TONIGHT Channel 4 screens a new game show. The set - and set-up - will be familiar enough to viewers of popular television. A smarmy host, Andrew O'Connor, all sharp suit and blunt jokes, bounces on stage and introduces his flirt-and-skirt assistant, Annabel Giles. Annabel describes the show's star prize - a 'magnificent' four-bedroomed house, with brimming fridge and smart gardens.
Then comes the twist: the introduction of the guests. It is no surprise that all are unemployed. The shock is the response to the routine opener: 'Where do you live?' Jimmy resides in a cardboard box, Nicole in a Kilburn hostel. This game show with a house as its bait is being played by homeless people. Rounds include the creation of a cardboard shelter against the clock.
In television, a one-off screening for a new format is known as a 'pilot'. This Channel 4 offering - raffishly entitled Come On Down And Out] - will be seen by many as a kamikaze: an idea so intellectually misdirected that it seems certain to land in flames of outrage. That is precisely the response that the announcement has so far elicited from the press. But I urge you to watch it. It seems to me a work of rare inspiration: a reminder of the possibilities of the medium and a warning against a developing British mood of spurious tastefulness.
Come On Down And Out] is, in fact, a spoof, and its homeless contestants are played by actors. Protests following the announcement of the programme forced Channel 4 to come clean before transmission, and an on-screen explanation at the end of tonight's programme will attempt to head off fuming viewers jumping for their telephones. It is clearly proper that the street people should have been actors. To subject those genuinely of no abode to a televised contest for lodging would be unacceptable, even in a Britain that has adjusted so well both to television and the welfare state. Even so, I regret that the show was exposed as a spoof before it was shown. Those - and I admit to having been one of them - who concluded from the advance billing that Channel 4 had swapped conscience for controversy, driven mad by the pressure of selling its own advertising, rather deserved the full experience of being gulled.
In fact, even after the disclosure of the programme's secret, moral doubts have continued. The objectors include charities, liberal columnists and the Big Issue, an excellent magazine sold on the streets of London by the homeless on a profit-share basis. The complaint of this lobby is that the jokey approach trivialises a sombre topic, bringing the homeless into your home as entertainment. Their concern is proper. It is right to scrutinise the programme for signs of the Benetton Phenomenon, which deploys social distress to bring commercial visibility and uses blood and sweat to sell sweaters.
But Channel 4 is not, it seems to me, attempting to pull (or pullover) a similar trick. The programme's shock tactics can be justified. The jolting format does not blot out serious points. It may be argued that some of O'Connor's questions to the contestants - 'How many homes were repossessed in Britain during 1992?', with A, B and C choices of answer - trivialise a complex social problem. But any viewer playing the game and choosing a figure ludicrously low is forced to reflect, at least for a moment, on the true grim statistics.
Similarly, there is a moment when Roger, the bankrupt businessman, is first to the buzzer on the cost of the dream home. Complimented by O'Connor on his rapidity, he explains that he used to live in one just like it. Here, in a gentle way, viewers with assumptions about the past or class of the homeless will come face to face with their prejudices. Equally, the overall game-show format is, for me, an interestingly dark and sarcastic metaphor for the operation of the public housing system. The final sequence - iEn which the studio audience votes on who wins the home - is a usTHER write erroreful illustration of the importance of the appearance and biography of applicants for state accommodation.
It will be argued that each of these points could have been made as strongly, and more palatably, in other television formats, such as documentary or comment. In fact, Come On Down And Out] is part of just such a thematic season, under the generic title Gimme Shelter, which includes a repeat of Cathy Come Home, the most famous drama about the homeless.
One interpretation would be that tonight's spoof is evidence that television has become so cynical and populist that instead of producing socially realistic drama it prefers sensationalist entertainment to deal with the same subject. This is, I admit, an alarming commentary on perceptions of the medium; that British television, and the politically correct minority station Channel 4 in particular, should be thought capable of screening a game show in which genuine homeless people are put through the hoops for a roof over their heads.
I would offer another interpretation of the gulf between Cathy Come Home and Come On Down And Out], between television in 1965 and 1993: the change is as much in audiences as in broadcasters. The twin mind-sets of conscience fatigue and anti-seriousness-complex are now so well established that grimy social realism would make little impact. In a multichannel, 24-hour news culture, distress may have to sell itself with a gaudy frontage merely to get past the calloused defences of the viewer. How many people, in all honesty, would have taken an interest in Channel 4's season on the homeless if it had not been for all the fuss over this contentious format?
The row over Come On Down And Out] also touches on another disturbing cultural trend: the invocation of 'taste' as an excuse for avoiding a topic. Last week a TV company removed from its schedules Neil Jordan's Angel and Ken Loach's Hidden Agenda because they were considered inappropriate, in bad taste, after the Warrington bombing. Both films were set in Northern Ireland. Which company made this craven decision, this McCarthyite association of all Irish art with the support of violence? Come on down again, Channel 4]
Of the organisation's two scheduling decisions, that to screen Come On Down And Out] seems to me immeasurably the better one. The best thing about tonight's homeless game show is that it risked offence, a proper weapon of art in the cause of encouraging attention to a subject. The straitjacket of 'taste' removed from British television screens two of the few movies that have bothered to approach the subject of Northern Ireland.
Some have tried to drape the same respectable, but dangerous, garment around tonight's programme. I am glad they failed. A medium that flows more or less unstoppably into the home inherits vast moral responsibilities - and a sober debate about the screening of violence should be commenced - but television must not abandon the proper possibilities of jolting people on their sofas.
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