Hit & Run: The brazen invasion
Wednesday 25 November 2009
The British are coming, and they're smug, swaggering, middle-aged authority figures. How is it that the faces our nation presents to the world have come to be those of Simon Cowell, Jeremy Clarkson, Gordon Ramsay and Piers Morgan? And why is the world – or America, at the very least – so keen on them?
Cowell, the extravagantly conceited impresario at the heart of both Britain's Got Talent and The X Factor, is now the highest-paid man on US prime-time television, thanks to his leadership of the American Idol franchise, which earned him £45m in the last year alone. Top Gear, starring the spectacularly self-satisfied Clarkson, is broadcast in 100 countries to a combined audience of 350 million, not to mention being the world's most illegally downloaded programme.
After succeeding Stateside with Hell's Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares, Ramsay's mastiff-faced gastro-rants are to be put to use in an American version of Masterchef for Fox TV. And Piers Morgan, once the unabashedly unsympathetic editor of a British tabloid, has transformed himself into a smarmy housewives' favourite for America's Got Talent. Theirs are among the most familiar faces on US television.
The British invasions of the past – cultural invasions, I mean, not actual invasions – have been premised on national archetypes such as the bounder (see Terry Thomas, David Niven), the fop (Hugh Grant, Colin Firth), or the cheeky chappie (Michael Caine, The Beatles). Now, instead, we have the shouty boss. One of the most popular fictional figures come film awards season is likely to be Malcolm Tucker, Peter Capaldi's poetically profane spin doctor from In the Loop.
Britons have long played the villain in Hollywood productions, and you could argue that Messrs Cowell, Clarkson, Ramsay and Morgan have merely created villainous personae for the sake of the cameras. But it seems many Americans actually admire their post-imperial snobbery and propensity for flinging elaborate insults at aspiring singers, chefs, jugglers or Hyundai-owning audience members. In fact, their incessant meanness gives them the sheen of authenticity. And meanwhile, the entrepreneurial success of Cowell and Ramsay endears them to a US audience that respects that sort of thing far more than we cheese-eating Europeans.
I'm beginning to suspect that this charmless offensive is some sort of elaborate conspiracy cooked up by Cowell: technically speaking, Morgan is his employee on Talent, and he earned rare respect from Clarkson for his speedy turn around the Top Gear track in a reasonably priced car. He's even known to have advised Ramsay on how to banish his famous wrinkles. Maybe he plans to create a race of television stars in his own image; he is, after all, extremely fond of it. Tim Walker
How easy is it to escape from an open prison?
It was eight hours before guards at East Sutton Park realised Jane Andrews ( right), the convicted murderer and former aide to the Duchess of York, had even absconded. So just how easy is it to escape an open prison? "It couldn't be easier," says Harry Fletcher, an assistant general secretary of Napo, the body representing family court and probation staff. "The majority of people in open prisons are on various day release schemes. They check out in the morning and go off to work and just don't come back."
Prisoners, who are often given their own keys, could almost as easily escape under the cover of darkness but wouldn't require grappling hooks. "You could just walk out," Fletcher says. The only deterrent is a swift dispatch to a closed prison for captured escapees but that didn't put off the 14,000 people who, according to a BBC Panorama investigation last year, absconded from open prisons in the past decade. Simon Usborne
The Literary Review's 17th Bad Sex Award is announced on Monday. Founded by Auberon Waugh, its crusade to stamp out embarrassing sex scenes in English novels continues under his son, Alexander. This year's shortlist features much animal imagery ("It was as if she were wearing a mask on her genitals... she could have been a crow or a coyote" – P Roth) and cliches of surging waves ("I moved like a tide determined to crash against those ancient rocks" – Simon Van Booy), while bodies are transformed into "a delicate seismograph" (Amos Oz,) "the inside of a soft-boiled egg" (Jonathan Littell) and a pubic "pin cushion" (Richard Milward.) It's a curiously British convention that shortlistees are expected to join in the ridicule. Not coming to the event, or expressing disapproval, is considered poor show, but some have refused to play ball. Sebastian Faulks was the only winner who didn't turn up. A A Gill suggested, amid much tut-tutting, that Auberon Waugh's sex life was probably "the sound of one hand clapping." Philip Kerr delivered a speech that rubbished the prize and its corporate sponsors. When asked about writing and sex by the LA Times, Margaret Atwood shuddered: "Nobody wants to win that prize..." As for its effectiveness in discouraging talk of writhing loins and erect nipples – well, John Banville, shortlisted this year for some sweaty action in The Infinities, told the Irish Writers Centre that, since this is his second nomination, he may "steer clear" of sex henceforth. Result! John Walsh
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