Oliver James: The sickest show on TV?

Deserving cases beg for money, humiliated by a bunch of image-conscious whizz kids... Can television stoop any lower
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The Independent Online

Never mind Celebrity Big Brother, if you want a programme that epitomises the ethical and existential bankruptcy of both British TV and our political economy, watch Fortune on ITV.

Five "judges" are propositioned by a series of contestants to give them money. The series pledges to give away £1m, although it's not completely clear whether the money comes out of the judges' pockets ITV's.

The panel include the poisonously offensive entrepreneur Duncan Bannatyne, ofDragon's Den, a sexist yob called Simon Jordan (who made millions out of managing soccer players) and, most startlingly, Jeffrey Archer. The beggar-peasants from The Great British Public make a pitch for a specific sum and the bountiful modern aristocrats, ennobled by business success, decide their worthiness.

The contestants fall into two categories: people with real problems that should be dealt with by publicly-funded agencies, and more or less eccentric people in search of a free lunch. The truly worthy cases provide the aristos with a chance to portray themselves as deeply caring, wise and human. The chancers are used as target practice for firing moral opprobrium, bullying and spite, with which Bannatyne, Jordan and Archer show themselves to be well tooled up. An audience of The Great Unwashed cheer and boo on demand, while the host, Richard Madeley, tries not to look too embarrassed by the spectacle.

Recent examples of worthies who got the thumbs up (for purposes of dramatic tension, not all such cases do) included a girl with cerebral palsy in need of special schooling, a vicar wanting a church loo and a teenage sprinter needing cash to train for the Olympics. "It's people like you who make us really proud of our country," intoned ex-athleteArcher. Chancers included the twin brothers who want to be illusionists, some Welsh pole-dancers wanting to set up a gym and a bankrupt ex-millionaire property developer who wanted twenty five grand to buy a racehorse. "A loser is a loser," snarled Jordan.

The ethical premises of this confection are a statement of selfish capitalism - "Blatcherism" - and perverted broadcasting. Of particular concern is the focus on marketing of one's personal life to make money.

In the mini-advert for each judge at the outset, all drew on their personal histories to ingratiate themselves withviewers. Jordan employed laddish innuendo and references to his familiarity with pole-dancing (and throughout the programme pointedly referred to all women as "girls" or "sweetheart"). Bannatyne styled himself as a menacing thug with a history of cruelty, of which he seemed curiously proud. Archer fielded The Sprinter, The Husband and The Man of Business and Politics.

The judges also offer tutelage in self-presentation. Poor marketing of a contestant's personal attributes, like their pitch, can attract the lash. All the judges are Marketing Characters, offering this modus vivendi as a model to the nation. First identified by the psychologist Erich Fromm, such people experience themselves as a commodity, as objects in a personality market, their value depending on success, saleability and the approval of others. Their principal ambition is to be an attractive "package", whether that entails seeming cheerful, sound, aggressive, reliable or ambitious.

Riddled with what I call the Affluenza Virus - placing a high value on money, possessions, appearance and fame - they are at greater risk of the commonest mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety and addictions. Scouring the world - spending three weeks in each of seven countries - for vaccines against this virus while writing a book about it, I found the élites to be the most infected.

In this country, Richard Branson vies with Tony Blatcher for the crown of King of the Marketing Characters. Ordinary people are less afflicted, deception and showing-off running flat against the British character. It is true that we watch the lost souls on Big Brother using their most intimate selves to win a competition, but in most cases I believe we do so with a mixture of amusement and horror.

An American confection, the heart of the problem with the Marketing Character is the misrepresentation of sincerity as authenticity. Sincerity - epitomised by Blatcher's performances - entails feeling something strongly and being seen to do so: who can forget the "queen of all our hearts" performance? Fortune is dripping with sincerity, from Archer's earnest concern at truly deserving peasant-contestants, to Bannatyne's savage threats.

By contrast, authenticity is being real and requires no public display of emotion. We often look to powerless groups, such as children at play or the poor, as Orwell did, for signs of it.

On my travels, I witnessed the purest American sincerity masquerading as authenticity on 11 September 2004 in New York. It was at the one-block gap in the lower of jaw of west Manhattan where the World Trade Center once stood, now inauthentically named Ground Zero.

Bush's re-election campaign was in full swing and he and his peers milked the event for all it was worth. "It has been said," intoned Mayor Bloomberg, sincerely, "that a child who loses its parents is an orphan ... but there is no word for a parent who loses their child, because no words can describe the grief they feel."

Bereaved relatives came to the podium to share this wordless grief. A father played his violin with a racked, agonised expression on his face. The sad sound of his slightly off-key instrument played our heartstrings, Bush's spinmeisters doubtless weeping with joy at the thought of the extra votes the performance would bring.

The authenticity of the father seemed unmistakable - making for "good television" in a land where authentic feeling is hard to disentangle from the commercials and psychobabble. This is, after all, the country that produced the most existentially disturbing reality TV series of all, The Bachelor, in which a handsome, wealthy young man picks a wife from a bevy of 16 attractive potential brides. After snogging a fair few, over the months they are whittled down to three. Going on dates with them at a hotel, he has sex (calling it "making love") with each. Having sampled all the goods, one is returned to sender and he introduces the remaining two to his family. Both claim to have fallen in love with him and with great plausibility, he claims abiding affection for them, as he has, with terrifying conviction, to most of the departed contestants. This chilling sincerity cannot be authentic because, however earnest, it is always also a performance for the cameras. He is making the most personal of decisions, yet he has allowed it to become a commodity, an experience to be packaged and sold worldwide.

Modern television perverts other crucial emotions in the service of the Marketing Society. Self-aggrandising game-playing is misrepresented as playfulness. In Fortune, Simon Jordan pretended to playfully do a pole-dance, at first dissembling reluctance. Cheered on, he then pretended to make a bit of a fool of himself. The existential difference between this and my five-year-old daughter's games with her Bear-Bear is as great as the difference between Blatcher's distress at Diana's death and the sorrow of an Iraqi widow.

Similarly, hyperactive over-stimulation frequently masquerades as vivacity on TV. Travel show hosts whiz from resort to resort, Jamie Oliver from dish to dish, designers from property to property.

These observations may be dismissed as the droning of a public school-educated, paternalistic member of the ruling élite, mourning the passing of an era in which the media used to be aware of its moral and educational duties. But those of us in positions of influence or power must take the blame for the disastrous Americanisation of our society.

Disastrous, not only because it is going to mean our grandchildren will be fried, flooded or frozen by global warming, but because it is driving us crazy. In researching my book, I discovered that citizens of the English-Speaking nations are twice as likely to be mentally ill as those living in mainland Western Europe. Nearly one quarter of us have suffered in this way in the past 12 months, compared with 11.5 per cent in Europe.

The reason is that we are more Affluenza-stricken, because we have more selfish, capitalist governance - privatisation, massive inequality, the legacy of Thatcherism and Blatcherism. Fortune epitomises the acceptance by most of our ruling élite that the market can solve all out problems.

Whether it be future Olympians or girls with cerebral palsy, we allow the new toffs to decide who is worthy, using their warped values. The not very hidden agenda of Blatcherism has been to privatise - all you need is a loaded loony fundamentalist (Christian, not Islamic) to take over an academy. The taxpayer will be picking up the bill for three times over the going interest rate for these buildings (and for new PFI hospitals) for decades to come. If you really want education or health choice, you must be wealthy or grovel to Fortune's sick plutocrats.

I have worked in television for 25 years. The great issue used to be whether it would ever sink so low as to broadcast a hanging. Saddam Hussein's demise settled that one. The question now is whether anyone will think up something worse than Fortune.

The desperate mother

Sandra asked for £25,850, to keep her 13-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy in a special school for three years. The panel gave her thumbs-up, to stop Jodie being "just another number" in a normal school.

The caring friend

Sharon wanted £14,000 for a friend who took in her dead sister's twins, to convert her loft for the girls. The panel approved, and Bannatyne added a further £6,000 as spending money.

The chancer

Johnny tried for £500 to "pay back all the money my mates have lent me for drinks... and stuff". All five said no, but he still went away with £10.63, given, said Madeley, by the audience.

Oliver James's book 'Affluenza - How to be Successful and Stay Sane' is published by Vermilion