Two bits of media news caught my eye last week. The first was Channel 4's purchase of another stash of "daring" films (titles included Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Driller Killer and Dick, a light-hearted little number about penises.) The second was the by no means startling revelation that Channel 5 had been hauled over the coals by the regulator for peddling low-grade smut to its exiguous small-hours audience. This juxtaposition seemed to me highly revealing of the way in which minority television goes about its business, and the attitudes that underlie it.
Like most irregular TV watchers, of course, I never cease to thank God for the day that Channel 4 was invented. To explain this feeling of gratitude - which goes back to the dramatisation of Nicholas Nickleby in 1982 - you need only look at the competing schedules. What, for example, is BBC1 serving up for its attentive audience on the evening of Thursday 6 April? Well, Anne Robinson, followed by EastEnders, followed by two animal programmes, followed by some drama in which "a male heart transplant patient is plagued by vivid erotic dreams", followed by golf: a pageant of tedium beside which Sex In The City resembles Tolstoy.
All the same, there is a price to be paid for C4 - for The Cold War and the theme nights and A Dance To The Music Of Time - which is a painful hypocrisy over motive. More or less justifiably, C4 has a reputation for being the intellectual, boundary-breaking arm of UKTV. BBC1 might be the preserve of soap and animal lovers and true-crime fanciers, BBC2 the cook and gardener's paradise, and ITV offer a rest-home for the presenters and comedians of 20 years ago, but no, C4 is at the cutting edge. From the point of view of huge parts of its current output, this banner is highly convenient. It enables a groaning stack of exploitative rubbish to be beamed out in the guise of art, freedom of expression and the frank discussion of serious issues.
Take, for example, the latest additions to the C4 film roster: a film about a man who chainsaws people to death, a film about a man who - just to make a change - drills people to death (one of the original "video nasties" over which such a storm raged 20 years ago), and a coy procession of male genitalia. Just the usual low-budget tack, in fact, but the average C4 executive would doubtless allow himself to be boiled in oil rather than admit as much. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was one of the great censorship causes cÃ©lÃ¿bres of the 1970s, you see, so surely, the reasoning goes, we must be striking a blow for artistic freedom, and...
No, we are not. We are allowing a lot of vicious nonsense to masquerade as art, in much the same way as the controversial "Redlight Zone" series a couple of years back was the excuse for a great deal of prurience at the expense of prostitutes. Quite by chance the other week I switched on halfway through a "documentary" about the making of a hardcore porn film. Everything one expected was there: the fat goblin with the camcorder, the lesbian twosome prattling artlessly about how much they enjoyed their jobs, the portly director just itching to get in on the act - and the general effect was at once intrusive, exploitative and horribly sad.
To take this line is not, heaven forbid, to protest about sex on the TV, to suggest, however discreetly, that censorship can be a very good thing, or to venture any of the old, discredited, anti-liberal stridency. This is the year 2000: whether we like it or not our post-watershed TV screens are going to be awash with actresses getting their kit off, and there is nothing we can do about it (even the spokesman from the Viewers and Listeners Association now admits this) except stop watching. What we should protest about, though, is the spectacle of prurience masquerading as high-mindedness or serious investigative journalism.
In contrast, the Channel 5 approach - so regularly damned by the Independent Television Commission - is refreshingly down to earth. Should one its proud executives ever surface to defend the late-night schedules - Sex And Shopping, X Certificate and all the rest of it - the defence can be summed up, if not in these exact words, as "We intend to show as much low-grade rubbish as we can get away with for the benefit of the few hundred lemur-eyed obsessives still up at that time who haven't got anything better to do." Which is fair enough, if you like that sort of thing.
Somehow this frankness is preferable to people going round trying to pretend that Driller Killer is art, or that gloating over a woman who makes a living being filmed having sex with men she has never seen before somehow advances the frontiers of TV journalism. Nothing wrong with exploitative tat, of course, but one likes it to come properly labelled.
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