TV Review from the October 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard
Last Friday I found myself in a television studio feeling unable to take part in what was going around me without wanting to throw up. I am seldom at a loss for words, but I am struggling now to describe this programme with any degree of objectivity or enthusiasm. I wouldn't know whether to call it a game show or a quiz show. And I am still not quite sure what the point of it was. True the information I had received on it had not endeared it to me long before I was due to take my place, along with three other socialists, in the studio audience. I rarely watch programmes of this ilk. A woman representing the Audience Research Unit had promised me we would be involved in a lively debate. Now I think I could be forgiven for believing this might lead to an opportunity to voice ideas sympathetic to socialist thinking. I didn't know then that the studio audience had been—how can I put it? — manipulated.
We arrived at the television centre several hours before the programme was due to go out, whereupon we were ushered upstairs, along corridors, round corners until we finally reached a place called "hospitality", but which looked like a works canteen. We were invited to help ourselves to tea and coffee. I jokingly asked if we got a glass of wine. Sharon from the Audience Research Unit told me "We can't run to that." I bet they "ran to it" for the guest celebrities. Someone called out names from a list and about six people marched off to another part of the building. The same people turned up later, already in place in the studio, and did most of the talking once the programme had got underway. And I had thought it was going to be a free for all. What naivete on my part; but this was my first time ever on television. Of course this did not necessarily mean we could not voice our opinions, but what it did mean to us was that having once discovered that people had been previously singled out for their contribution, and having realised also that the programme was tasteless and a load of rubbish to boot, we became hard put not to sit in the front row of the studio audience with arms folded and wearing, each of us, expressions of doom. It was so awful.
This is what was on offer. A panel of three celebrities (one of them describing herself as a "socialist anarchist" in some information handed out to us), a studio audience taken from a cross-section of the public, a well-known name to "host" the programme, and a chair reminiscent of the Mastermind hot seat. Three people in the news that week had been asked along to occupy the chair, one at a time. Each member of the panel would ask questions of the newsworthy guest with the intention, I think, of making him squirm. The audience got its turn, but the people who had been primed beforehand spoke first and had the most to say. Anyone lucky enough to get in after that was often cut short so that the next chair guest could be introduced. But not before we had voted. We were asked to hold up a card with an H on one side and a V on the other. H for hero, V for villain. Such responsibility! We three didn't bother, except that I did vote once in an attempt to look as though I was joining in. Debate was very limited before we were expected to make that all-important decision as to whether the chair guest was a hero or a villain. One contestant for the chair was the landlord of a pub who had incurred local disapproval for wishing to employ male strippers on his premises. The host went to town on this one with a line in jokes and puns on male genitalia, the kind of which I had given up laughing at when I was thirteen years old, and I didn't laugh much then either. "Turkey's giblets" was one of the expressions used. It was all so pathetic that my fellow-socialists and I looked at our watches and yawned. It was going to be some time before we could repair to the pub.
It is no wonder that when the programme went out the cameras seemed to have missed the three of us. We could be seen as three blurred images. It was obvious that someone in authority had given us the thumbs down. What self-respecting producer, concerned for his ratings, is going to allow shots to be taken of three people who look as though they are taking part in a mass suicide? What a relief. Who wants acquaintances coming up to them in the street the next day saying "I saw you on telly last night" when in reality that turned out to be the last place they ever wanted to be. And talking of reality-that little square box in the corner of our living room is not reality whatever else anyone thinks it is. Even members of the celebrity panel looked bored and lethargic and they were getting paid. Since we live in a world where money is the name of the game then perhaps audiences should be paid too. Not that a freebie could ever be any inducement for me to take part in such tripe.