

I met Isaiah Berlin once. He was a very little man. A wizened old tea-cosy of a human, near death, he was being helped into the Classic FM offices to choose his favourite pap. I was there to see the station's boss, who referred dismissively to the aged philosopher as 'that senile old fart'.

Berlin often was a guff-merchant whose tower was of purest ivory, it's true, but whether or not someone obviously quite so stupendously clever deserved this epithet from one of the epicene architects of British broadcasting's greatest-ever insult to serious music is moot. But maybe the old boy would have approved; after all, he was an inveterate apostle of freedom at all costs, including, presumably, the right to make rubbish radio to enlarge an already porcine waist for large sums of money. The last part of Adam Curtis's maddening, brainiacal three-part essay on modern political economy used Berlin as a base upon which to build a creaky superstructure for the way in which the unfettered freedom he puffed has itself become a tyranny that enslaves us all.

Little man - big ideas. Berlin's showstopper was that 'positive freedom' was imposed by supposed liberators who became tyrants ('freedom is so valuable it must be rationed' - V.I. Lenin (attrib.)) 'Negative freedom' meant we could all rub along if we are allowed to be free to rub along. What Curtis did not seem to address - initiallly - was the possibility that this apparent utopia of the collective and individual wills rearranges itself into new tyrannies. For example, what the neo-Berlinite freedom merchants never explain are phenomena like (I am paraphrasing) - why and how did the sluggish, dull, badly-written libertarianism of Francis 'End of History' Fukuyama get a deal instead of the sluggish, dull, badly-written collected thoughts of a forklift driver from Skokie, Illinois? How come Curtis made this instead of 1000 or so other capable film-makers? Or you? Or me? Or Alan Curbishley, or that cute chick from the chemists who looks a bit like Francoise Hardy? You, I, he and she are not realistically by most imaginable scientific means free to do this. How and why is an issue the libertarians never address. Neither does Curtis.

Jean Baudrillard (stick with me. This gets better) had his own take. It's that information overload has made the world one of mirrors, of meta-reality, in which nothing is actual and absolute and everything is relative and unreal. Curtis and crew's blizzard of sound and vision (no shot more than five seconds in length) seemed to have old Jean's hand on the directorial tiller. Synapse mock-up, time-lapse pupil dilation, the Blade Runner blush response syndrome; communism was signified by stock footage of prancing Sokol gymnasts, rumbling missile launchers, big shiny biceps; capitalism by stock footage of whizzing computer spools, white-walled Oldsmobile commercials, smirking Debbie Reynolds clones.

All it did was obscure a reality in a manner that the neo-cons love, because upon a meaning-free tabula rasa those with the biggest pencil can make the biggest marks; can have the greatest power. But there were some clunkers delivered as historical fact, as absolutes, fundamentals, but whose dodginess was too occluded to be avoidable; was Che Guevara really such a disciple of the celebrated Left Bank psychopath Franz Fanon whose idiotic neo-Nietzschean theories have probably caused as many Third World funerals as Aids? To mention him in the same breath as Fanonitism's cause célebre, Pol Pot (again one could hear the twang of an overextended argument's withered elastic). The utterly ludicrous assertion that the rise of neo-conservatism in Washington was driven by a desire to combat totalitarianism in all forms was so historically potty that one spent too long waiting for a refutation. It came, as it obviously had to, with the inevitable example of Reaganite support for Nicaragua's Contra murderers- but with a dodgy time-delay; all one remembered was the bizarre assertion and a counter-assertion appearing out of nowhere, and losing its power because of that. Other postulates, such as that which equated Blair's intervention in Kosovo as consonant with a global discourse of political economy (rather than the missionary nuttiness of incidental good intentions it actually was) were just very lazy. The hasty and over-busy attempt to fit the Iranian Revolution of 1979 into a convenient historical continuum and not an ahistorical uprising of neo-Wahhabite Islamic separatism at all was again simply playing too fast, too loose.

Curtis's overarching logic, when it eventually emerged, had an appeal; that Isaiah Berlin was wrong, and that attempts by crusaders to reform the world are not necessarily connotive of terror and severed heads and show trials. That those who are determined to let a thousand flowers bloom usually end up pissing on the daisies (Blair, Bush, even the original garden-trampler, Mao). But in getting there, his arguments are cack-handed, of a freshman naivety. Here is a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed student, whose essays are always calligraphically beautified with a brand-new Osmiroid, obsessed with style rather than substance.

Me, I made notes with a chewed-up Bic. But the very fact I did - the very fact that I noted Nietzsche, Baudrillard (and Alan Curbishley) proves at least that Curtis is doing something right. Give him a camera, give him the time - but make the subject tiny. And then make him free. He will do the dream of freedom proud.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

SPORTIN' LIFE: Freddie, You Let Us Down

Any self-aware soak recognises that Andrew Flintoff's dipso tendencies conceal a threat. But Paul Stump wants things set straight about the accused, the accusers - and their priorities

As a guiltily heavy consumer of alcohol, with habits I wouldn't care to pass on to any children I might have the misfortune to sire, I raised a tut or two at the 'Freddie Shipfaced' headlines. Tut tut. Silly boy (although why isn't there more noise about his ridiculous tattoos?). More than a tut, though? Nah. Flintoff has shown bad form, spoilt sloppiness, but that's all.

Apart from sex, there are few things to bring out the cliché in the British - especially in the British press - than boozing. Puritans and dipsomaniac apologists alike have their own stock responses. A) Role model behaviour, must we fling this filth in the face of our kids etc. B) 87 pints never did me/Fred Titmus/insert name of journeyman Test bowler here any harm, didn't David Boon sink 53 tinnies on the flight from Melbourne to Heathrow in 1989?

Both responses are equally as fatuous, as meaningless as showing that clip of George Best and the champagne waterfall whenever sport and alcohol are mentioned in the same sentence. Pat response encourages pat response; saloon bar punters rabbit on 'standards' all they wish before drink-driving 'the wife' home to Virginia Water or Alderley Edge or Llandaff at twice the speed limit; then there is the journalistic sodality that powers the whole discipline, newspapers and "new media" both praise the 'down-to-earthness' of the likes of Flintoff and carry ads for inebriatory wee-wee like Carling and Strongbow.

Flintoff was monstered for getting out of it with Ricky Ponting and Shane Warne back at New Year after the final nail was driven in the coffin of England's whitewash; he, almost nobly, argued that after England's Ashes win in 2005, England's players had generously pinted it with the humbled Aussies, supposedly the most focused and professional Spartans in cricket. There's no gallantry or panache in drunken incapacity; but unless devotion to exercising the old elbow outdoes dedication to exercising a given skill, or to one's own health, then this really is not an issue. If the sauce has had a deleterious effect on Flintoff, let us know when, where and how. Ponting, Warne, and (one presumes) their paymasters, realise this. Until then, let us issue a fatwa on all crud about 'letting the side down'.

If Flintoff has let anyone down, it's the silent majority of England cricket fans who loathe every genetic particle of the 'Barmy Army' whose foot-soldiers were apparently those righteous souls who papped the pedalo prang for the tabloids.

How so? It's regrettable that Fred didn't choose to take one or two with him on his moonlight jaunt and land his considerable bulk squarely on them in the Caribbean surf, preferably holding them under.

That these professional freeloaders and gin-slingers, whose inane chants have devalued every part of watching international cricket in England, have the nerve to dob in one of their icons and then be congratulated is a state of affairs so surreal it could only happen in Blairite England.

Looking for any aspect of modern life more annoying than The Barmy Army is as thankless a task as locating Maoist guerillas in rural Kentucky. There are honourable exceptions. I've met them. I've got pleasantly drunk with them (no pedalos were harmed). But this doesn't apply to the majority of these 'real fans', who 'spend thousands following England' were, we are informed, 'disgruntled' at the players' 'lack of professionalism' and so decided to act when Freddie went Awol. Ooh - bully for them.

These, presumably, are the same right-minded model pros and civic-minded paragons whose contribution to right and proper conduct is to embezzle or simply steal shitloads of cash, wangle months off work on fictional sickies, pull any bilk imaginable, change the subject when asked about it and then jolly it up in the sunshine for periods of time unimaginable to most people and then to annoy the locals by getting pissed as farts and singing 'no surrender to the IRA' all day in such historical touchstones as Kandy and Georgetown. These are Clarksonistas, shadow economy wallahs, chancers, deal-pullers, they know a thing or two, they've got contacts; someone in the SAS is a brother or an uncle. You want to show them respect, you do. They are the endlessly indulged; the sort of people who trash hotel rooms on 'team-bonding' weekends and who respond to reprimands from superiors, police officers etc with a drunken 'oddight, mate?' and get away with it. The sort of people who end up in Fathers4Justice because for once in their lives they've been told 'no, you can't'. The only crime in this twisted world worse than getting found out is owning up to being found out; Flintoff at least had the guts to do that. In spite of the Ashes hammering, that makes him more of a man than his former acolytes will ever dream of being.

'Respect' is a prole buzzword now, but the bulk of the Barmies, for whom the term is an article of faith, are in actuality worthy not of respect, but of nothing but contempt; so shallow are these arseholes that they will even jettison one of their own (Flintoff, with his artless body art, high disposable income and thicko's crop is pure Barmy). To pretend that this was a public service 'for the good of the team' that they purport to support, and not for a nice earner from Newscorp, as suggested by the BBC's cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew last night (and no doubt all cheerleaders for citizens' journalism/user-generated bollocks), is naivety gone haywire.

Freddie, if you can be bothered to trouble yourself about this (and I am sure that being a pro with an eye on your diet you have better salt cod to fry) you can redeem yourself. Yes, miss that extra pint of Marston's - if it means that you knock even just one of these 'supporters' or their media stooges to the Promised Land with a well-timed heave to leg, then cricket will be all the richer.

SPORTIN' LIFE: Bye Bye Bob - A Kentishman Remembers

Cricket's loss is great, but Bob Woolmer's death further damages a nearly-extinct regional identity, says Paul Stump

The character of Kentishness manifests itself negatively, in an inability to reconcile a geographical and demographic anomaly; Kent is the closest English county to mainland Europe, and quasi-paradoxically, all the more English for this reason. Proximity to London ensures that cropheaded criminal classes made good buy up its acres to erect shrines to their hardness, their shooters, their horrid wives; all of Kent is a safehouse for ill-gotten loot, booze, drugs, blades. Wanna get tooled up? Go to Kent. There's this geezer... there's always a geezer in Kent.

The Isle of Sheppey is like a chunk of the East End come adrift and stranded on a mudbank where the Thames saltily greets the Downs and Dogger. There's even a prison there, just to make the locals feel at home.

Yet see Canterbury, during summer buntinged like Honfleur or Deauville, look at the late-August light falling on village sodalities outside inns and taverns from Lamberhurst to Cliftonville and compare these scenes with those of petanquistes from Armentières to what the English stil call Agincourt. There is always so much time on a Kentish summer day.

Escapees from post-Revolutionary terrors found a welcome in Kent. Only Canterbury among all county cricket grounds could be so foppishly silly and aristocratic that it would allow a 200-year-old lime tree within the playing area (ball lodged in branches = 5 runs). Norman arches, the grafting of orchards and production of cider, shepherding techniques... across Kent, there are links with northern France. Do the swifts linger longer over the ponds at Guines or at Goudhurst? Discuss.

But in Kent things are changing, rapidly, and depressingly. The saltmarsh lamb of Romney, the cockles of the estuaries, are not to be found on the lunchtime menus of pubs owned by the estimable Faversham brewers Messrs Shepherd, Neame and Co (*1698). The Kentish accent is being dragged out to drown in La Manche among the rumble of the Dymchurch shingle. Which is why Kent cricket matters, and why Bob Woolmer's death matters. It's another little bit of my home turf gone.

Kent cricket as embodied by Bob Woolmer had the languid aesthetics of the monied and landed gentleman classes that the Normans first introduced to these islands- and that disestablishment and the Reformation and the Industrial Revolution never quite subdued in means-ends practicalities, the causes of subservience and duty. Woolmer, born of colonials in Kanpur, had time to cultivate his art. His mentor was another icon who combined a delight in the luxury of aesthetics, of art for art's sake, with the nagging matter of attention to honour and self-sacrifice. M.C. Cowdrey, of course - orotund and unlikely world master of the off-drive, whose feather-light waft powered the ball to the boundary simultaneously as a gesture and as an apology.

Read Proust's accounts of Balbec and Combray; one could be reading accounts of Mackenzie's or Bates's or Sassoon's descriptions of bucolic Kent, its shades of green as varied as its shades of Normanesque class division. Proust's childhood is that of a human being innocent of care, of money; a true amateur, whose ethos was underpinned by inevitable overtones of political reaction and naivety (Kent is still the most right-wing of county clubs, Woolmer was one of innumerable Boer allies in apartheid's darkest hours). Like Ravel or Fauré, like Cowdrey, his art was singular, exclusive, but could not exist without discipline. 'Gosh,' Cowdrey once told a journalist, in a line that could not have been bettered by Wodehouse, Rattigan or early Dad's Army both in its vernacular rectitude and admission of a truism, 'I missed that ball and it almost got me out. I must put that right next time.' Woolmer was, like Sergeant Wilson, leisured enough to not care very much about his profession but still to care just enough; he was a metaphor for all of Kent cricket, and to all of Kent full stop, where agri-labourers' cider rations were made from sweet, swiftly-inebriating dessert apples like those of Artois and Picardy, not the tart cider apples of the West Country.

Woolmer belonged to a generation whose cricketing gifts seemed to be exchanged for a transformation of the county; his illustrious team-mates, the hyperactive little chisel-chinned Christian wickie Alan Knott and the estate-agent-turned-assassin, the spin king of Tudorbethan suburbia, Deadly Derek Underwood (Petts Wood, can you hear me?) were grammar school at best (Knott was actually Sec Mod). They were not 'right', their alma maters were not Sevenoaks or Tonbridge. They resembled the busily efficient incursion of the M2 ('Medway Motorway') and the M20 ('Maidstone Motorway') into the Downs; here came the chavs worried the brigs and admirals in the KCC yearbook. These players, pros all, were, for their time, rare things of modernist beauty for men and women of Kent, like the stunning crimson-cream Park Royal-bodied AEC coaches the East Kent Road Car Co. ran from the coast to London, like the Pininfarina-inspired sleekness of the malachite-and-grey Maidstone and District buses that linked the Weald and the capital. Kent won the county championship in 1970, 1977 and 1978, mopped up one-day cups at will. Lovely, lovely, lovely; but the rot was setting in. You can't keep that up; you won't; they didn't.

Big Bob played for England, scored three centuries, stonewallingly stove off Lillee and Thomson at the Oval in 1975, sent the Ockers home with sore feet, then cut loose two years later for a couple of golden knocks off Pascoe, Bright and a subdued Thommo. He tried to be a trier, a pragmatist, but never quite made it, except in emergencies. For Kent he kept wheeling away his military medium pace and distributed beautiful boundaries like a beneficent Christ doling out loaves and fishes. Even doing simple things meant a tiny flourish; that was the Kentish way. By 1984 it was all over. Asif Iqbal's flamboyant strokeplay, Underwood's cerebral subtlety, John Shepherd's ingenious combination of nurdling and Caribbean brutality; despite the best cavalier efforts of Eldine Baptiste, Derek Aslett and Laurie Potter, Woolmer went the way of bygone Kent, an aesthetically-minded grandee overtaken by parvenu vulgarians, like Knole built on by Lidl.

Kent survives, and in more than just the memory of the Shell guides; Plaxtol, Borstal, Cooling, Underriver, Horsmonden resound more to the rhythm of the white horse's hooves than the redeveloper's rotovator. The tiles of the old Kentish Style and Winch pub chain are surviving still at the Man Of Kent in John Street, Rochester. Aravinda da Silva's magic bat bewitched St Lawrence, The Mote, Nevill in the late 90s where the stylish shades of Cowdrey and Asif still echo; awesomely mad and lanky Windie spinner Roger Harper and tubby clubber Matthew Walker ditto. Bexley boy Min Patel's inexhaustible patience made him the most classically Kentish spinner of the fin-de-siècle.

But it's hard to say goodbye sometimes - and Big Bob, you made up what it means to be Kentish, right and wrong. For that -and for all those cover drives - thanks, big fella.

TV REVIEW: The Trap - Whatever Happened To Our Dream of Freedom

BBC2, 18.3.07, 21.00
Freedom is all very well, but visual overload has Paul Stump harking back to totalitarianism

You'll love this, they told me about Adam Curtis's singlehanded and quixotic attempt at reintroducing intellectualism to prime-time TV. This is your idea of telly; big ideas, big themes. Back to the 70s.

But back in the 70s I was rubbish at maths and it hobbles you watching this show. It's maybe caused me to lose count of the number of arbitrary, wilful and downright bloody annoying jump-cuts in what was otherwise a perfecty reasonable endeavour. It might have been 142,737 - can't remember. As one reviewer put it, an intellectual LSD trip.

Curtis's schtick, from the get-go of this curate's egg of a curate's egg, has been maths. Maths, maths and more maths. This is a subject which, one fears, has never quite been quite as big a TV crowd-puller as, say, Jordan's breasts. I find this a constant; maths was never a hit in my school either; but if you compared Mrs Stokes the mathematician to Mlle Aillaud the French mistress, you could see why the class of 79 produced a lot of priapic male linguists.

But then again Curtis is above such triviality; his argument is of a didactic, sit-up-and-take-notes complexity that demands exposition over three episodes of prime-time BBC2. And it's a muscular one of admirable loftiness that defies easy summarising save in its extant form.
It goes like this; post-Cold War Western democracy has been governed by market-friendly notions of humans as genetically pre-programmed machines of self-interest, paradigms of the pleasure principle, thereby surreptitiously enslaving us all to the whims of the economy under the guise of pursuing the goals of self-betterment and development which the 'winning' of the Cold War were supposed to make a reality. Smart, eh?

This proposal has a firm logical base, but requires an exposition of spectacular intellectual élan, and extensive scientific testing. It gets neither, although Curtis may not be culpable. As his films indicate, the world in which we live is an increasingly complex matrix of discourses, a sphere in which time and money coalesce. To see through his argument, Curtis might well need the resources and time slots available in days of yore to, say, Bronowski or Clark. The fact that Curtis has got three hour-long slots is worthy of celebration in itself. Quite a feat; after all, this was three hours of BBC airtime that could have been given over to cross-country running or something presented by Ben Fogle.

Curtis's liberal credentials were granted more play in this second episode; but given the timescale he deals with, the bulk of talking heads, whether living or talking from the grave of the archive, are usually libertarians, Friedmanite freaks, laissez-faire nutjobs. Napoleon Chagnon, an 'anthropologist' who became famous for his footage of the Amazonian Yanomani Indians in the 1970s, had a boozer's conk as pitted as the moon; when asked if he's sure about a proposal, he responds, 'are you sure your father's your father?' before struggling to his feet and waddling offset in what might be termed early senility's version of a tizz.

In a way, it was a shame that more rational voices of the philosophy's and economics' centre-rightists weren't given enough room, like Erhard or Röpke, among the architects of the EEC. The libertarians blethered away, while anyone with a brain asked impatient questions and got ready with the remote control's 'off' button.

Yeah, we got the lot. Markets could define human happiness better than politicians, ignoring entirely the possibility that economy is itself a political phenomenon. Er... right. Solutions could be found 'not through politics' but by the market, by 'the objective power of numbers'. This was inadequately rationalised, but you knew the strands of 'thought' Curtis was reporting on. Slowly, his logic emerged, maybe a little shyly for some. Most damningly for the right-wingers, Curtis brought in their catastrophically oft-quoted 18th and 19th century thinkers who identified the market as the main agency of human interaction and in doing so had actually and unwittingly pre-echoed Karl Marx's entire worldview that the economic - indeed everything - is ipso facto political.

Curtis then twisted his knife; the mathematical rationalisation of human behaviour, he claimed, could be traced down through every level of British society. Like an 18th-century pamphleteer, his trail of logic went on and on. The declared victory of behaviourism over psychiatry in the 1990s, in which the cure rather than the cause of mental illness brought a new economic and social pragmatism to psychiatry was the tip of the iceberg. The development by the pharmaceutical industry of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibtors (SSRIs) like Prozac, were less altruistic cures than means-led tools to reconfigure the human machine for its reintegration into the market machine.

The obsession with numbers, Curtis persisted, drove New Labour obsessions with targets and performance, and with no default mode to offset failures in the mathematical mode of calculation, tbe problems (poverty, crime, health service defects, Kilroy at large in society) simply got worse. This entire conceit was, of course, logically untenable (Curtis made no mention, with admirable ironic restraint, of the lack of targets applicable to Blair's own performance record as PM).

To the present writer, Curtis's closely-argued thesis is sympathetic but not compelling. The fact that Curtis's historical interpretation is allowed to be the only counterblast to libertarian, free-market orthodoxy without resort to the arguments of postwar Marxist thinkers betrays vanity, ignorance or skimpy production values - or all three. The likes of Marcuse, Horkheimer and others have been before the cameras, as have Hayek and Popper. Let's hear them, too.

There were editorial flubs, again possibly engendered by lack of airtime - episode 2 catalogued the handover of fiduciary muscle by the Clinton and Blair administrations to the Fed and Bank of England in 1993 and 1997 respectively, and yet within half an hour claimed that politicians were 'without power to change society'. There are jerky and ahistorical switches between Whitehall soundbites and Beltway bribes. Why? Messy, messy, messy.

Worst of all, from TV's point of view, is that a programme which attempts to expose a deep and abiding cancer in the way our rulers see, and thereby shape, the world should be couched in a visual language that so echoed the postmodern, unregulated universe that they apparently endorse. The reality of endless consumer choice is symbolised as the all-too-real endless range of image. Curtis and his directors employed techniques had the rat-tat-tat modishness of corporate online and telly advertising. It doesn't preclude moments of quiet brilliance - for instance, the smiley emoticons on a police computer screen to denote a crime-solving target met. But if Curtis's visual imagination is an ironic gesture, it is wanting, and is taken to extremes of length.

In so embracing TV's visual immediacy and vibrancy, Curtis perhaps ignores the medium's own role in the processes which have shaped a society he so clearly, and rightly, abhors. There must be a better way than this. Let's just be thankful that even this eye-wearying stuff is at least being shown. Let's hope that by the concluding episode 3, Curtis and his crew contrive a calculus between text and image that makes this into the modern TV milestone it wishes to be.

Monday, March 19, 2007

TV REVIEW: Country File

BBC1, 18.3.07, 11.00
Take a deep breath. Mmmmm, springtime. The frost's melting off the osiers. Time to get out into the great outdoors.

The British - unlike the peoples of most civilised mainland European nations and through the historical accident of the Industrial Revolution - lost most of their congenital links with the land nearly 200 years ago and have very little idea of what it is for, aside of picturesque adornment or a regular source of edible ordure, some 'meat' and two 'veg'. Compare this with most Germans, French, Italians or Spaniards, who can still taste the soil in the sap of their family trees, and whose dietary preferences reflect this.

Time was that Country File was a -----you mantra, the weekly propaganda bulletin of the National Farmers Union; a whinge against Bruxellois diktat so predictable that you could set your seasonal clock to it. Why can't we feed cows the slurry from Norwegian drake abattoirs? Why can't we plough up SSIs? Why are professional pains in the arse allowed to protest against our generational crimes against the British palate and animal welfare we've committed since the Enclosure Acts?

No more. There's precious little about fistulous withers, John Deere injector valves, sarcoptic mange mites or set-aside on Sunday mornings any more. Despite the holdover of the forensically exact 'farmer's forecast', which offers the coming week's weather with a scientific juxtaposition of honesty and exactitude which shames mainstream bulletins, and with none of the accompanying care-and-share hand ballet, things are changing. Farmer Palmer, you are the weakest link. Now geddorff moy laaand!

Sounds perfect, doesn't it? Well, to conurbial media types, yes, which proves just how wrong the British get the country. Country File's makeover is not necessarily a good thing. The programme's 21st century cru is like the toytown revamp of the OS's 1:50000 maps, in which the countryside is rendered as a colour-coded, pictogrammaticised leisure amenity of picnic-site and viewpoint and public bog.

And with a surge in be-greened Islingtonians demanding news of how to live ethically, the right-to-roam, promiscuously-anarchistic ethos which has defaced our imagined triangulation (with the best of intentions) is now overtaking the only widely available show to deal with non-urban issues. With Michaela Strachan whooping just that tiny bit too much in various leisure and lifestyle features, things don't look good. So how is the makeover going?

Country File's brief is an unenviable responsibility and it must be said that the early-rising, shitty-fingernailed clodhoppers, from Dungeness shrimpers to Radnorshire post-bus drivers shouldn't fret too much. This is a confident little show inhabiting its own niche with the cockiness of a cuckoo, doing pretty well, but, as with most rural phenomena, needs to be watched and scrutinised closely for it to yield its best results.

TV, always London-centric, still has an overwhelmingly metropolitan and urban bias in terms if output which far outstrips the demographic dichotomy between urbes and rures. Media folk have always regarded the great outdoors as a bit freaky, one for exotic naturalists, shouty-scouty types and excitable youngsters (interestingly, John Craven, Juliet Morris, Diane-Louise Jordan, CBBC veterans all, are now Country File stalwarts). Matters of cultural identity are at stake out there in carrot-cruncher land, but you'd never know it if you watch TV. From the Tolpuddle Martyrs to the Peasants' Revolt to Wensleydale cheese cooperatives, these things make us up, who we are as much as the trials and travails of Wayne and Colleen. Similarly, depopulation, factory farming, the artificial deformation of countryside transport infrastructure from Beeching's mid-60s rail closures onward are matters of major concern to anyone interested in the evolution of society.

On this particular Sunday, Craven was in the Fens; aside of a fairly pointless few minutes on Ely Cathedral, we had a nicely-turned snatch of eel-trapping on the Great Ouse, a barmy Scouser bathing in the freezing surf off the Wirral's wilder western dunes, a thoughtful little lens into the factory farming of chickens, and - oh dear - Michaela yelping her way along the A35 through the New Forest. This, admittedly, was one of Country File's less auspicious episodes; at its best, however, it gently belittles or upbraids agribusiness, records rituals and files a living library of dying dialects and ailing accents from Suffolk to Ceredigion. It emphasizes occlusion, difference; TV's view of Britain is that seen from, or immediately accessible by, motorway, be it social habit, demography or culture, the 21st century as dictated by what can be bought in a Welcome Break service area (look at Abinger Hammer or Granchester or Penrith these days). Country File's remit is to forage over the boondocks, what's left.

There is, admirably, little time for 'inclusivity' - Country File's producers don't seem to adhere to a quota-driven pretence, to make the show more appealing to the young, to gays, to Asians, or to young gay Asians, to unipedal single mums etc. The palpable absence of a focus group on the editorial is as bracing as the Cambridgeshire sky towering above Craven's head. There have been sensible and undemonstrative features on 'immigrants' and 'outsiders' in rural communities. That's all - Country File has not yet been asked to remove to the pretend, infantilist world of Balamory, where all and sundry's differences, essentially urban, are miraculously meliorised.

One of Farmer Palmer's favourite sayings in Viz was that 'yon townees dun understand the woys of the cundrysoide'. Actually, what Country File is grasping towards is a social shift in thinking and demographic (housebuilding, ecophilia) which suggests that this is may be set to change. For better? For worse? The programme doesn't say - but that such issues still arise on terrestrial TV and are discussed rationally is a matter for some encouragement.

When Country File gets it right, it vaguely summarises what prime-time BBC2 used to do best, encouraging people to explore, to ask questions, to go out and make their own films. Like, for example, a 40 Minutes on a Dean Forest herder and his inbred ilk, a conductor on the Ravenglass and Eskdale railway in his final year of service, or a hairy-arse 18-wheeler pilots charged with taking the 160,000 bird-flu turkey carcases from Bernard Matthews to their fiery grave.

On the programme reviewed, there was nothing of the Fens' jealously-guarded reputation as the stock-car and line-dance capital of the UK, but last year the scandal of Morecambe Bay and the fate of poor immigrant cocklers wasn't flinched from, and the only farmers allowed to beef these days are ones in genuine need, the put-upon hill-herders of the Celtic fringe, but still the forelock is tugged maybe a bit too often. Precious little attention is paid to the national outrage of piffling agricultural wages.

There is the spectre of retreading the 1930s advertising vernacular on the countryside as a playground, commoditised as leaflet and poster. Strachan's fluff, like her leisurely spin in a blue BMW Mini and the flabby Liverpudlian pinkly fresh in the sunrise suggests that the prognosis is troubling. There's nothing about property prices in Stow-on-the-Wold yet, but features on pest control among the national cattle herd and the passage of various parliamentary green and white papers that affect thousands from shepherds to sub-postmistresses are dwindling from the programme. There is not remotely enough on the threat to Green Belt land. But it's not all bleak - there seems to be a birder tendency within the production team which pushes features on marshland habitats. And rightly so. Just because some nutcases wield shotguns and burn pallets and vote UKIP is no reason to either damn an entire demographic, in the same way as that a dreamt-of smallholding is any reason to idealise it.

Country File is managing to reflect this fludity and diversity. Just about. Like spring sunshine, make the most of it while it lasts.

TV REVIEW: Gotterdammerung

BBC2, 17.3.07, 21.30
OK, if it's rude to point, and thoroughly bad form to nitpick when productions of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen appear on mainstream terrestrial TV every decade and a half. Whoever sweated blood to get Keith Warner's Royal Opera House production of the whole 15-hour marathon on the box deserves a medal. But...if you stick it on TV, it had better be good.

It's always the problem is that undertakings like this - any excursion into what most people call 'heavy' - tend to attract nitpickers. Programme makers get all huffy - 'we give them what they want and it's moan, moan, moan'. Why?

Simple. Because these excursions are so rare that they discourage critical evaluation. Time was, when a classical concert, a ballet, or an opera appeared roughly once a month, comparative judgements were possible. If Kempff threw up into his piano at the start of Schubert's Wanderer fantasy or Callas farted during Lucia di Lammermoor's mad scene, we'd switch off and wait to see how Brendel or Schwarzkopf would cope, much as a particularly choosy rock fan would turn off The Old Grey Whistle Test if it wasn't up to scratch or if Poco were on (same diff, really). There'd always be something different next week. Now, even with the proliferation of DVD performances for a monied audience, lovers of serious music will lap up anything on terrestrial. It's an event; a confirmation that such people still exist as TV consumers like any others, and that's a serious need fulfilled. But the rarer these fulfilments become, the harder the task of the newer event to live up to the older.

And no event is quite like Wagner's Ring. I refer not to its bloated 900-minute length, astounding psychological and theatrical depth, intellectual rigour (and often, jaw-dropping silliness) but to its peculiar and singular televisual heritage. It was, after all, the subject of what was not only the greatest telecast of any operatic endeavour but a milestone in broadcasting any kind of theatrical production.

In 1980 the Eurovision director and classical/opera specialist Brian Large approached Wolfgang Wagner, the master's younger grandson, with a view to telecasting the 'centenary' production of the Ring first staged in 1976 at its original home, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Originally a succès de scandale, complete with post-curtain fistfights with steins and cudgels and the whole paraphernalia, it became a legend in the marriage of theatrical and operatic practises and performance. By 1980, the production had been perfected, the cast and conductor (Pierre Boulez) in perfect harmony. Stage director Patrice Chéreau's conception, basing the epic's action in a vaguely neo-Marxist re-imagining of Wagner's own 19th century milieu, had not been intended for TV but thanks to Bayerischen-Rundfunk (Bavarian Radio and TV) and Large's directorial genius, the result was a visual and dramatic triumph, playing the enormous Bayreuth stage and its endless sonic and visual possibilities for all they were worth. Chéreau had not conceived his production with TV specifically in mind, although a project was in the wind - in any case the result was, televisually, a triumph of serendipity, transforming one of the most heavy-handed works of art in western culture into an often gripping small-screen potboiler.

The BBC broadcast it as a soap, act by act, in autumn 1982, and then again in spring 1985, as a properly quadripartite epic, drama by drama. Chéreau's anachronism hardly counted; it was compelling telly. Heinz Zednik's turns as the crafty god Loge and the hapless dwarf Mime, Donald McIntyre's tragic gravitas as Wotan, the lord of the gods, and the incandescent sexual chemistry between Jeannine Altmeyer (Sieglinde) and Peter Hofmann (her brother Siegmund) in Act 1 of Die Walküre was simply unmissable. Even given the fuggy video stock of the time, the impact of these sensational recordings is still second to none.

Bayrischen-Rundfunk made a telecast of a 1987 Munich recording at the Bayrisches Staatsoper; a space-age set, moronically duff symbolism, wooden characterisation and characteristically dull conducting by Wolfgang Sawallisch let the whole down. Only then did it become obvious how astonishing the Bayreuth experiment had been. The New York Metropolitan Opera's employment of Large as head honcho behind a video recording of their 1988-90 Ring , acclaimed on CD, was cut, it seemed, largely through curtains of olive-green gingham. James Levine's faithful conducting and some great performances, notably Hildegard Behrens as Brünnhilde, didn't mean this was any more watchable.

There have been others since; but none have made it to British terrestrial TV.

Covent Garden's was a less than stimulating production and makes for less than stimulating TV, despite the fact that conductor Antonio Pappano displays a mature and compelling reading of the Götterdämmerung score that puts many older men to shame and that the playing of the Covent Garden orchestra has been exemplary throughout the Ring tetralogy.

This should by rrights be no place to dwell on Warner's inchoate abstractions which drew so much righteous fire from London's critics. But Warner's concern, as per most directors since World War Two is to emphasise the human relationships and intimacies between Wagner's characters, which he has done by inserting them into dark, claustrophobic sets; the BBC responds by framing them narrowly, singly or doubly. This of course may be to 'humanise' and further soapify them; Large had, however, already used camera angles and lighting to establish humanistic tensions in 1980, and did it fifty times better.

After the Bayreuth Festival reopened in 1951, Wieland Wagner, the composer's elder grandson, was credited with demythologising the operas by playing them out as Greek tragedy in huge blank spaces, subtly coloured with lighting, making the stage a psychological blank, like a Rorschach blot. The grandeur was still there; but now, humanising essentially superhuman characters has become claustrophobia, post-modernism, reductio ad absurdum.
There is also the underlying notion that reality becomes constrained by TV and the mass media. In opera and the theatre this tedious notion is now about 40 years old, and can't really be allowed to go on much longer. One cannot arbitrarily minimise the impact - macro or micro, within the drama or as a whole - of Waltraute and Brünnhilde's dialogue. One Valkyrie trying to persuade another to alter the course of history doesn't really work as a kitchen sink drama. Again, Large solved this problem wonderfully by subtle use of middle-distance shooting in 1980. Thank God, then, for the singing and playing - John Treveleyan's croaky Siegfried aside - are sublime, however, and the whole was presumably legitimised by the presence of the inestimable Wagner scholar John Deathridge taking a talking head role in the intervals.

Warner's approach also had the unfortunate effect of amplifying Warner's conceits, such as in Act 1, where we get a close up of a drugged Siegfried blabbing the idiotic pun about whether he can read 'güte Rüne' (good runes) in the gaze of the innocent girl Gutrune when his eyes are fixed firmly on the floor; and a supremely wilful interpolation of Gutrune's villainous brother Hagen trying to get off with her (not even hinted at in Wagner's libretto, but only a Wagner bore would go on about the liberties taken by Warner's ugly and shapeless vision that can best be compared to being stranded all night in a particularly ill-designed airport terminal). Not even the magisterial bass of John Tomlinson as Hagen - one of opera's blackest-hearted and creepiest villains, comparable only to Iago - can redeem this.

At the end of Hagen's malevolent gloating at his plot to win back the all-powerful ring ('Hier sitz'ich zur Wacht'), Warner and his BBC henchmen clearly rip off Chéreau/Large, with Tomlinson, crazed of eye, staring dead into the camera as the orchestra thunders out.

TV's visual vocabulary, especially that of drama, has evolved in the generation that's passed since 1980, and it's probably superfluous to try and estimate the influence of those changes on this Götterdämmerung. The result is less than perfect - quite why a soprano as statuesque as Lisa Gasteen is meant to coquettishly sneak up on a dozing Siegfried at the start of their brief but passionate love duet at the beginning of Act 1 seems to owe more to cinema and TV than any kind of reality, whether attached to Nordic antiquity or the undefined period of the production's action. She doesn't creep or sneak, she tittups - sorry, but she tittups (oh, look it up).This seems a dramatic fancy as hidebound to our time, as mannered and and as aspicked as the 'Bayreuth style' initiated by the composer's widow, Cosima, when she started directing Wagner's works at Bayreuth from 1886 until 1908. Gasteen's no cartoon horned-helmet Wagner fatty - just large, but the limited camera angles either capture her from the waist up (usuallly with too much sidelighting) or from several stalls back. Warner, and the BBC, do her no favours - a shame, for her voice is a fine instrument.

Since Bayreuth 1980 - when the curtain calls lasted for a world-record 90 minutes (this is a conservative estimate)- there have been comparably great audio recordings of the Ring, notably Levine's in New York and Thielemann's now underway in Berlin. There have been memorable productions (notably by the late Götz Friedrich). But in terms of TV, Large's achievement is unapproachable, and it continues to set standards for operas of much smaller dimensions in terms of how characters and sets are specifically framed, how duets, quartets and ensembles are set up etc. Large, and the directors in Europe that he'd learned from had been pupils of those who'd studied with great men of dramatic visuals, with Roller and Rheinhardt, with Cocteau and Stanislavsky.

Much TV opera of the 1980s was fluff, made through the offices of powerful record companies such as Deutsche Grammophon and Sony; they emphasised period productions (Strauss's Arabella, Weber's Freischutz) at the expense of visual or dramatic audacity. They played to a safe, undemanding mid-Western US and Japanese audience. Some of this populist crap worked surprisingly well, occasionally to great effect - Catherine Malifitano made a very convincing mid-90s Tosca, leaping to her death against the skyline of the eternal city. Most opera on TV was a dud, though, and little seems to have changed; and even with a bizarre if flawed production like Warner's, it comes across as frankly ordinary telly.which appeals less to an audience brought up Dynasty than that brought up on 24. Whatever, the visual dynamic of TV is not one that, at the moment, fits well with opera. Soundbiting from the likes of Philip Hensher (perfectly capable, but expensive per minute) makes for intellectual brownie points but it doesn't quite compensate. And it's a bit crap when one could commission thinkpieces from the likes of New York's Andrew Porter or pundits with forbidding foreign names like Carl Dahlhaus or even Nike Wagner, the admirably iconoclastic scion of the master) seems a cop-out.

Will a teenager view this as an access ramp into Wagner's mad genius as did those lonely refugees in the small hours in '82 and '85 regard that great Bayreuth landmark? Let's hope so - because, as the Ring's very dimensions suggest, they ain't gonna get many other chances. The tragedy is that without a sizeable budget for DVDs they ain't gonna get to compare it with much else and as for the likes of Lohengrin, Parsifal or Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina, forget it. Ditto Lear, Hamlet, Godot. Anyone remotely into anything beyond hose intellectial architecture exceeds the dimensions of Castaway had better get used to this - yep, Michael Portillo as your catch-all highbrow host as well.

If someone writes about these broadcasts thusly in a quarter-century's time, hell, there's some kinda god. This will have done its work.

Play it again; I'll still be complaining - but thank God there is still something to complain about. Just play it again. And hope for something better next time.

Saturday, March 17, 2007


Not usually too hot on spotting the old Colemanballs, but here is the (normally excellent) Jonathan Davies from Wales u-20/England u.20 last night,; 'he might want to ask Ian Redman what he thinks of the Italian ref in the tackle department'.

Inside knowledge, JD?

MUSIC: Rachmaninov 2 Rediscovered

Lotta fuss in the Bellylaugh about Geoffrey Norris's rediscovery of the original manuscript for Rach 2 'yielding lots of thrilling secrets'. Unfortunately in the story (March 15) either Mr Norris or a sub editor seems to have left them all out. It's up to the redoubtable Marin Alsop on Tales from The Stave (R3, 20.3) to fill us in on what these might be....

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

MUSIC: Hattogate: Knives Out

David Hurwitz, editor of, isn't one to pull his punches. Oof! Ouch!


How disappointing. William Barrington-Coupe, husband of Joyce Hatto and head of Concert Artist recordings, has (apparently) taken the easy way out. In a pathetic letter to BIS owner Robert von Bahr, he claims that he was motivated to doctor his late wife’s recordings to hide technical imperfections and gasps of pain as the suffering woman labored through the virtuoso thickets of such works as Messiaen’s Vingt Régards, Albeniz’ Iberia, and the Chopin/Godowsky Etudes. And if you believe that, I hear the Brooklyn Bridge is up for sale at a very good price.

The “I did it for my wife” excuse was always on the table; indeed, it was the simplest explanation, but it won’t wash for a number of reasons:First: It does not explain why Barrington-Coupe did not simply come clean after his wife’s death. Committing a petty crime out of love for a dying woman is understandable, maybe even admirable in a twisted sort of way. Continuing and compounding the ruse for months after her passing, though, certainly is not.

Second: It does not explain the sheer scope of the enterprise: a few recordings, maybe, but over 100? I think not. Can anyone conjure up the image of Ms. Hatto on her death bed, wracked with pain, asking her stricken husband how much she would just love to record the complete Dukas piano music before the inevitable end? A dozen or so truly excellent examples of her art (real or not) should have been more than sufficient to cement her reputation as a cult favorite, and ease her passing. The very comprehensiveness of the project hardly smacks of love as much as it does greed.

Third: On the assumption that the solo recordings truly were fabricated in order to hide Ms. Hatto’s waning keyboard prowess, how then do we account for the phony concerto recordings? It may well be that Barrington-Coupe could explain to his wife that the mistakes and vocal grimaces were removed by the magic of digital editing, but did a presumably serious artist such as Ms. Hatto accept the existence of concerto recordings that she obviously knew she never even made? She may have been suffering, even delusional, but that’s asking a bit much.

Fourth: Indeed, this raises the very interesting issue of Ms. Hatto’s complicity in the whole enterprise. Remember, she authored many of the booklet notes. Was she the real writer? Did she only write notes for productions in which she actually took part to some degree? If not, was she even aware of the many, many releases that do not feature her literary contributions? Inquiring minds would like to know.

Fifth: Barrington-Coupe’s claim that he chose recordings on the basis of their resemblance to what his wife would have done (or did) also rings hollow. If so, let him produce those original master tapes, as I suggested previously, and let us compare them to the stolen material. Did those recordings ever exist?

Sixth: The selection of labels from which to filch the music, emphasizing non-British artists and smaller companies with limited distribution, positively reeks of a very carefully calculated, long term plan. It goes beyond the sort of caution required merely to avoid detection at home and please a dying woman. Combined with the vast scope of repertoire selected, it is impossible not to conclude that the intention was not merely to give comfort to a terminally ill artist, but rather to create “the greatest unknown pianist who ever lived” out of whole cloth. Whether this particular combination of cynicism and megalomania originated with Barrington-Couple, Hatto herself, or a combination of the two we may never know, but it was hardly the product of a soon-to-be-bereaved husband’s despair and desperation. It strikes me as far more likely that Barrington-Coupe may have begun by splicing in a few passages here and there to spruce up his wife’s defective recordings, but once he realized that he could get away with it, other motivations took over completely.

Seventh: I mentioned in my previous editorial that the “victimization” mentality is inherent in the arts community today. Most artists feel neglected; most express frustration at the lack of attention given their concerts and recordings; most feel a sense of entitlement; most don’t steal in consequence. Everyone who has come into contact with Barrington-Coupe will attest to his frequently uttered devotion to his wife and her artistic integrity. If this were real, can anyone seriously imagine a scam of this magnitude as consistent with Ms. Hatto’s own true feelings, even as her theoretically loving husband understood them?

Eighth: In all of my communications with Barrington-Coupe, he has been quick to mention his own dicey health (constantly), the injustice of the world, the inconstancy of the public, and in general to complain expansively about ills both imagined and real. He already tried the “evil British national character” and “malicious sabotage” excuses. This one sounds suspiciously like the next one down on the list.

Finally, let us not forget that Barrington-Coupe presides over a catalog of recordings that encompasses more than those of his wife, including much of the legacy of Sergio Fiorentino. The provenance of those recordings, and any others in the Concert Artist inventory, comprises a chapter yet to be written. This latest, pitiful attempt at damage control only begs the question of what else remains to be discovered. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a conspiracy theorist, nor do I believe that Barrington-Coupe is any kind of diabolical genius. The sooner this business ends, the better.

Still, like most of his ilk, Barrington-Coupe seems to have a flair for finding and exploiting the cracks in a flawed system, and for preying on people’s trust and sympathy. One thing, however, is certain: he is a liar, and not likely to change his stripes in a sudden fit of remorse. He is walking through a door that was opened for him, as he seems to have done throughout his career, and the fact that his excuses may appear reasonable does not make them truthful.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Comic Relief - And Counting

The Big One. Just 12 months ago some of us more vinegary types held out hopes that it might be the Last One. But we'd obviously underestimated the sheer indomitability of human goodness, or Comic Relief as the BBC now styles it. It's analoguous (they wish) to the sequence in Yellow Submarine where just the power of music and fuzzball nowhere-man Jeremy commanding flowers to 'bloom! bloom! bloom!' purges Pepperland of the frowning scourge of Blue Meaniedom. All the Babbitty bullcookies, but without the imagistic or narrative imagination.

One of the reasons this annual disgrace, whose chief achievement is to heroically combine the duping of the credulous, emotional manipulation, the denigration of comedy and affronting the intelligence survives is that it has simply stuck its fingers in its ears and yelled 'I can't hear you! I can't hear you!'. One of its many Blairite traits, along with nauseating cod-sincerity, touchy-feeliness and emotional incontinence is its obsession simply to keep going until the cynics run out of ammo, that criticising it is even more vacuous a waste of time and effort than the whole shebang itself. 'They'll get bored and go away,' is the rationale the cheerleaders use to belittle the cynics. Well, some of us are bored shitless, but that doesn't mean we should go away.

And this year, our work might be done for us. This year, the bulldozing never-mind-the-curmudgeons approach is bordering on the hubristic. In an era when the BBC has become a synonym for self-referentiality to the degree that entire news stories are cooked up around forthcoming broadcasts (and not those halfway-important ones that might imply that a new kind of 100%-mortality NSU transmittable by sitting on bus seats is spreading down from Norway or that only pod-grown replicants will be shortlisted as prospective parliamentary candidates), Comic Relief is taking things to Hall of Mirrors levels. Text us about x, on which y from z will appear to tell us how you can contribute by watching BBC2 where a, b, c and d from programme e battle it out with the cast of programme f for the right to appear on a special Comic Relief edition of programme g during a special Comic Relief evening of... infectious, isn't it? And that's not to mention the ad-breaks - come on, let's not dignify them with any other term - which already clog the schedules with self-puffery, even without the addition of a silly red nose.

There have been times in the last few days when I've got a kind of lens into what North Korean telly must be like; totalitarian, monotheistically iconized, so relentless is the nose. It is quite possible that at no time in March has a single second of broadcast air not been occupied by a plug for Comic Relief on either a BBC TV or radio channel. Even Radio 3 have got in on the act - pledge some dosh and choose your music. At least some rational soul had the guts to stick out for a particularly ascetic spoiler in the midst of all this, programming Liszt's solemnly ascetic cycle of piano pieces Via Crucis in the midst of it all.

CBBC in particular has become so obsessed with Comic Relief that were it a human being it would be committed to a secure unit. Most worrying about this is that the CBBC brand has, in common with most brands aimed at the young, become a kind of primer, where future consumers' behaviours are shaped much in the same way that youngsters magazines d'antan helped keep the press fed with appropriately-trained buyers. Two decades ago, if you bought Shoot, for example, you were trained to read football as a series of tabloid headlines ('Chivers Riddle', 'McLintock- I Stay'); to get Jackie meant you bought into an entire life-pattern. Nowt changes. Todat we have (even as phone-in TV reaches its reputational nadir) a buttock-clenchingly horrible daily update on Comic Relief Does Fame Academy (all in a good cause, and on cable again at 7!). Zoe, the blond pouter out of Blue Peter, belts out a torch song... Ray Stubbs massacres Ray Davies's 'Lola'. The overriding message is no longer that this gooid-sport mucking-in is sociallly acceptable behaviour. Nope, it's the only kind of behaviour. That if you don't participate in Comic Relief through these cynically media-manipulated means, then you're no-'count. This from a brand that would normally otherwise pay lip-service to tolerating difference, that normally bashes bullying in all its forms.

There is of course hope; if as many kids today hold much of the targeted BBC output in the same contempt as did my generation, then the Red Nose manufacturers may just be on a hiding to nothing. And, interestingly, despite the fact that Ray Stubbs' karaoke croakery has received as much terrestrial BBC airtime as the most significant vote to reform the House of Lords in, er, 96 years, Comic Relief seems, as yet, conspicuous by its absence in the public domain. My local attracts more than its fair share of hearty and loud inadequates -nature's bucket-shakers and bed-pushers - but The Big One doesn't seem quite Big enough to attract even their attention. Well, there has been one reference to it in the saloon. Now let me see... oh yes. 'Here we fucking go again.'

Taken To The Limit

The ballyhoo of phone-line rip-offs and general TV deception may on the surface confirm hip prejudices about the medium and its audience, but in reality anyone who cares about television's future should be feeling uneasy, argues Paul Stump

In Frank Conroy's oddball memoir of growing up in 1950s smalltown America, Stop Time, there is a disturbing tale of how an entire group of boys is entirely taken by an itinerant conman. It's heartless but absolutely compelling as a yarn, because the reader becomes a voyeur and is as irresistibly drawn into the stitch-up as the victims. It's a bit like that with TV these days. Hence the mighty furore in March over a string of scandalous revelations concerning near-criminal deceptions employed by many daytime TV shows which cost viewers substantial sums in wasted phone calls to pre-rigged or simply unregulated competition phone lines.

Mark Lawson - inevitably - was the one getting his beer money in at The Guardian with a long piece in the Media section about this spring's plethora of scams - phone-voting as bent as a nine-bobber, "Dr" Gillian McKeith's made-up qualifications, how in God's name Brainteasers' Alex Lovell, that bimbo's bimbo, ever got a job in TV in the first place. Lawson discusses the tensions between the amorality of such institutionalised wool-pulling and the reaction to it. Was the 'outrage' that greeted the whole sorry shambles indicative of just how ignorant and suggestible TV audiences had become in that they bought into the lot - or how sophisticated, in that they raised a rumpus because they saw through it all? For Lawson, what it boiled down to was the simple and oft-asked staple question of all TV folk: is the viewer stupid or not?

What 'outrage' there was, though, in public bars and around water-coolers, seemed in the present writer's experience to be rather low-key. And it was the defensive, shamed fury of being found out, of appearing stupid rather than merely being stupid. Most of us are terrified of seeming no-'count - so common in a democracy - and having it very publicly advertised. This is comparable to the nightmare of every secret illiterate, of having a newspaper thrust under his nose with the demand what does this mean? They react badly, sometimes violently.

Likewise, if you set up a Bunco Booth and fiddle someone out of their weekly wages, their outrage might be considerable, but is only really likely to prompt a punch in the mush if the sleight of hand is suffixed with a 'got you, you stupid cunt'. To this end, those who make programmes manipulatively depicting the blameless or defenceless as credulous and thick are likely to face a more righteous uproar than those who collude in the disgraceful financial hoodwinking of a mass audience. The likes of Chris Morris making Arndale plodders look like cretins is far more likely to raise hackles than playing fast and loose with phone lines, even when it comes to taking people's money under patently false pretences.

There is another school of thought; that the public, or substantial portions of it, are actually wiser than we fancy. That many people know that televisual pigs' number twos like X-Factor are fixed, contrived or generally fraudulent. To be cynical doesn't require a degree in media studies, after all. Many unmonied and uneducated people are serial victims of remorseless exploitation in their everyday lives, from chancers flogging hooky space heaters/Uzbek DVDs/pig-piss perfume to rubbish wages or inadequate benefit payments - and so they grab a slice of this black-economy action, they learn the ropes and the dodges, indulge in scammery themselves, whether for kicks, bunce or subsistence.

After all, where can the eye fall in modern life upon that which is innocent of deceit and profiteering? The United Kingdom is the world capital of spin, corporate-speak, doublethink; is it any wonder we are one of the planetary hubs of the publicity industry? Here is the place to launch your very own egregious rip-off, where, as joyful bulletins of flatlining inflation fall across the media like confetti, one can pay #202 for a train ticket from London to Manchester, stump up for a national stadium umpteen times over budget and umpteen years overdue, where boardroom salaries are rising 488% faster than those on the shop floor. Why else did London get its Olympics save for the fact that it is now even-more chancer-friendly than that grafter's paradise, Paris? And what of Iraq, an era-defining black hole of public money, lives and political reputations whose premise and continuing conduct are both based entirely on shameless falsehood? You'd have to be terminally obtuse to let that whopper pass you by.

And yet, the perpetrators of these sharpest of practises get away with it, seemingly with impunity. That's the Thatcherite law of the economic jungle for you - adapt or die, and hang the scruples. To paraphrase Martin Amis in Success, everyone is on the make - everyone has a line - everyone accepts we have to get nastier to get by. Fact of life, mate. So get in and grab yourself some action.

Let us not forget that there is, after all, a gigantic and shabby abdication of responsibility - a swindle, in other words - at the supposedly unimpeachable antipode of the scams, something that affects not just the addicted punter panting at the handset or the granny trying to win enough to feed the lecky meter. According to 'New' Labour's stooges, regulatory bodies Ofcom and Icstis were supposedly running a 'converged' model of regulation for the new century's 'converged' media and generally be savvier and sharper about the way they ran the broadcasting world were butter-woudn't-melt content enough to let the whole business chug further on down the sewer. In other words, they conned us. Ofcom and Icstis look like another broken promise, another feint, another betrayal of trust.

The hard-hearted will scoff; what do you expect? After all, in such a climate, the feckless, doltish and dense deserve no sympathy. Fuck 'em. Maybe; but should this approach motivate programme-makers? To sneer and wash one's hands of the affair's gamey morality is as ultimately meaningless as pulling the wings off flies. That millions buy lottery tickets, believe that copper bracelets cure arthritis, watch Charlton Athletic (guilty as charged), vote Conservative etc is depressing, but for television to so ruthlessly swizz the innocent and the ignorant for money is pushing it. Yes, it's been done before - any student of the medium can recite verbatim the US scandals of the 1950s, culminating in the notorious case of Revlon's puppeteering of The $64,000 Question in 1959. But sharp practise now threatens to become endemic. Whether people get mad about this or not is becoming immaterial - for those that care about TV, is it really worth sniggering at the impotent rage of a few chavs and trogs who've been casually done over when the medium we profess to love is dancing on a volcano by engaging in spivviness shabby enough to shame a travelling fair?

If trickery and twistery are a Fact Of Life and Del Boys of whatever social stamp (Sugar, O'Leary, Branson) are lauded for Getting Away With It and Good Luck To Them, people are nonetheless still jolted not by daylight robbery and plain lying but when this unpalatable state of affairs appears proven to them in such a public forum. After all, all this has come about thanks to the indecent bogarting at the profiteers' trough by good old friendly reliable television, the welcoming box in the corner.

Lawson astutely points out that TV's success arose partly because it traded on a veneer of trustworthiness. Its very novelty compelled a generation to believe in TV's essential goodness. Newscaster Walter Cronkite was indeed sold by CBS as 'the man you can trust'. But TV has also sowed more than a few seeds of doubt as to its fitness to inhabit any kind of high ground; from The X-Files to 24, it has oxygenated the culture of conspiracy theory, including those implicating the medium itself in evil or skulduggery. the aforementioned Morris, Steve Coogan, Sacha Baron-Cohen and others have all helped undermine the old idea of TV as an Olympian paradigm of integrity and moral-intellectual gravitas. Charlie Brooker has made a career out of it. They have undertaken this with often laudable panache, but is merely saying 'I told you so' by holding up a mirror at TV's vanity and double-standards and disparaging its audience always healthy? Faith in TV doesn't need to haemorrhage away any faster as relativism rushes in - 'whose truth is it anyway?' is becoming as distressingly familiar a refrain in television as in literature and history.

Yes, there are potential upsides from the springtime of the scams - enough people may have been shamed by their cupidity into never again calling, texting or emailing a TV programme, thereby relieving the medium of one of its great modern blights. Some might even complain vocally about the whole shameful rip-off that 'interaction' has become. But if the scams further harm the delicate ecosystem of checks and balances which maintain TV as ostensibly a vessel of knowledge and enlightenment, we stare into an abyss where trust in the tube is entirely optional and entirely fluid.

As the scams unravelled, there came news almost as depressing for those who regard TV as not simply by definition an idiot box (I know. We're sad. But bear with us. Just because it's an impossible dream doesn't mean we shouldn't try). Al Gore announced that his goodhearted but misguided charter for piped libertarian lunacy and semi-literate polemic, Current TV, an online channel largely governed by that dread spectre, 'user-generated content', was coming to Britain.

Guardian staff and their infallibly optimistic ilk always get boners for this sort of shiny techno-piffle; but the futurological faith of the new media zealots in a happy-clappy, self-regulatory Socratic forum for innovative and interesting ideas is probably as misguidedly simple-minded as those who believe the ghastly Saturday Kitchen goes out live or that Christmas specials are actually recorded in December with real snow (a touching article of faith for Old Man Steptoe, one recalls). Not for nothing do revolving-eyed far-right ranters in the blogosphere crave the free-for-all promised by viewer- and opinion-generated TV, for it hastens their longed-for postmodern Armageddon when subjectivity takes precedence over objectivity in broadcasting.
Why? Because it not only offers primus inter pares status for those who can best afford to access and control the means of production but also foregrounds unreason over reason, feeling over intellect, manipulation over considered scientific argument. It's TV where the motto 'Nation shall speak peace unto nation' is replaced by Tony Blair's quasi-Nietzschean dictum 'I only know what I believe'. In this who-cares never-never-land, ideas and values, irrespective of the rigours of scientific testing, become not just reified but commodified in a telly-land reduced to a mentalist meta-market where intelligent design goes up against evolution, Holocaust denial plays historicism, Banksy and Swampy challenge Leonardo and Copernicus, Kenny G goes to penalties with Ornette Coleman. Without faith in the medium, without reinforcement of a dedication to the highest standards of practise and performance, then its power to entertain, amuse and inform is doomed. Give TV its head and it becomes a forum for nutjobbery and snake-oil sales, where the loudest shouter prevails, in which things fall apart, in which nothing is real or provable, in which we all become children again, like those that Conroy's conman, who knows the very real and very unrelative power of money and bullshit, so blithely bilks.

I'm sorry - but those who court this distasteful prospect are just as stupid as the poor saps who rang Richard and Judy after the phones went dead. It's not just fuming proles twisting in the wind that a moral vacuum in TV concerns - when core values go west to this extent it is all viewers, all users, all programme-makers. And denying that is the stupidity we should really be worried about. Otherwise we'll all be taken.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Young Aquarians - How Hippies Hijacked Kids' TV

Paul Stump on how prog rock, standing stones and frilly nighties shaped teatime

In the beginning was the word - and only the word.

Literal-minded Bible students and post-structuralists need no reminding, but this dictum also applies to early children's TV. When drama series were first screened in the 1950s, the source material was predominantly canon-led. For producers who wanted to bring drama to child TV viewers, it usually wasn't so much a question of 'adapt or die' but 'adapt or don't bother'. That meant extant books and plays, and, just maybe, something lifted from the Hotspur and its ilk. The Silver Swan (BBC, 1952) was one of the few designed-for-TV exceptions, although its polite comportment through the drawing rooms and parlours of history could have been lifted from any number of E.Nesbit scenarios.

Children's literature was defined as a handful of works, mostly prose - Heidi, Huckleberry Finn, Puck of Pook's Hill, Just William (all BBC, 1951-57) were among those small-screened. The likes of The Wind In The Willows were too anthropomorphic, Westward Ho!, Treasure Island, Kidnapped and their buccaneering ilk too costly to stage unless they were shunted into adult time-slots after the Toddlers' Truce. Nonetheless there was the occasional populist standby of the comic strip adventure. Although Queen's Champion (subtitle; 'Loyalty and treason on the eve of the Armada', BBC, 1954) was another made-for-TV effort, it was massively derivative and could have come from any number of boilerplate Boys' Own storylines.

This, then, was how the dramatic narratives of childhood were presented; through the tried and tested prose frames of romp, swashbuckler, pastoral or girly-friendly domestic fantasy. This did not of course make for bad television; but the medium was as yet too unformed, too wanting in confidence to imagine a reality of childhood that reflected its time, its moment - a childhood in which a recognizably contemporary culture played a part.

Of course, until the late 1950s, it could be argued that there was no such thing as youth culture. And how to reflect something that wasn't there?

Within a decade of rapid-fire change, however, TV had matured, and its audience matured with it. TV drama had evolved from Shute's and Rattigan's aspidistra-hung interiors of demobbed PTSD to sweary metropolitan bedsitters steeped in hash and Oedipal envy. Suddenly there was such a thing as pop culture, such a phenomenon as 'the media'. The exponential, HP-driven growth in private TV ownership ensured that, and children's programme makers were hardly willing to be left behind in taking the new medium forward. Children's range of experience now extended beyond the playground and the schoolroom and there were plenty of inventive people willing to work with that.

TV's protean nature and futuristic novelty attracted creative thinkers in the late 1950s and 1960s the like of which the genre has never seen since - Terry Nation, John Howard Davies, David Attenborough, Huw Wheldon, Jeremy Sandford are but a handful plucked in a trice. TV was part of a tirelessly innovative time - and children's programming didn't escape this inevitable historical process, with brilliant innovators like Anna Home and Dorothea Brooking in the vanguard.

The result was some of the most daring kids' TV ever - step forward, Magpie, Magic Roundabout and Vision On - and while explicitly countercultural concerns couldn't be snuck into the post-Jackanory slot -no Auntie Janis Joplin or Uncle Tim Leary here, thank you very much - circumstances conspired to allow it to seep in like sulphates in a pale ale Party Seven. The changes it wrought were extraordinary, although little-analysed today.

The UK's counterculture, it's unanimously agreed, was a predominantly middle-class phenomenon. It was all very well to tote paisley-printed gladrags and loganberry-coloured velvet loons in Croydon, Kingsbury or Camden, the wealthier quarters of northern metropoli and redbrick market towns, but living the Aquarian post-Pepper lifestyle in Taunton, Rotherham or Llandudno Junction was merely to invite a Friday-night last-bus head-kicking from skins or teds. Simon Frith's interesting survey of rock consumer habits among young people in Keighley in 1972 makes particularly pungent reading. Accounts of the late 1960s, particularly Jonathon Green's magisterial oral history of the period, Days In The Life (Heinemann, 1988) stress just how bourgeois the whole strange trip was, from the congested, naive politics of confrontation through the inherent snobbism of clothing codes to the singularly twee narcissism of the period's aesthetics; excessively dandified, predicated on late-19th century notions of art for art's sake. Licentiousness, transgression, neurasthenic preoccupations with the occult, sexuality and the subconscious - it was hardly surprising that Aubrey Beardsley's designs enjoyed such a shelf-clearing revival in the late 1960s, nor indeed Hermann Hesse's more dopily sophomoric novels, Demian, Siddhartha and Steppenwolf . Roger Dean's iconic sleeve artworks harked back to the outrageous sinuosities of Guimard, Gaudì and Segantini, whose initial formal radicalism gave way to dutiful servicing of chronic social conservatism.

Now take the pop music that Dean served. The messy and abrasive experimentalism of early underground psychedelia was formalized and internalized in an aesthetic cult of form and expressiveness for its own sake; cf Pink Floyd's short hop from the bizarre, clangorous world of nursery rhymes and cracked mirrors that is The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967) to the symphonic, calculated grandiloquence of Atom Heart Mother (1970). The hippy nostrums of dreams, the Other, nature and art were all still respectably and responsibly present and correct, just in a much more recognizably bourgeois, co-optable and didactically formal package not unakin to William Morris's Arts and Crafts movement. The result was progressive rock, of course.

Another vital trope of the time - again taking its cue from post-Wagnerian European Romanticism - was that of idealised womanhood. For all its rhetoric of liberation, until active feminists (Marsh, Boycott) began kicking against the masculine hegemony, the counterculture was not, contrary to popular belief, a propitious time for the independent expression of feminine sexuality. As the painter Nicola Lane recalled to Green in Days, women's experience of liberation 'was... to be there for ----- and domesticity', inhabiting pre-Raphaelite preconceptions of willowy, wide-eyed allure, gracefully and subordinately tightroping between girlhood and whoredom. 'That whole 'my lady' thing,' continues Lane disparagingly of this highly prevalent notion. 'So Guinevere-y.' Women were decorative, and as such disempowered. The pre-Raphaelites were, of course, the kith and kin of Morris and his merry men.

Our conceptions of the prettily doomed Ophelia and the Lady Of Shalott are the bedrock of this ornate schema; portrayals of same by the likes of Millais and Burne-Jones, not to mention Whistler's The White Girl (1863) and D.G. Rossetti's Astarte Syriaca (1872) were, though considered provocative and immodest in their time and close inspection even of depictions of innocent fairies such as those by Arthur Rackham have anatomically suggestive details beneath the flowing garments. Lesser-known but prolific post-Edwardian British children's illustrators such as Annie French (1872-1965) and Jessie King (1876-1949) selfconsciously perpetuated this 'fairy child' tradition of immaculate feminine beauty, forever with the murmur of dreamy carnality and implied self-awareness of the subject as an object of desire. Crucially, though, the role is always that of object, a construct created by and thus controlled by men.

Female characters in much children's literature of the first half of the 20th century are often stranded, faffing ineffectually and dreamily by turns in this petticoated ghetto, from such E Nesbit heroines as fretful Bobbie (The Railway Children) and flouncy Mary Lennox (The Secret Garden) to Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess and Eleanor Porter's ingénue Pollyanna.
By fortunate coincidence then, countercultural depictions of blossoming girlhood chimed quite neatly with existing bourgeois ones, albeit spiked with a saucy subtext by countercultural mischief-makers.

Where is this leading us? Firstly, to The Owl Service (Granada, 1969-70). This extraordinary drama ticks every box indicated above. It concerns a tempestuous triangular relationship of power, class and sex between three adolescents in Wales, with an generous helping of pagan Celtic mysticism thrown in for good measure. It most closely resembles Frank Wedekind's play about nascent adolescent sexuality, Frühlings Erwachen [Spring Awakening] whose 1895 première so scandalized Vienna; it even has the (probably intentional) symbolism of a vaguely-Art Nouveau stamp (the avian pattern on a dinner service). The Owl Service features the luminously beautiful Gillian Hills as Alison, coquettish cynosure of the attentions of boyo-oik Gwyn and clipped, spoddy Roger, and receptacle of the unseen and largely unspoken force of nature that is the Celtic goddess Blodeuwedd (redolent of the fin-de-siècle , Yeatsian obsession among British bohemians with the primeval energies of the Celtic Twilight). All pout and waterfalling Timotei locks, she is both iconic of iconic girlhood of the late 1960s and of that of a pre-Raphaelite, mystical past. The nubile Hills is seen furtively in various states of undress; sexual contact is heavily hinted at. As McGown and Docherty assert in their indispensable BFI monograph on childrens' TV drama, Beyond The Hill*, the elemental nature of sexual desire never before - or again - featured to such a degree before teatime was out.

The original Owl Service novel, by Alan Garner, had been published to great acclaim and the award of a Carnegie Medal in 1967 (Collins), at the height of hippyism; the TV adaptation was unarguably a landmark in breaking new narrative ground for children's drama. It didn't quite promise quite carte blanche, but parameters were redrawn. In such a febrile climate, the likes of Ace of Wands (Thames, 1970) were much easier to sell to sceptical commissioning editors. Wands was not only a fresh and enjoyable fantasy series with half an ironic eye on itself but treated the trappings of contemporary mores and cultural concerns as givens. Hence contemporary dress (eye-guards on, everyone); the treatment of the occult (Tarot cards) as groovy and happening rather than sinister; and one of the coolest theme tunes of any kids' programme ever, an atmospheric, pulsing acoustic-folk-prog number that was part Bert Jansch, part Steve Hackett (the Genesis guitarist who would, coincidentally, later release a fine track - unrelated to the show - under the title 'Ace of Wands' on his Voyage of the Acolyte album (1975)).

While outright fantasy and imagination had always been staples of children's literature, Wands rooted them in the here and now. This was not an adaptation of an existing literary work; it was conceived and written for TV from day one. It worked on the assumption that fantasy was a staple of the childlike imagination, and like the best prog rock, used elements of a narrative tradition to hook into a contemporary setting.

Immensely and deservedly popular, Wands ran until 1973, and its repeats for years afterwards. It paved the way for clearly contemporary fantasy which took equal parts inspiration from moonshot technophilia and comic-book motivations (The Tomorrow People). This last owed little to its contemporary cultural milieux; borrowing only from Dr Who, Apollo rockets, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet sweet cigarettes, it was adventure, plain and simple, Dan Dare or Zorro stuff but with bacofoil costumes and Palitoy ray-guns. TP was mindlessly enjoyable, penny-dreadful science-fiction that could have been made as a comic-book, a series of novels, or a radio serial at any time over the previous 50 years; it was independent of the manifold cultural strands that informed the counterculture, post-hippy aesthetics and prog rock.

But it's worth pointing out that, as Wands hinted, 1970s post-hippy culture was not just atavistic and nostalgic. Like the fin-de-siècle aesthetes that provided the era's popular culture with many of its themes, creative types of all kinds tempered their liberal meliorism with a thanatomaniacal belief in imminent, possibly violent, transfiguration of all that was and is. For the swoony denizens of Jugendstil and Art Nouveau, the existential revolution they believed their art embodied would come in a cleansing fire that would purge and redeem the world (and they got it, sort of, with the Great War in 1914). In the 1970s, the liberal hope was that the teleological progress towards a better society begun after World War Two was to be imminently fulfilled, in spite of the checks and disappointments of hippyism's decline and post-Altamont/Wight fall. How would it occur? Psychic Armageddon? Environmental meltdown? Thermonuclear balls-up? Brown rice famine? Either way, there was a dark, pessimistic underside to post-hippy that could not have existed without its oneiric, head-in-air utopianism.

Progressive rock, post-hippy's musical soundtrack, for all the often lazy epithets of 'escapism' routinely appended to it, was not always about retreat into a hippy never-land. Emerson, Lake and Palmer's obsession with technology rang with the chill of a distant future in lockstep with electronic slavery (the HR Giger-designed biomechanoid cover of 1973's Brain Salad Surgery says it all, as does the blackly comic, computer wars scenario of the LP's half-hour suite 'Karn Evil 9'). By Dark Side of the Moon (1973), Pink Floyd's already ambivalent view of the future was cautionary at best; even Yes, capable of dangerously airy-fairy conceits, recorded the positively avant-garde 23-minute 'The Gates of Delirium' in 1974 (from the album Relayer), a furious synthesized blast of martial dystopia. This last, however, ends with timorous rays of hope and reconciliation penetrating the steely gloom.

Timeslip (ATV, 1971) and The Changes (BBC, 1975) were compelling dramas duly invested with the potential dangers of overweening technocracy occasioning social collapse, but both are mediated through a dialectically-driven redemptive vision of conflict bringing resolution. HTV's Sky (1975), however, managed to marry back-to-nature nostalgia and gnostic, transfigurational sci-fi apocalypsis in perhaps one of the most flawless examples of the aesthetics of prog-rock and post-hippy kids' TV.

We're knee-deep in concept-album compost here. Marc Harrison is the messenger from outer space in the white robes of a suitably priestly caste of initiates, who fetches up in the English countryside in 1975, having intended to arrive after an unnamed but nasty-sounding rumble called 'The Chaos'. He has instead manifested himself during 'the decline' and seeks a machine called 'the Juganet', enabling travel through time and space. His antithesis is Goodchild, a manifestation of an Earth spirit within hailing distance of the Green Man, embodying a hidden resistance rooted in the planet to the presence of an alien invader. In the final episode, Sky's Earth chum, the Holy Fool-alike farm boy Arby, finds himself transported with Sky to 'the time after the chaos' where a tribe of telepaths (a dutiful nod to The Tomorrow People) are rebuilding society by adherence to as many mid-70s Ur-ecological cliches as you can shake a self-sufficiency stick at. Sky delivers an epigram of a vacuousness many prog lyricists would have been proud of; 'you do not reach the stars with rockets any more than you invent radio by shouting at the sky. You believe in machines and that is not the way'. Very earnest, very zen, very silly. The resolution to troubled times, ventriloquized here and at the space-case core of many post-hippy belief systems, lay in something infinitely older and more 'natural' than the current order of things. And so off we troop, with blue-sky-eyed Sky, to Glastonbury Tor and Avebury and - inevitably - Stonehenge, to find the Juganet. Science, once humanity's panacea, was now it's mortal enemy. Reason was death - feeling was life.

By now - post-1973 oil shock, post-Munich - the fabled age of Aquarius, or even an enlightened social democratic system with eight-track cartridges and fat furniture for all - seemed only attainable by going through 'the chaos' and attuning oneself to ancient wisdom and the sort of irrationality that motivated Nazi Germany's murderous fantasies. If that doesn't make much sense to anyone under 30, that's largely because it doesn't make much sense full stop. It's worth remembering just how much shelf-space in Britain's bookshops were occupied by such arrant, sub-von Daniken moonshine in the mid-1970s. One of the authors who - posthumously - did best out of this was Alfred Watkin (1855-1932), a Herefordshire antiquarian and pioneer photographer. His conviction that the world was criss-crossed by a system of ley-lines between ancient sacred sites, first outlined in his book The Old Straight Track ended up taking over his life. Ley-line theory is about as scientifically credible as believing in Chorlton and the Wheelies (an OS map, a T-square and a pencil will suffice as proof), but this didn't stop a battalion of charlatans and well-intentioned, delusionary academics using the 1960s and 1970s to legitimize Watkin's dotty descanting, most notably John Michell, whose The View over Atlantis and City of Revelation sold in their tens of thousands.

Standing stones and pagan antiquity had been explored briefly as dramatic devices in the now little-known Escape Into Night (ATV, 1972, taken from Catherine Storr's 1958 novel Marianne Dreams), a minor masterpiece of post-hippy TV, in which occultic imaginings, a nightie-clad nymphet (Vikki Chambers as the moonstruck teenage heroine Marianne) and apparently sentient stone monuments creepily combine. Then, in late 1975, an astounding Australian indie feature burst out of campus Film Socs and into the UK movie mainstream; Peter Weir's Picnic At Hanging Rock told the purportedly true story of the disappearance of three boarding school girls and a mistress at the remote aboriginal sacred site of the title in 1900.

It didn't matter that the story was just pretend. Exquisitely shot and scored - the decadently lush and stylized visuals echo a host of post-Romantic masters from Courbet to Cezanne, the music combines pan pipes with unearthly string and choir chords on that prog-rock keyboard standby, the mellotron - Picnic is a bona fide cinematic masterpiece that re-essays whispered, suggested leitmotifs of adolescent sexual arousal, aesthetic detachment, dreams and death set against the annihilating and elemental forces of nature, much in the way that The Owl Service had done by somewhat more prosaic means five years previously. Although not aimed at a young audience, the sensation of Picnic among adults and late teens, combined with the kiddie buzz of popularity around Sky suggested that children's drama go for a more explicit sci-fi nature-worship route with perhaps the two most signature period pieces of the whole sub-genre, Children of the Stones (HTV, 1977) and The Moon Stallion (BBC, 1978).

The time was ripe. In 1976 Rick Wakeman released No Earthly Connection, an album of rambling, terminally uninspired diatonic noodling uninspired even by his standards. It was rubbish; he released the thing because he could, because he was allowed. It sold depressingly well, not in part because of its very de jour obsession with UFOs and sacred revisitations. Back in the fold with former employees Yes in 1978, he was a major contributor to the track 'Arriving UFO' from the Tormato album, which at one stage had ley lines as a potential thematic concept. The hippy's hippy guitarist Steve Hillage, whose mind had been turned by his stint with über-hippies Gong, was more obsessed than most with leys and extraterrestrials; his 1978 album Green contained no less than three tracks thus inspired, 'Flying Saucers Over Paris', 'Unidentified (Flying Being)' and 'Ley Lines To Glassdom'. Of course, Close Encounters had hardly damped down the ardour of the Martian-minded.

It stretches credibility that such a climate could not have directly inspired Children of the Stones. This almost cartoon-like parade of sub-genre clichés updates the conceit of telepathic takeover in John Wyndham's story/script The Midwich Cuckoos using almost every 1970s plot device available and then some. Scientist Adam Brake (Gareth Thomas) and son Matthew (Peter Demin) arrive to study a stone circle in the preternaturaly idyllic village of Milbury. On touching one of the stones, Brake receives a 'psychic shock', whatever that is; the glassy-eyed villagers incant runic mummery by night; there are stone amulets abroad which resound to the message 'visitor... bright... stones... power... beam... always!'. The bristling, bonkers villain of the piece, Iain Cuthbertson's bluff, Sandhursty Raphael Hendrick, has access to an extraterrestrial 'psychic beam' that has homed in on the stones for thousands of years. That the villagers end up turned to stone and then the whole cycle begins again as the Brakes flee the village, is almost superfluous to mention. It's all quite preposterously silly, in hindsight monumentally predictable, and doesn't even have the redeeming tautness and dramatic sophistication of Ace of Wands or the ruggedly haunted full-bloodedness of The Owl Service. Compared to Weir's sublimely suggestive and genuinely frightening Picnic, it is laughable.

Dated it may be, but The Moon Stallion fares somewhat better, because it manages to cram every single criterion of successful prog-rock kids TV into six half-hour episodes and, despite the hair-raising vapidity and diffuseness of its plot, manages to carry the whole off with a degree of panache. Writer Brian Hayles unleashes the whole sub-generic panoply without fear, utilizing a grab-bag of preoccupations that wouldn't just fill a triple-album, but would keep a prog band worth its salt going for a decade and more and have Roger Dean and Patrick Woodruffe battling with billy-clubs for multiple-gatefold cover-art rights - Arthurian legend, the Celtic twilight, the occult, teenage sexuality, nature worship, implied future shock, and although some of the themes are kid-gloved (the thin ice of sensual awakening, Dionysian paganism and the iconography of the stallion). For the record, eminent Arthurian scholar Professor Purwell (James Greene) arrives amongst the tumulus- and barrow-infested downland heights of the Uffington area to research its antiquity. His blind daughter Diana (Sarah Sutton), a perfect cut-out of diaphanous leg-of-mutton sleeves, straight out of one of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's sketchbooks, with the idealistically-rendered sensitivity of the deeply feminine (that Guinevere syndrome again), senses the presence of the legendary Moon Stallion The very name of Diana is, of course, cargoed with heathen symbolism, associated with the lunar deity Epona and the ubiquitous legend of the wild hunt. A possible Arthur appears to the blind girl, who is spirited away on the Stallion to the Neolithic site of Wayland's Smithy, wherein lies access to the Celtic land of lost content, Tir-na-Nog, not to mention the Hammer of Truth and the knowledge of the gods (I am not making this up). It made not an iota of sense, but, as with some of the best prog-rock, it was done with audacity and neat riffs of polished craftsmanship.

By the end of the final episode of The Moon Stallion on December 20, 1978, the Winter of Discontent was a snowbound fortnight away. Prog was, commercially, a busted flush, undone by production costs in a recession-hit industry and the haughty indifference of an opportunistic rock media pack besotted by punk. It's true to say that by this time, such fare as Children of the Stones looked quite hopelessly redundant, if only for the fact that its thought-processes had been prevalent in children's programming for the best part of a decade. This, of course, didn't stop Thames from investing millions in the fabulously dark and scary Quatermass exactly one year later, one of the very, very few attempts to make prog-rock TV a viable adult concern (after all, there was urban breakdown, heavenly beams, sarsens, malevolent natural and supernatural powers). Despite the concluding banishment of evil, the upbeatness of the climax is ambivalent; the old professor has been vaporized by his own bomb, and one senses that with the cataclysmic detonation goes an entire era of hippy touchy-feeliness. The Aquarian revolution had been indefinitely postponed.

There are inevitable risks in schematizing history to fit idle journalistic cliché. After all, if the above characterizes 'prog rock TV' aren't the likes of Grange Hill necessarily classifiable as 'punk TV', a natural, dialectical antithesis? It's tempting, but ultimately too pat an answer; urban-set, 'realistic' children's dramas were far from absent in the 1970s, long before anyone had heard of Johnny Rotten. The mores of Action comic, Bruce Lee or Anthony Burgess' Droogs were screened out, it's true, but one could enjoy the scruffily appealing Sam and the River (BBC, 1975, memorably shot in the decaying crane-scapes of London's docklands and estuarine mudflats), and Scouse petty crime-fest Rocky O'Rourke (BBC, 1976)... later, the chirpy contingencies and coping of the Tyneside-set The Paper Lads (Tyne-Tees, 1977, ironically sporting a theme tune from one of the prissiest and most precious of prog bands, Renaissance, roughly a musical analogue of a Laura Ashley print dress) and even the low-browed Euston Films-esque King Cinder (BBC, 1977) held their own. These, Grange Hill and others dealt with immediate, worldly themes of poverty, exploitation, boredom, alienation, class and power that were not dependent on a timeframe or its cultural eccentricities. They did not happen because the Clash or Kilburn and the High Roads were making records or that ties were getting skinnier or that Notting Hill was getting torched; their concerns can be seen in Hogarth and Dickens. David Lean's Oliver Twist (1948) in all its grimy glory would have been as resonant for postwar children as Gripper Stebson getting expelled at the hands of Bullet Baxter. My argument is that the likes of The Owl Service and The Moon Stallion were the result of a discrete and probably unique set of historico-cultural circumstances. Certainly during their currency other discourses of children's fiction - notably comics - downplayed sensitivity and femininity - hence the vast boom in war and sci-fi comics of the 1970s, in which psychopathic thugs of the past (Captain Hurricane), the present (Dredger) and the future (Judge Dredd) bloodily trousered a pocket money bonanza from those whose imaginative public space had been turned over to drippy hippies.

It's perhaps unfair to be too judgemental on post-hippy kids' TV. Children of the Stones, though, now seems a little too prefabricated in its desire to fulfil what was by then deemed to be a set of criteria for a successful kids' TV drama show; it is rather those programmes - The Owl Service, Ace of Wands and The Changes, which fitted cultural currents to a chilldren's dramatic framework on a purely speculative basis - that have aged best. That the kind of material exposed in these shows was unthinkably remote at the end of the 1950s shows what an achievement it was to even get the things made. They stimulated emotional and intellectual responses in a way rarely seen before, then, or since. No imported TV drama - The Flashing Blade, Belle and Sebastian, The White Horses and The Aeronauts - attempted anything remotely as ambitious. The Singing Ringing Tree, while promisingly Romantic and Germano-mystical, is presented with the clunky literality of a cookie-cutter 1950s adaptation and could have been contrived by a victorious Nazi regime, so superficial was its treatment of myth and legend, kitschier than David Hasselhoff and The Scorpions 'interpreting' Schubert's Winterreise.

Britain beat the band with what post-hippy thought did to children's TV. That just a dozen years passed between Dennis Waterman's catty-toting, bullseye-swiping, cartie-piloting William Brown and the psychodramatic harshness of The Changes is testament to how far TV - children's TV, remember - went and how fast. To this end, the bogus mysticism, dangerous unreasoning, hidebound gender roles, creaks in narrative trajectory detectable only with historical hindsight can be ignored. Some of this TV - like much prog rock - is not a historical aberration to be indulgently set aside and allowed for like a drooling, spaz-wheeled relative. That much of it measures up even in part against Weir's unbearably refined and cleverly decadent Picnic at Hanging Rock, the ne plus ultra of post-hippy film-making, is adequate testimony to quality and artistic integrity. Here are some examples of the most startlingly modernist popular culture young Britons had access to after World War Two and these programmes deserves to be remembered as such.