Forget Proust - here comes Caprice

If Nicky Campbell can host `Newsnight', surely there's a media niche for little me
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The Independent Culture
TWO WEEKS ago, on returning to London after nearly four years in America, I opened a "serious" newspaper and learned two vital pieces of news. One, that Nicky Campbell, the laconic Scot who used to introduce bands on Top of the Pops, was going to be the new presenter of Newsnight. And two, that Danii Minogue, the much-respected sister of Eighties superstar Kylie, was about to play Lady Macbeth in Edinburgh. My thoughts? Either Britain has finally gone mad or I've time-travelled forward in time to April Fool's Day.

It is difficult to convey just how surreal it is to come back to a country in which the national media plumbs depths of banality unimaginable even in 1996, a country dumbed down to unprecedentedly subterranean levels of trivialisation. America may be the land of Jerry Springer and Monica Lewinsky, but there's a world of difference between breakfasting with The New York Times and caffeine-loading with the average British broadsheet.

Okay, I'm being ever so slightly disingenuous. Before I moved to America to become the US editor of the music magazine Mojo in early 1996, I was aware of a new, shall we say, mood in the air. The signs were clear enough: the mega-success of Loaded and its boy-racer cousin FHM; the general prostration before the boneheaded rock of Oasis; Messrs Skinner and Baddiel on the Friday night footie couch. Implicit in these was a kind of stomping-down, not simply of political correctness but of any real subtlety. And that was just the beginning. By 1997, with Britpop giving birth to Cool Britannia, things were getting out of hand. I'd come home to visit and found Liam'n'Patsy on the cover of every tabloid in town. A year later and there stories about footballers on the front pages of the broadsheets. Even my father knew who David Beckham was.

I felt slightly left out, but also vaguely amazed that my fellow countrymen could get quite so excited about monosyllabic pop stars and football players. Was it all James Brown's fault, then? Did the unquestioning acceptance of Lad Culture - and Laddess Culture, for that matter - start with Loaded? And why was it, all of a sudden, so imperative for everyone to be pissed all the time - a trend so startling to someone living in puritanical America?

Perhaps it really comes down to a curious kind of denial. The oddest thing about Blair's Britannia is the pretence that we're all in it together, that if we're all talking about football and The Fast Show - the new lingua franca - then, hey presto, there can't be a class system anymore. A nice idea, but one that hinges on ignoring countless examples of poverty and inequality. I'm as guilty as the next man of blokeish Premiership punditry, but I can't help feeling that we've all been co-opted by Big Rupert, whose last-laugh revenge on snobby Britain has been to foist on us an endless menu of unwatchable television channels. Verily, are we living in the kingdom of Lard. UK Gold equals anyone else's dross.

Which brings me to the crux of the matter. See, I've been back in London a fortnight and nobody has so much as hinted at the possibility of The Barney Hoskyns Show. I mean, if Nicky Campbell can host Newsnight and La Minogue play Lady Macbeth - hell, if Tony Blair can run the country - surely there's a media niche for little me. In America, where the stakes are so much higher and there's so much more dosh to be made, there's a sense of exclusivity about fame: Look But Don't Touch. As with politics, entertainment is so much more controlled, packaged - in a word, "spun". Here, by contrast, it's a splendidly anarchic free-for-all: The Big Breakfast as Naked Lunch. Your Andy Warhol quarter-of-an-hour is all but guaranteed.

On Top of the Pops, a parade of witless exhibitionists cavorts each week, no longer even looking to America for approval. (Who needs Robbie Williams when you've got Ricky Martin?) Moody young novelists pucker up for the Sunday supplement cameras. Columnists air their marriage-bustup laundry for the edification of chattering voyeurs. "News", in the words of Ryszard Kapuscinski, has become a mere commodity.

My guess is that a new austerity, a new dignity and sobriety, will take root in the next millennium - an end to the inebriated self-satisfaction that's gripped Britain in the time I've been away. People will read real books and see real films about real, er, people. If they can get over the idee fixe that history has ended, they might even become politically active.

In the meantime, I'll get back in the swing of things, chinwag with my mates about Becks and Posh and my beloved Chelsea FC. Maybe I can hustle a documentary about Marcel Desailly and Didier Deschamps - Frog footie heroes at large in London! Oui, baby, oui! We'll get Caprice to interview them! Well, it's gotta be better than Proust. I bet Proust was rubbish at football. I'll get me replica shirt.

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