There was an awful lot going on in Chris Atkins's True Stories film, Starsuckers, some of it a statement of the obvious (were you aware that you can't believe everything you read in the Daily Sport?) and some of it genuinely shocking. But the fact that I absolutely know I'll still remember in five years' time is this: rhesus monkeys like looking at monkey celebrities and monkey porn. This was established by a Duke University research programme that offered its hairy participants a choice between two screens: if they looked at one they would get a squirt of fruit juice; if they looked at the other they had to give up the drink. Only two categories of picture proved tempting enough to make the monkeys turn away from the free bar – the sort of images you might find in a top-shelf publication called "Pink Rumped Hotties", and portraits of dominant members of the rhesus pack. If there was a simian equivalent of Hello! magazine these guys would be squabbling over the latest edition.
There's a Darwinian explanation for our hard-wired obsession with the A-list. If you can get close to them or emulate them there's usually some kind of pay-off, in terms of food or sexual success. Unfortunately, when this embedded bit of primate psychology encounters the multi-media world – and television in particular, with its ability to create synthetic communities – everything goes into meltdown. That was Atkins's essential thesis – that we've become trapped in an evolutionary feedback loop – and to prove it, he'd produced an odd hybrid of ambush stunt show and mordant documentary. Interspersed with the cautionary tale of a six-year-old Las Vegas child being groomed for celebrity by his parents, Atkins offered telling demonstrations of how the moment the paparazzi flashbulbs start popping, our critical faculties begin powering down.
In a British shopping mall, Atkins set up a stall for Xploit-TV, purportedly recruiting for a children's reality show. Eager parents scrawled their signatures on the consent forms without even reading them, and seemed unperturbed to discover that the show in question was to be called "Baby Boozer". "It's a parents' best dream, isn't it," said one dimwit, "having their children be on television?" Later, in a stunt that has already received newspaper coverage from the publications that didn't fall for it, Atkins and his assistants fed completely invented titbits of celebrity gossip to showbiz diarists who happily regurgitated it without even the most cursory check. If you enjoyed a recent story about Amy Winehouse's beehive catching fire, you have Atkins's florid imagination to thank – that and the indolence of the hacks who bought the story.
Atkins had tried to contain the sprawl of his film within a single conceit – that we would have revealed to us "the methods we use everyday to captivate, misdirect, distract and control". The "we" in that remark was global media, represented on screen by a pair of disembodied magician's hands. And by misdirection he meant more than persuading us to spend our money on vacuous celebrity-themed trash. His film ended with a case study of how the political cutting edge of the Make Poverty History campaign had been seemingly blunted by the Live 8 concerts, events that had a galvanising effect on contributing artists' record sales and monopolised the press coverage but may have helped to conceal the essential political fudge at Gleneagles. Things were getting a tiny bit Matrixy by this stage, the idea that star gossip had been used to dupe us into compliant drones only really working if you overlook the fact that tabloid enormities long predate celebrity culture. Atkins's film would have been stronger if it had been just a little shorter and just a little less at pains to connect all its dots together into a single global web of conspiracy. But even as it stood it made a pretty convincing case against the toxic effect of inhaling stardust.
That celebrity is a kind of golden ticket, giving you access to indulgence of your crimes and a gratuitous feeding of your appetites, was confirmed by Heston's Chocolate Factory Feast, in which the B-list guests who provide the least delectable component of Heston's gastronomic fantasies were invited to attend with a real golden ticket, an allusion to the Willie Wonka theme of his feast. Inside, they got another golden ticket, a gilded lozenge that cracked open to spill out kirsch liqueur. They also tucked into a duck à l'orange main course reconstituted as various forms of confectionary, edible wallpaper and a chocolate waterfall that began as liquid and fizzed away to an intense chocolate powder, washed down with a limpid distillate of chocolate. I love this show, but perhaps next time round they can spare us the stale celebrities (Patti Boulaye or Mike Read, anyone?) and give ordinary viewers a chance to win a golden ticket. I'm pretty sure we can say "Wow! That's amazing!" just as effectively.Reuse content