The Age of Static: How TV Explains Modern Britain

Phil Harrison

Melville House Books, £9.99

Review by Neil Mackay

FOR my sins, I’ve worked in TV a fair bit, mostly as a producer. Some of the worst moments of my career have taken place in the padded cells where TV execs pitch ideas to commissioning editors.

I recall one dreadful meeting with a commissioning editor who I’ll call Sebastian – because he’s probably the most utter Sebastian I’ve ever met in my life, and I’ve met quite a few, I promise you.

I was telling Sebastian about a documentary I planned to make. I wanted the film to explore the effects of extreme and violent pornography on young men. I’d written a lot about the sex industry and wanted to investigate how exposure to repeated, dehumanising images of women played into misogyny, domestic violence, rape culture, and sexual dysfunction and mental health problems in young men. It was a serious subject and I wanted to treat it seriously.

I could see Sebastian didn’t care a damn about exploited women or damaged young men. His eyes were registering sex and ratings – money. Sebastian wanted to turn the idea into nothing more than a series of graphic clips from adult films, with some flimsy commentary (from a celebrity, of course) about the moral rights and wrongs of pornography, providing a weak cover for brainless titillation.

I recall him saying: “Oh, Neil, let’s not get too serious about a bit of porn, old chum. I remember at school when me and the boys were in bed in our dorm, passing round porno mags like Razzle. It was just a laugh – just a bit of fun.”

There were three other people in the room with me, two men and a woman. The two men nodded obediently along with Sebastian – he held the purse strings after all (even though they’d later mock him behind his back). The woman and I looked at each other with barely disguised disgust.

There, in front of us, was the dilemma of modern TV expressed in human form: an idiot public schoolboy who’d somehow grifted his way into television, reducing a painfully real, painfully human story down to sniggers and audience share. This moron decided what the rest of the nation got to watch and he couldn’t even see the difference between Playboy and images of simulated rape.

The spirit of Sebastian hovers over the pages of Phil Harrison’s excellent and intelligent new book The Age of Static: How TV Explains Modern Britain.

With tremendous brio, Harrison investigates how television created the cultural backdrop which helped mould the Britain we live in today – a country of division, cruelty, and stupidity; of culture wars and hate mobs; of emptiness, pointlessness and intellectual exhaustion.

As Harrison says, laying out his thesis: “Television isn’t always taken as seriously as it deserves to be. In fact, it’s often unfairly dismissed as the most disposable, least permanent of art forms. But television, perhaps more than any other art form, is political … It remains an indispensable road map to the British psyche.”

Just think of reality TV over the last 20 years – Big Brother, The Apprentice, Benefits Street. What are these shows saying about Britain? To read Harrison, they speak of cruelty, decline, failure, rejection of thought. “Dysfunction was becoming a grimly marketable commodity,” he writes. Harrison fearlessly sticks his finger in national open wounds.

It’s little surprise that reality TV and social media were born at roughly the same time. They’re effectively twins. At their core is nastiness and spite – and I say that as a fan of reality TV.

I find reality TV endlessly fascinating. I cannot help but peep through the window it opens to the darkest side of human behaviour. The angels on my shoulder look away when I switch on a reality show. The devils open the popcorn.

Back in Tudor times, everyone went to see bear baiting. Back in Rome, everybody loved gladiatorial death. Today, we have the ignominy and humiliation, the shaming, of ordinary – though fame-hungry and foolish –people to fill that need for spectacle and suffering.

Like Sebastian, our TV is also increasingly class-based, as well as cruel and stupid. Consider Fleabag. I applaud it. A woman can finally behave as abominably as a man – she can drink herself sick, have sex without a care, be an idiot, laugh at life, scorn responsibilities, revel in selfishness and be a moral mess. But the one aspect of Fleabag that sits uneasy, in reading Harrison, is this: the character coasts through her dysfunction because she’s comfortably middle class.

If Fleabag was set in the working class world, it wouldn’t be so funny. Fleabag would be shamed. She’d suffer harshly. A working class woman drinking and screwing her way through life?

How dare she. We’d see her broken … then “redeemed”. Sadly, Harrison’s fizzing and accessible study tells us, that’s how morality works in British television, and in Britain.

Television sits in judgement of the working class. It shames through shows like Benefits Street, and patronises on The Secret Millionaire. Then it dares to tell them how to live on Jamie’s School Dinners.

There was rightly a discussion amid the Black Lives Matter demonstrations of programmes like Little Britain mocking racial stereotypes. One of the show’s cruellest stereotypes was Vicky Pollard, the ineloquent working class teenage girl played by wealthy public schoolboy, Matt Lucas.

Meanwhile, television increasingly fetishises the middle classes in programmes from Location, Location, Location and Downton Abbey to The Great British Bake Off. This is the world in which Tory austerity found fertile, even sympathetic, soil.

TV is now part of our culture war. It was the BBC, after all, which brought the likes of Nigel Farage and Katie Hopkins to prominence.

In a way, the BBC is a metaphor for TV’s fortunes. Where once it was trusted and tried to reflect all aspects of British life – with the realistic dramas of the sixties, seventies and eighties its defining success – today it’s seen as shifty, and representative of a distinctly middle class sense of status quo. Question Time is, perhaps, the greatest example of BBC decline.

As Harrison points out, not all TV has failed us. There’s plenty of great TV – This is England, Brass Eye, Shameless, Detectorists – that challenges the status quo and tries to make viewers think, without falling into the trap of being worthy but dull.

Nobody expects TV to be an endless moral lesson, or guidebook to decency. We all need some mindless Saturday night style entertainment. Ant and Dec simply distract us from life’s grinding pressures, and good on them.

The good news is that when it comes to well-made TV, rest assured Sebastian has never been involved. He still works in television, though. I’m sure you’ve seen some of his programmes.