Saturday, January 2, 2016

Between the Lines: Beyond the dark (1988)

The Between the Lines Column from the September 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

Beyond the dark

In case you can't find enough Tory dogma stuffed down the columns of your morning newspaper, Channel Four has provided just that added touch of repulsion at the end of the week, in the form of a new Friday-night discussion programme, Right Talk (a 10pm)

A Tory Lord chaired the first in the series. "Well", he began, "after nine years of Thatcherism we have all made lots of money . . . "; one immediately knew it was going to be one of those discussions. Lord Blake, who looked like an extra from Brideshead Revisited, couldn't be sure whether Thatcher's ideas owed more to Gladstone the Liberal or Disraeli the Tory. The participants drank orange juice out of glasses in silver holders (handling the glass itself might have seemed a touch too close to feeding themselves) and debated whether society really exists or, as Thatcher has suggested, we are all no more than a collection of individuals, united at most by family ties. Of course, the notion that there is no society is pretty handy when you are running one in which eight million workers arc dependent on state welfare payments, all of whom you choose to ignore. 

The discussion was frighteningly smug, which should perhaps be expected when a bunch of like minded doctrinaires get together and look at the world. I kept hoping that a socialist would burst in on the discussion (maybe Channel Four would send one in to collect the glass-holders), take on the whole pack of them and still drink his orange juice But the door never opened, and as the inane chatter continued I couldn't help thinking that the Tory party conference must he an awful place to be if you have a mind of your own.

Laughing at the riff-raff

In 1974 a BBC producer made an innovative fly-on-the-wall documentary called The Family. In July BBC2 re-screened it. Watching it the second time round, it became clear just how bloody wretched the lives of many workers are, a wretchedness which transcends any poverty statistics. The Wilkins family were not Victorian beasts who lived in one room and had arses hanging out of their trousers. That eight of them inhabited one pokey house in Reading was bad enough — bad enough indeed for two of the them to be rehoused in the course of the series, leaving only six of them to luxuriate in the palatial residence But it was not just the grimness of an impoverished family existence which made the Wilkins' predicament especially sad. It was the fact that these people had clearly been brought up to know their place in the world a mean and humble place, where complaining is in order but "you can't do nothing about it". In the course of the series I did not once see a single Wilkin reading a book, which is not a patronising jibe but a comment on the cultural impoverishment of many of our fellow workers. No books, but plenty of tabloid newspapers were in evidence As the series progressed the family became both more likeable and more pathetic One imagined a capitalist family watching the programme, mystified that people can live such pinched, cramped, repressed lives without wanting a revolution and laughing their heads off at the foolish antics of these simple slum-folk

Like many other viewers, I enjoyed watching Tom, the drunken, comical son-in-law whose native wit seemed to sustain the Wilkins in their ceaseless battle against the troubles of life. In the last episode Tom said that he had enjoyed the notoriety winch the series had given him, he thought he might now try his hand as a stand-up comedian. Unless he has disguised himself, the quest for stardom does not seem to have led to much in the last fifteen years Tom would have been better becoming a stand-up socialist; he could certainly have taught the Wilkins family a thing or two about how to change their situation.

One postscript on the series: its repeat showing led to a revival of public interest in the family Three of them were invited on to the Wogan show to tell us what had been happening since 1974. Every one of them had since been divorced. Mother and father were no longer together. Tom's wife had divorced him and married twice more, the son had divorced his wife, the teenage girl, unmarried in 1974, has been through several fathers for her children And all of this under a social system which, according to Mrs Thatcher, ties people together through the sacred knot of the family.

Through the keyhole

Back in 1974 there were doubts about the ethics of having a TV crew move in with a family for several months and observe their every move. The defence was that the Wilkins family knew what they were letting themselves in for. Even so, speaking in 1988. the mother of the family complained that they had been awfully underpaid for having been so used by the BBC. But what they did is nothing in comparison with the latest brand of voyeurism put out by ITV to please the advertisers. Family Affairs (6.30pm Fridays) is possibly one of the most tasteless ideas for a TV series ever conceived (And no. I haven't forgotten Cilla and her Blind Date.) Each week the presenter, Mike Smith, invites a couple to sit on a stage before an invited audience and argue about their most intimate problems. In one episode a black husband and a white wife are on the point of divorce; he will divorce her unless she slops seeing her racist father, who refuses to treat his black son-in law as an equal or, indeed, as a human being. She sees his point, but can’t bring herself to make the break. The audience, like over-emotional spectators at a street brawl, shout their advice. "Tell her father to go to hell." “If you loved him you'd give up your dad." "Be a man and take no notice of her old man., it's her you've married." On hand is marriage counsellor, Philip Hodson, whose sole function seems to be to make embarrassing, platitudinous statements like "Listen, why don't you turn to her now and tell her you love her." Oh yes, that will definitely save the marriage. Does this guy get paid for mouthing such banalities? It is a truly sick format which is likely to run and run.

Dictatorship games

As you read this column you may be submerged in 24-hour coverage of the Olympic Games from Korea, a country with a truly disgusting dictatorship You will recall that when the Games were in Moscow the USA would not go and Thatcher, who believes that politics should be kept out of sport, advised British athletes to stay away or whistle for an OBE. When the Games were in Los Angeles the Russian government ordered its boys and girls to stay at home. Now, by any standards, Korea is a worse hell hole and a fouler police state than either the USA or Russia. But both superpowers are sending their workers to compete there. Within a few weeks you will know the American national anthem down to the last beat; you will probably become pretty familiar will the Russian and East German ones as well. As for die British idiot-song — well, you had better stick to watching BBC closing down because "our' team is going to demonstrate what it means to have virtually no sports funding. Alternatively, you could keep watching Right Talk on Channel Four. I've just got this horrible feeling that any week now they're all going to burst into a solemn rendition of "God Save the Queen".
Steve Coleman

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