Is there nothing so crass that it won't be embraced by television?
Right now dozens of people are beavering away at the base of a pyramid of cheap, vulgar programme-making
Thursday 26 November 1998
If I'm wrong, and the loss is too painful, the Earl may be able to find some comfort in the metaphorical arms of a fellow aristocrat. I'm talking here about Sarah, Duchess of York (or is she no longer officially a duchess, and now merely a demi-coroneted marquise?) who appears regularly on her own Sky show, Sarah: Surviving Life. (The colon, I gather, is irrigated.) I am sure that Fergie's producers can schedule a fallen aristo show somewhere: the diminution of status is, after all, the empathic redhead's real area of expertise.
Or is it diminution of integrity? Or absence of shame? And this is my real theme for the day; not the ramifications of the Queen's Speech, nor the legislative hurdles that lie ahead of Mr Blair and his Quest for the New Albion. For two things that I have read this week have suddenly reminded me of what a strange state our popular culture is in; how odd the national conversation has become; and how bizarre is the behaviour of those who speak the loudest.
The first was an interview with the author of the most recent biography of Prince Charles, Penny Junor, in which she described how her life had practically been destroyed by hostile reactions to her book. Let us recall that this tome claimed, among other things, that Diana had been the first to bonk away from home, had artfully manipulated Charles into marriage and had subjected Camilla Parker-Bowles to terrifying telephone calls, threatening imminent assassination. Despite all this, Ms Junor had apparently been taken aback by the scale of intrusive press interest in her, her book, and where her information had come from. Yes indeed, Penny, after the low-key reaction to the death of the Princess of Wales, it must all have been a dreadful shock to you. As must the size of advance you originally received for the book, and the sum paid for its serialisation.
The second bit of writing that had me wondering about where we're all going is a new book, entitled The Heartfelt Letters, edited by William Donaldson - the man who brought us Henry Root. The letters are from and to Heart Felt Productions Limited (motto: A Tragedy Aired is a Tragedy Shared), which claims to be an independent TV company working the more popular end of the market. Its leading letter writer, Jane Reed, is in perpetual correspondence with a host of real TV and radio commissioners, minor personalities and mini-celebrities, in which she pitches programme ideas of wonderful and growing implausibility. The letters from Reed are hilarious; some of the responses are terrifying.
There are, of course, many unreturned calls. But even the polite letters of rejection to ideas such as Who Put Heroin In My Kiddies' Sweets? suggest a weary familiarity with other, similar proposals. In one case the fastidiously polite James Boyle, controller of Radio 4, reassures the entirely fictitious Ms Reed that he does indeed remember her from a past meeting in Bristol. He does not warm, however, to With Friends Like This..., a programme in which the main guest is "a celeb who is thought by everyone to be a total pillock."
The same cannot be said for the TV critic of The Sun, Garry Bushell, who has already hosted programmes on satellite and terrestrial television. Reed asks him to anchor a new cable show entitled Topless Gladiators. "We're looking for a really cool presenter," writes Reed. "That's you Garry! Vulgar without being irreverent." Garry is interested. As is Mike Hollingsworth, agent for Judge James Pickles, who is "most happy, in principle, to allow his name to go forward."
Must Have, Must Do, is Reed's idea for a Channel 5 style-counselling programme. So she writes off to Tara Palmer-Tompkinson, telling the absurd socialite that, "what we're looking for, yeah, are two or three posh tarts to act as style gurus." Back comes a letter from M+M Management: "Tara's diary is now getting very booked up, but do please get in touch with us and we can see if we're able to work together."
Now it's the turn of the Very Reverend Dr John Moses, the Dean of St Paul's. Three weeks after the death of Diana, Reed invites the Dean to participate in a Christmas Compassion video to be called Diana, the People's Princess: Lest We Forget. In addition to a filmed address from the Dean, Reed plans to have Chris de Burgh singing "There's a new star in heaven tonight" followed by reminiscences of Diana. But this is not all. Reed continues: "Lest we forget there were other tragedies during the year, Esther Rantzen and a group of grieving mothers will then recite prayers over footage of catastrophes (pensioners over a cliff, tots force-fed Ecstasy by playground fiends, whatever)." Does the Dean tell Reed politely to get lost? Nope. "I am agreeable," he replies, "to contributing to the video you are planning... in the way that you suggest."
Pickles, Bushell, Palmer-Tompkinson or their agents could be said to display a lack of dignity when tempted by small amounts of money and bit parts in preposterous TV programmes. But in an industry where the Duchess of York really does act as a sub-Kilroy, how absurd was it for them to fall for Reed/Donaldson?
Nor is the desire to enhance celebrity at any cost the only lesson to be gleaned from the Heart Felt Letters. In at least two cases major celebrities, who fail to respond in any way to the sub-Groucho Club colloquialisms of Ms Reed, are smoked out by an interesting subterfuge. When Richard Branson and Michael Portillo cannot be contacted, a new director called Winston Obogo enters the plot. He makes it clear that Heart Felt Productions is now an all-black company. "Hey, give it up large in support of the brothers!" he tells Portillo, who he wishes to participate in The Day my Whole World Collapsed. "Get your sorry white arse into gear!" he demands of Branson. Both reply remarkably quickly.
We are now at the very beginning of what has been dubbed the digital revolution. Right now dozens of Jane Reeds are beavering away at the base of a pyramid of voyeuristic, vulgar and cheap programme-making. At the top of the edifice are the big voyeurs, who are not so cheap, but who set some of the standards for the rest. Tara and Penny may not be so very different after all. Do you know, I think I'm becoming a bit of a tart myself? Next week's column will deal with the Government's micro-economic strategy in the era of monetary union. Plus something on pornography.
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