Oh dear - everyone's being nice
The writer and broadcaster Terence Blacker contributes a twice-weekly column on a wide range of social, cultural and environmental issues. He is the author of four novels, of prize-winning fiction for children, and has written a highly praised biography of the brilliant reprobate Willie Donaldson.
Tuesday 10 November 1998
Suddenly kiddy values are all the rage. Last week's adaptation of Michelle Magorian's Goodnight Mr Tom, an excellent children's story which ITV commissioned for its children's slot, was instead put out as an adult play - and gained the highest ratings for any one-off drama since 1991.
TV executives are said to be more hungry than ever for stories that contain the warmth of The Darling Buds of May, the unthreatening, positive values of Dad's Army or Cheers - escapist, soft-focus, feel-good tales that can compete with Animal Hospital, Heartbeat and Where the Heart Is.
The trend is apparently international. After the success of the gooey tear-jerker Titanic, Hollywood producers have decided that the formula for successful feature movies and TV series is simple: they should appeal to the dewy-eyed 15-year-old schoolgirl in us all.
Unfortunately, real 15-year-olds live in the heart of teenage darkness, and are rather less goofily sentimental that adults would wish.
So, screen-led as ever, government advisers have suggested that, as part of her girl power initiative, Margaret Jay should set up a panel of role-model celebrities. The UN emissary Ginger Spice would probably be in its number, and that sweet, pearly-toothed Carol Smillie, maybe even Ffion Hague - in fact, anyone acceptably young, famous and positive who aspires to the sort of acceptable female sainthood embodied by those contemporary icons, Diana, Princess of Wales and Linda McCartney.
So it's official. Niceness is nice. Goodness is good. Now that we have all been in touch with our inner children, we are being invited to relax into a playground mentality, where feeling is everything and thought is suspect.
You will have spotted the catch. The more we are told to be nice, the more we care about Kevin, and Rolf Harris and his injured cats, the more we blub in front of the latest nostalgic drama - the nastier the world outside seems to become. Yobs glass air stewardesses. The tawdriest bedroom secrets of the famous clog up the features pages. Respected commentators self-importantly "out" cabinet ministers on TV. Programmes like Have I Got News For You prefer giggling character smears to any kind of political satire. Confession shows single out the unhappy social inadequates for public ridicule. By turns sentimental and sadistic, the press are hooked on causing pain to those in public life: where once journalists used to report tragedy, they now set out to cause it.
Because there are two sides to playground values those determined to promote socially acceptable niceness need also to establish a cordon sanitaire to protect the rest of us from the roaring, unruly elements outside the school wall. People who do not conform must be excluded or bullied until they fit in.
Sometimes the bullying is pathetically censorious: this weekend the Health Education Council, while attacking the brilliant poet Tony Harrison for daring to make a film defending freedom, including the freedom to smoke, revealed that since 1990 it had been making a note of films with inappropriate attitudes towards smoking.
One day, the council promised, the directors and actors would all be named and shamed.
The result is not more charity or kindness or positive values, but less. The nation that last year congratulated itself on showing the world how to mourn, boasted of being a people in touch with itself, leads the rest of Europe in divorce, in teenage crime and in the number of young people we keep incarcerated in jails.
Mobs howl for revenge outside courtrooms. A woman who has served 32 years in prison and clearly represents no threat to society is told that she must end her days there because the press has turned her into a reviled hate-figure. Some of those released from prison have to be kept in police custody to protect them from caring parents who hound them from town to town.
Doubtless these pillars of the community then go home to watch a heart- warming feel-good drama, all the while keeping a careful eye out for unacceptable attitudes towards hamsters during the advertising breaks.
It's all very strange.
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