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Culture

My perfect Strictly Come Dancing lineup

Peter Mandelson
Winona Ryder
Christiano Ronaldo
Werner Herzog
Tina Fey
Carey Mulligan
Sachin Tendulkar
Venus Williams
Mark Zuckerberg
Sarah Palin
Prince William
Scarlett Johansson
Tom Cruise
Condoleezza Rice

Obviously.

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Culture

Afghan Star

Just a quick mention for this documentary, which I’ve owned on DVD for ages but only just got round to watching. It follows season three of Afghan Star, an American Idol type show in Afghanistan. It’s a brilliant idea for a documentary, because the glitz and bombast of those talent shows seem like the very epitome of a certain kind of western consumer culture. And in many ways it seems like the very worst of our culture: vulgar, shallow, manipulative and at least partially fake.

But in a country where quite recently music and television were banned by the Taliban, where people were killed for owning a television, putting on a music talent show — one where women compete against men! — suddenly becomes a powerful thing to do. And its not often that light entertainment gets to take a heroic role, but actually in a country oppressed by dry, moralistic theocrats, I think it is heroic to assert the value of lightness, of entertainment. And it may be the newly democratic Afghanistan, but it’s still the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and there are still plenty of angry, bearded, conservative men in positions of power, and those Taliban are still out there, and they still have guns and bombs. These people are risking their lives to bring people joy.

And yet, despite all the enthusiastic comments from people about the new freedom the show represents, when one of the female contestants does a little bit of very tame dancing on stage while singing, nearly everyone is genuinely and visibly shocked. Not just the beardy imams, but the other young contestants. The whole thing is fascinating on all kinds of levels.

And I watched it directly after watching some of the current British incarnation, X Factor, and it was intriguing to see something with many of the clichés of those shows — the embarrassingly bad early auditions, the queues of people waiting to audition, the dramatic pauses as they announce the results — but put together by people who are inventing a TV industry from scratch and have almost no budget. Although if you visit the show’s website and see some of the more recent videos, the whole outfit now looks a lot more slick.

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Culture

The Ross/Brand incident and its aftermath

Yeah, I know, not exactly topical. But David Mitchell wrote a good article about it in the Guardian today and it seemed like a suitable moment to add my halfpennyworth.

It seems to me that the phone calls to Andrew Sachs were a special case. It bothered a lot of people who are not easily offended. I know that the outrage was orchestrated by the Daily Mail, but even so, I don’t think they would have been able to generate so many complaints if it hadn’t touched a nerve with a lot of people.

Leaving a message on someone’s answering machine making a joke about having slept with their granddaughter is just a dick thing to do. It would be a mean-spirited and distasteful thing to do even if you didn’t broadcast the message on national radio. It is in a sense as much bad manners as it is bad taste. And it was aimed directly at an individual who had done nothing to provoke or deserve it. If someone did it who wasn’t on the radio, just because they thought it was funny, it would be understood as harassment.

As you can tell, I think Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand crossed a line. I didn’t complain myself, but I can understand why people did, and an apology and some kind of disciplinary action was appropriate.

But that doesn’t mean that I support some kind of generalised campaign against bad taste at the BBC. An example: in the weeks after this happened, in the general climate of BBC self-flagellation, Frank Skinner made a little current affairs programme investigating the issue of bad language on television and particularly in comedy. To me, that’s a completely separate issue. I don’t care about bad language; sure, keep it off Blue Peter, but in an appropriate slot in the schedules I just don’t care. There is literally no amount of swearing you could fit into half an hour of television that I would find offensive. I might find it boring and unnecessary, but I am not going to be offended by it.

Or take the incontinent old women in Little Britain:

Now people might or might not find that kind of thing funny. They might well find it distasteful, in which case they can choose not watch it. They might even feel that there’s a serious social issue about the portrayal of the elderly, or the issue of incontinence, and that the show is actively harmful for that reason. But even if you find it offensive, it’s something which is performed by actors, which you have chosen to watch and which you can turn off. It is not the same as the BBC ringing your house and personally offending you, which is what they did to Andrew Sachs and the reason why so many people were angry.

It would be a tragedy for British popular culture if the BBC only ever made programmes which were completely inoffensive. The message I would want the BBC to take away from Sachsgate is not ‘don’t produce any material that might possibly offend people’. It’s ‘don’t call up individual members of the public and go out of your way to offend them personally’. Its the difference between a stand-up who makes fun of religion in a comedy club, and one who marches into a church on a Sunday morning and delivers the same material to the congregation halfway through the service.

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