I have seen the future, and it is voyeurvision

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The Independent Online

It seems to be official. Our growing appetite for TV's hot new fad, voyeurvision, is a cause for concern. Panorama is to investigate the phenomenon. It seems only a matter of time before our caring, ethically concerned Home Secretary announces some kind of government enquiry.

It seems to be official. Our growing appetite for TV's hot new fad, voyeurvision, is a cause for concern. Panorama is to investigate the phenomenon. It seems only a matter of time before our caring, ethically concerned Home Secretary announces some kind of government enquiry.

Not so long ago, television's hidden-camera game appeared to have reached a dead end. There were too many flies on too many walls. Every police force, it seemed, had its resident hand-held camera to record its dawn raids. Everyone, from the director of the Royal Opera to a jaunty transvestite in Paddington, longed to have his or her privacy intruded upon. We were taken behind the scenes at airports and hotels, followed in the steps of traffic wardens, became intimately knowledgeable about how people in their twenties drank and had sex on holiday.

Then some bright spark realised that it was not just the domestic and professional periphery of ordinary lives that was of interest, it was the people themselves. By being taken out of context, put on a deserted island or locked in a house, they would be stripped of the various devices we use to protect and camouflage ourselves at home and at work.

This sudden overload of reality was alarming, particularly for a writer. In a straight contest, fictional drama - the stuff made up by someone at a desk and interpreted by a director and actors - was never going to be able to compete with raw material cleverly edited. A great play might survive - Hamlet would still have the edge over a fly-on-the-wall docusoap behind the ramparts of Elsinore - but most of the stories that appeared on television were soon going to seem too ordered and self-conscious to be worth watching.

As if recognising that they are in a declining market, the directors of drama series such as The Cops or Other People's Children have taken to borrowing documentary techniques - wobbly camera, dodgy angles, bad lighting - as if, rather pathetically, to disguise drama as fact.

The accepted wisdom among those concerned for our moral welfare is that all this voyeuristic sniffing about is harmful, but I'm not so sure. I like being a voyeur. Watching a recent episode of Castaway 2000, I began to wonder whether the programme's various mini-dramas were revealing aspects of contemporary life more directly than a drama series ever could. A middle-class couple use parenthood, their much-vaunted care for "the kids", as a way of establishing moral superiority over others. A bearded academic self-consciously deploys clever-dick vocabulary as a defensive device. One character suffers from a need to disrupt and cause mayhem over which he has no control. Unlikely leaders emerge. Of course, a level of interpretation is required from viewers, but that is true of all the best art.

Voyeurvision is also fascinatingly revealing of the medium itself. The individuals chosen for the first Big Brother series were as dull a bunch of young exhibitionists as one would ever fear to meet in a pub on a Friday night, yet, after a few weeks under scrutiny, those who lasted the distance acquired a sort of dignity, even complexity. It was the camera and the isolation that did it, of course: once they emerged into the real world, banality was restored and the illusion exposed.

Maybe I have been corrupted, but I begin to think that I shall learn more, and with more enjoyment, from the best voyeurvision than from, say, the latest theatrical think-piece by Sir David Hare. Soon, with a bit of luck, those who deal in TV reality will set up a show with my kind of people - a failed musician, a barrister with a drink problem, an angry divorcee, a frustrated writer, a gay accountant, a dodgy politician. I can't wait.

terblacker@aol.com

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