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A decimation in Ragusa – Big Brother has much to answer for

March 24, 2021

There are times when I think that lockdown evenings need some variation. Just as we make sure to mix up our dinners with fish, a veggie night and a takeaway at least once a week, perhaps we would benefit, in the absence of restaurants, theatres, cinema, get-togethers and other staples of pre- and hopefully post-lockdown life, from more active evening pursuits. Cake-making perhaps, or scrabble and chess. Building a nuclear reactor. Talking even. Yet often as not, the default in our household is TV.

Which is fine, but I do sometimes get impatient.

Last night’s menu was supposed to be Deutschland 89 followed by The Unforgotten, with the news in-between. We rarely bother to watch the 10pm bulletin all the way through, because so many of the stories are unbearably miserable, and the BBC, which usually is quite good at avoiding journalistic clichés, seems unable to provide any commentary on crowd scenes without starting every story of tragedy, insurrection or mourning with the word “they”.

“They came in their thousands (long pause), from villages and towns (long pause), from mountains and river valleys long pause). They were there to mourn the passing of an extraordinary man. Jerome Finkelburger was the world’s foremost speed eater (long pause). He died after eating seventy-nine Big Macs in the space of fifteen minutes (long pause). They knew that they would not see his like again.”

It’s getting to the point where whenever I see a shot of crowds, I shout THEY! at the TV. And sure enough, off we go. A They story. At which point I usually step into the garden for a walk in order to avoid inflicting grievous bodily harm on the TV. When I return, my wife hands me a Prozac and we settle down to watch something else.

There are also times when I think we’ve agreed to watch one of our favourite series. I sink into the couch for an hour of murder and mayhem. I then notice the mysterious absence of my other half. It turns out that she’s finishing something. Booking a holiday in France five years from now, perhaps. So rather than sit mesmerised by the frozen screen that precedes the protests in Timisoara and Martin Rauch’s attempt to squeeze out of another tight spot in the glorious Deutschland 89, I put on some other programme that looks interesting.

On such an occasion last night, I went briefly to a show about dogs behaving badly, but decided that I really didn’t have the patience to see how the dog trainer managed to tame a snarling staffie that kills anything that crosses its path. Then I happened upon Master of Photography, in which a bunch of wannabe professional photographers spend two days in Sicily looking to take the best travel photo. Now I love a good photo, even though I know nothing about the art and technique that goes into creating them. What made the show irresistible was that they were in Ragusa, which serves as Inspector Montalbano‘s home town in one of my favourite Italian TV series.

So I, and eventually we, got stuck into watching these young people wandering around the town, sticking their expensive cameras up the noses of bemused locals in an attempt to produce compelling, atmospheric and emotional pictures that might serve to lure the world to this stunning town, as if any incentive for this Montalbano lover was needed.

It was interesting, even though the photography jargon was a baffling as the acronyms fired like bullets by the cast of Line of Duty. But then we came to the moment of judgement, when it became obvious that we were heading for a finale beloved of reality TV contests, in which a panel of experts dissect each offering with relentless rigour. The tension mounts as we wait for the winning photo. Headshots of nervous contestants. And then it becomes clear that the purpose of the exercise was not to find a winner. It was a decimation. An exercise in cruelty. One person was due for the chop. And it therefore became clear that this was one of a series, like so many other series, in which the contestants get whittled down to a short list of potential winners, one of whom is crowned in a grand finale.

And I thought to myself, why end a perfectly enjoyable show with the humiliation of a young woman who has to sit there while these experts tell her what a crap photographer she is? It’s what I call the Quivering Lip moment, beloved of all the other shows that feature ritual decapitation. The poor girl’s face fills the screen as she hovers on the verge of tears. Are you not entertained, as Maximus asks the slavering crowd in Gladiator?

God knows how many other shows are currently available using exactly the same time-worn format. Cake makers, ballroom dancers, interior designers, chefs and celebrities who have to endure pits full of bugs. Big Brother has much to answer for. For all I know there might be pest exterminators, undertakers and landscape gardeners queuing up in search of fame and fortune. Perhaps would-be porn stars even. Imagine all those well-endowed men and women going through their paces in front of juries of sex experts who dissect every grind of the hip and digital exploration in search of the perfect act of procreation or wanton pleasure.

Yes, I know that the only way to dispose of this stream of derivative garbage is simply not to consume it. And generally, I don’t, except by accident. But if we must have reality TV, surely it’s not too much to ask that they spare us the Quivering Lip moments? Are our programme makers so desperately unimaginative that they not only flog the dead horse but render it, recycle it and turn it into inedible steak haché?

Would it not be nice to see the weakest contestant taken on a journey in which they’re mentored, coached and nurtured into transforming themselves from the worst to the best? Probably not, because that wouldn’t involve blood. If these shows have a unifying proposition, it’s the survival of the fittest. And that’s what life is all about, isn’t it? Well no, actually, unless you happen to be a Nazi.

As our lamentable pandemic has surely taught us, like is about survival, adaptation, learning, creativity, improvement and kindness. Much as I enjoy watching people contorting themselves into impossible positions in a beautiful town in search of the perfect picture, the cruelty of the ending ruined everything. Perhaps I should have stayed with the story of how a bloodthirsty staffie became an acceptable member of the doggie race.

That, at least, would have been an uplifting story of improvement and redemption, even though the older I get the less I understand the reason for dogs. Or humans, for that matter.

From → Film, Social, Travel, UK

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