David Aaronovitch: A new front in the fight for ratings

'Poor Simon Schama, who presumably failed to "engage a new audience" because he fronted a conventional TV history'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is a terrible thing for a man to find himself an anthropologist in his own country. How strange the natives are these days. And how childlike. Last week one of them – an intelligent and lively person, who is well respected among her peers – lent me a video tape of a particularly dramatic edition of Big Brother. She was convinced that I would enjoy it. "There's a great fight! Lots of crying and shouting and emotion." she told me. "And one of them gets his trunks pulled down, and you can see him from behind and you can see everything!"

You couldn't see everything. Not unless fingernails count. And the fight was a hissy fit thrown by a mild brat at a slight arsehole. As she stomped off in her bra and knickers (a state of demi-nudism is obligatory), and fighting on the tears, I was taken back to a night, 30 years ago, when a group of us 15-year-olds played with a Ouija board and spent a couple of pleasant hours on the phone to the Samaritans tremulously threatening suicide. So, as the drama-queen was comforted by her insincere housemates in the shag-room (as yet unused for its unstated purpose), my main emotion was one of intense embarrassment. The whole thing was so hopelessly adolescent and so dull.

Two days later honourable daughter number one (aged 11) had a friend over. This friend (whom I shall call Gemma) had, the day before, had tea at another girl's house. Say, Emma's. It was something of a gathering, because Sue was there too, as was Pru. And Miriam, Ruth and Shelby. Weeeeeell, you know how Sue doesn't get on with Miriam? So, she says to Shelby, "I wish Miriam wasn't here," and Miriam hears, and then she starts to cry, and so...

So what? So nothing. So something that could interest those just starting off an independent life as social beings, those contemplating the onset of adulthood. But how could it conceivably fascinate people who have been adults for a decade or more? When you've seen a parent die or a child born, how could you be "hooked" on something less inherently vital than watching people go shopping, having a poo, or talking in pubs? "Breakfast at number 11" or "School Governor" (both of which star me in some capacity) would each of them contain more conflict, more passion and more bad language per episode than a year in the Bow Wendy House.

I just have to be missing the point. In a Sunday newspaper, Germaine Greer said of Big Brother- addiction that, "to get hooked on it is downright depraved". This is because (she rightly argues) it is like sneaking a peek at the diary of your youngest daughter. But the Brother-lovers I meet aren't depraved. The quotidian doings of Dean, Stu, Loo, Gay 1, Gay 2, Lanky and Bashful (or whoever) have simply become the currency of easy conversational exchange, a bit like gossip about Polly Garter and Nogood Boyo in Under Milk Wood. It is gossip for the gossipless, community life for the community-less. In other words, it's harmless.

What it is not is a "social experiment", or a "valuable insight", and neither is "a new community" being created. It is something wonderful how broadcasters can pontificate about politicians, insincerity and spin, while dressing up their own dross in robes of gold. The best of them, Castaway, was subverted from the beginning by its own "cast" not being quite away enough. Its relative, Survivor, is an example of nothing but how far some people are prepared to go for a million pounds. Or how far some broadcasters will go for ratings. Both of which we knew already. I look forward to Donal MacIntyre infiltrating the world of television commissioning, mike strapped to his rippling pecs, as he captures the cynicism that accompanies some decisions.

Had he been on the job a few months ago, would he have caught a discussion in which BBC executives talked about their dream show. What would happen (they might have wondered) if you crossed the privations of Survivor with the recent history in the Channel 4 hit, 1940 House? Up speaks Alan Partridge. How about a series in which a group of volunteers are put in a re-creation of a World War I trench for a winter?

Incredibly this time they don't say no. This time they say yes. Announcing the series the head of the BBC's Factual Programmes Department, David Mortimer (whose brainchild the series is) made this claim. "We want," he said, "to make the programme for a generation that knows nothing about the First World War and the sacrifice made by their forebears, and we had to find an imaginative way of engaging a new audience with that terrible story."

The ubiquitous "BBC spokesman" added: "This is a serious documentary series – a lot of people have phoned in already wanting to take part."

Poor bloody Lawrence Rees who spent all that time making boring old unimaginative documentaries about the Nazis. Poor bloody Simon Schama who presumably failed to "engage a new audience", because he fronted a conventional television history using words, pictures and commentaries. But wait, I am getting ahead of myself. More reporting, less opinion at this stage. So I can tell you that a trench over a quarter of a mile long is to be dug in France and – by November – it should be sufficiently waterlogged and cold for filming.

Then the volunteers will arrive. Unlike the men on the Somme, they will get "psychological training" beforehand and – should they feel the need – counselling afterwards. Because, according to executive producer David Colthurst: "It's going to be tough... We will be recreating every detail of the whole miserable experience. It will seem pretty damn real and people will find it awful." Authenticity is guaranteed. "We will work from diaries and records," Colthurst said, "to piece together exactly how it was. Nothing will be made up."

Every detail? There is, of course, one tiny problem. No war. No artillery bombardment. No enemy attacks. No over the top. No snipers. No daily expectation of being killed or hideously wounded. Indeed, no reason to be physically concerned at all, since, as Mr Colthurst responsibly allows, the BBC has to work within modern health and safety guidelines, which specifically preclude exploding and dismembering members of the public who participate in Corporation programmes. So tear gas will be used instead of chlorine gas, the stench of rotting bodies will be chemically reproduced, and every now and again death will be simulated by the arbitrary removal of a participant.

"We will be recreating every detail of the whole miserable experience" of a war in which millions died in the trenches, and yet no one dies? What next? How about the Bataan Death March, except that anyone who is feeling very tired will, instead of being bayoneted or beheaded by Japanese soldiers, be gently removed from the sand road by helicopter, and choppered back to Blighty? Or Genocide, where volunteers get to fall backwards naked into a pit with their whole family. "What was it like?" they will be asked, as they exit the ghetto to loud cheering. "Well," they may grumble, "we do think the Feinsteins should have been shot first."