15 January 2016

Why does America celebrate the best while Britain celebrates the brash?


Presented with a list of guests on BBC1’s Graham Norton Show, you would easily recognise the names of millionaire actors, singers, sports stars and comedians. Yet given a comparable list of guests on Stephen Colbert’s new Late Show,broadcast in the US every weekday night on CBS, you might justifiably question its status as one of America’s most prestigious talk shows.

Alongside the ‘A’ list stars are the likes of Reed Hastings, co-founder and CEO of Netflix, novelist Elizabeth Gilbert, and Eugenia Cheng, senior lecturer in Pure Mathematics at the University of Sheffield. There is Brian Greene, a theoretical physicist and string theorist at Columbia University and Shepard Fairey who is a street artist and illustrator. You would notice politicians filling a good portion of the list and then there would be John Irving who just happens to be the John Irving.

It begs an obvious question. Why do American talk shows enjoy such a broad range of guests and why do British shows remain fixated on the loquacious and the brash?

Talk shows have always registered deep on Britain’s collective conscious but the reality has perhaps been less impressive than we imagine. We talk about the heyday of the BBC chat show but even Michael Parkinson interviewing in his prime was like watching an apple soaking in its own treacle. TV, movies, music and sport were about the limits of his ambition and, for every Ali moment, there were hundreds that were anodyne, lazy and simply forgettable.

Over the years, the BBC talk show has regressed until it is now little more than a segue into promotional clips, practised applause, and the fake bonhomie of a tired roster of celebrities inculcated in the ways of cuddly after-the-watershed innuendo. Must we give Tom Cruise another free pass on Scientology or Robert Downey Jnr chance to pimp some god-awful Avengers movie whilst sitting next to Adele on a contoured slug of a sofa designed by London’s finest purveyor of quality brothel decor? Is this really what we’ve become: children of brand Beckham, dead-eyed mannequins of a louche glitter ball intellectualism? Can great suits, immaculate hair, and an obsession with skin products really compensate for yet another pointless story about a footballer having his lungs tattooed?

Just when did the BBC become so ashamed of our writers, academics, journalists, politicians, intellectuals and artists that they felt obliged to turn our talk shows into rictus-grinning monstrosities of glitz and sham? Why must we be so shamed by the intellectual ferocity of America, otherwise home to Trump, guns, God writ large, and a whole host of doomsday cults and anti-federalist loners? Has Britain really become a nation indifferent to its intellectual life? Or have we always been, in the words of Will Self, ’empiricists [with] a resistance to theory and to theoreticians playing too prominent a role in public life’?

I recollect very few memorable BBC TV moments in my childhood or since that involved academics that weren’t in some sense pastiche. Forget Patrick Moore’s role in mapping the Moon for the Apollo landings. In the UK he was rarely treated as anything but an eccentric with an big eye for the telescopes and a knack for the xylophone. Professor Heinz Wolff’s fame had very little to do with his career in bioengineering and a lot to do with his accent and resemblance to a Hammer Horror scientist. Dr Magnus Pike, before him, rose to fame not for his thesis ‘Biochemical factors in the experimental production of cataract’ but for his flailing arms and general eccentricity. The tendency continues to the present day. How much of Will Gompertz is really Will Gompertz and not a Turner Prize winning installation titled ‘The stereotype of the pseudo-intellectual in postmodern culture as visualised by a mop wearing loafers and goggles’?

Unfair you might say but you can blame Youtube for fuelling my frustration. Without it, I would not have recently discovered The Dick Cavett Show, which routinely featured the best of New York culture from 1968 to 1975. Cavett’s guests included Noel Coward, Salvador Dali, Truman Capote, Groucho Marx, Buckminster Fuller, the young John Kerry (in 1971), Ingmar Bergman, as well as luminaries of Hollywood including Orson Welles, Hitchcock, and John Huston. Cavett also sat between Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal when the two nearly came to blows in December 1971. The closest we got to that in the UK was when Rodd Hull’s emu pecked Michael Parkinson in his polyester bellbottoms in 1976.

Not that I necessarily think the occasional puppet pecking a guy in his polyester bellbottoms is a bad thing and I would rather have that than live in a nation plagued by meaningful Soviet style TV with lectures on high-level particle physics and the novels of Thomas Pynchon. All I’m arguing is that it’s high time the BBC gave us some meat with our sugary diet. Even the very best of our serious shows feel obliged to dumb down their content. Andrew Neil’s This Week proves that the BBC is capable of hosting light but intelligent conversation yet the show routinely wastes its final ten minutes forcing some touring comedian through a serious-shaped hole. So, Sir Nobby Fizz Fizz Bang, in what ways do you think being a circus clown is like being the head of the Bank of England?

Not that the BBC is alone in ploughing a shallow furrow. Shows like Alan Carr’s Chatty Man and Loose Women do nothing to salvage our reputation. Meanwhile, over in America, The Daily Show on Comedy Central continues its long tradition of mixing celebrities with politicians, activists, authors, and academics. Bill Maher’s Real Time on HBO vigorously encourages hard debate, tackling serious subjects in the context of a live comedy show. Even more shameful is that Maher’s guests are routinely picked from the very best of British intellectual life. Richard Dawkins is feted like a movie star, as was Christopher Hitchens before him. It’s about the only place in the last year you’d hear John Cleese, David Miliband, or Salman Rushdie talk intelligently about religion and politics. Jane Goodall was also a recent guest and, I confess, I’d even forgotten she was British. I felt a genuine stab of pride as she spoke so quietly and eloquently about her work and then I felt a stab of regret that I have never seen Jane Goodall interviewed on a British talk show. Yet from the Beckhams I’ve already heard too much.

There are counter arguments, I know, to all of this, not least the one that suggests that I just shut up and go watch something else. Yet questions about the BBC’s ambitions should be asked as our national public broadcaster again faces a challenge from government. As the BBC’s charter comes up for renewal, it might be a good time to remind ourselves that it contains six purposes.

* Sustaining citizenship and civil society
* Promoting education and learning
* Stimulating creativity and cultural excellence
* Representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities
* Bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK
* In promoting its other purposes, helping to deliver to the public the benefit of emerging communications technologies and services and, in addition, taking a leading role in the switchover to digital television.

It would be difficult to argue that Norton’s show fulfils even one of the BBC’s six purposes. It lends ammunition to those wanting to see the BBC cut back. Yet had Colbert’s show been running on the BBC, I think it might justifiably be said to fulfil five.

Yet, of course, Stephen Colbert isn’t on the BBC and we have nothing like him or his show, which is largely my point. There is no live mainstream opportunities where complicated things can be discussed by academics, writers, critics, poets, artists, creatives, economists, historians, philosophers, ecologists, and thinkers. In America, our academics are lauded in a way that simply puts us to shame in the UK where they are lucky to get a few column inches in their local newspaper beside the allotment news.

If the BBC really intends to change the way it does business, it should begin by remembering John Reith’s ambition that it would be the nation’s ‘guide, philosopher and friend’. It has done two of the three admirably well. As for the other, the philosopher would be lucky to get past the Corporation’s front door.

David Waywell writes and cartoons at The Spine.