Got A Brain? Keep It To Yourself.

Media

When did having a brain become a liability?

It seems everyone made the same friend during the lockdowns; Netflix could do no wrong. The streaming service rendered DVDs obsolete as it kept refreshing its catalogue. It put out a more diverse range of product than any other service. It produced originals, part-funded co-productions and bought in content that would otherwise not have been seen. It added documentaries, world cinema and European shows, and usually did so with a choice of dubbing or subtitles.

We preening liberal elitists lap up the world content, conveniently forgetting that it’s entirely unrepresentative of what most viewers watch. They’re watching cooking shows, soaps, makeovers, cop shows, fun teen stuff. If I’m not watching a German political thriller I’m probably reading a book (the fascinating ‘We Are Bellingcat’ by Elliot Higgins, if you must know) and priding myself on my urban elitism.

Except I’m not. I’m getting annoyed. I sat through ‘Behind Her Eyes’, based on a book by a friend of mine, and felt insulted. Not just because of its homophobic ending but because it breaks the cardinal rule of the genre in much the same way that ‘Lost’ did. In pursuit of ratings it treated its audience as morons.

Netflix’s captive audience is leading to it reversing the creative process. Rather than writers pitching original ideas, demographic fan service is giving viewers what they want in a self-feeding loop. In some instances this is clever; ‘Bridgerton’ takes the boring old history out of historical drama and reduces it to a cosplay Barbara Cartland potboiler with admirably colourblind casting. ‘Emily in Paris’ might as well be set on Mars for all it has to do with the City of Light, all Eiffel Tower twinkles and the Tuileries; to get some sense of the real Paris, watch the enthralling thriller ‘Les Misérables’, set in modern-day Montfermeil, the setting of Victor Hugo’s novel, where cops seek justice by holding meetings with local imams.

But we’ve been heading this way for a while; Documentaries with staged re-enactments and imagined conversations, true films which are nothing of the kind, a blurring of fact, fiction and fantasy that makes everything and nothing believable. The cleverly marketed trash novel, all hook and no skill, the demographically commissioned series with pleasure bumps every ten minutes, let’s strip away everything that drove someone to create original work and go for clicks.

Obviously private companies are in it for the profit, and no amount of me wittering on about how wonderful the Curzon streaming service is will affect that. Yet the last half dozen hit drama series I’ve watched have been from Norway, Sweden, Spain and France, and have managed to be exciting, original and intelligent.

When did having a brain become a liability, or worse a niche market? TV is a populist medium. After a hard day the last thing most people want is to sit down in front of a Korean drama, and I can’t blame them. (Yet I do; last night’s viewing for me was ‘Forgotten’, a Korean film on Netflix with an astonishing premise.) Why pursue some doomed Reithean mind-improving mission when it’s not what people need?

When I was a child, Sunday night was intelligent television night on the BBC, subjects of gravitas analysed by old men in suits. God, it was dull. So, contradicting myself, I approve of the modern approach. Rather than indicating the end of civilisation as we know it, I think ‘Bridgerton’ is a great idea; a guilt-free soap that’s pretty and light-hearted and full of positive role models.

But in its own way it is outrageous for denying the history upon which it’s based, and in doing so ties itself in ideological knots. Its women are rich, beautiful and empowered, the men emasculated, so it denies the historical setting which is its theoretical raison d’être. But as I look around the fiction bookshelves I see nothing brave, nothing experimental, nothing new, nothing outrageous. As much as I read and thoroughly enjoyed ‘All The Light We Cannot See’, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Anthony Doerr, it’s comfort food. I like to be challenged, just not all the time, so it was fine.

And there is a problem; reading and watching exist in a learning curve that lasts your whole life. When I was a kid I happily watched ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’ without an inkling that it would one day make me feel appalled. You learn and grow, and there are others just starting out.

Netflix has introduced something new. Content offering endless comfort. Strung-together clichés that keep up the eyeball count. Theatre bookers have a mantra; five nights of ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ will pay for one performance of a new play. People want something new so long as it’s familiar, so give the people what they want. But for God’s sake give them something new as well.

41 comments on “Got A Brain? Keep It To Yourself.”

  1. John Griffin says:

    I think, given what is known and sometimes noted in Private Eye, that the Bellingcat book fits nicely into the “true films that are nothing of the sort” genre.

  2. Ian Mason says:

    To continue the comfort food analogy: There’s nothing wrong with sausage, mash and gravy when that’s all you’re in the mood for. But for god’s sake make the sausages from meat, not unrecognisable pink slime, don’t reconstitute dried potato flakes for the mash, and gravy is made in the pan you cooked in, not from a glass jar of granules.

    I’ve recently been rewatching Public Eye with Alfred Burke in the title role, the original broadcasts last watched when I was at school. It’s a comfort food level detective series, but it has craft. It is not a ‘scripted by the numbers’ police procedural, it doesn’t foreshadow *every* *bloody* *scene* with background music that tells the story 30 seconds before the script does, I can’t predict the next scene before it happens and it’s all the better for that.

    Yes, let us have ‘comfort food’ viewing as well as high art and highbrow documentary, but let’s have the honest home cooked version, not vac-packed, portion controlled, least cost mass catering.

  3. Brian Evans says:

    There is nothing new in “a blurring of fact, fiction and fantasy that makes everything and nothing believable.” Hollywood biopics were always the worse for this, esp if the subject was a gay man. Eg, The Stephen Foster 1939 “Swanee River” biopic starring the redoubtable Don Ameche completely air brushed the fact that he was gay out of the film. For that matter, autobiogs can be just as bad: Frankie Howerd’s 1977 autobiog “On the Way I lost It” ignores the fact he was gay, and totally excludes any mention of his life-long partner. Quite how anyone could be so hurtful to your partner is beyond me. OK, in those days, coming out as gay could have harmed his career. Fair enough-so don’t write a sodding autobiography in the first place.

    I do have issues with autobiogs though. I read them, and also biographies, but I find that a lot the former should be filed under fiction. I now much prefer biogs from autobiogs. A case in point is “Frankie Howerd, Stand-Up Comic” by Graham McCann which seems to be a much more reliable story of the subject’s life. This is not the first time I have read a biog that rewrites the autobiog.

    One exception is the autobiog of Bob Monkhouse* “Crying with Laughter” He was a man I never much cared for-I found him an over-confident show-off (though not in the same league as the appalling Roy Castle). However, I read the book because of the show-biz angle. I was completely won over. It doesn’t flinch in a “warts and all” description of himself, and I have liked and admired him ever since.

    Now, Ghost writers! I detest the fact that some autobiogs give no credit to the fact that the subject’s story has been written by someone else. I may be wrong, but surely it must be contravening the trades descriptions act-or whatever it is called now-to purposely mislead the public into buying something fake? Is this not a prime example of a blurring of fact, fiction and fantasy?

    Now, to the main thrust of admin’s blog. The “Black and White Minstrel Show”. My Nan went to see them in the 1960’s on a holiday to London when they were resident at the Victoria Palace theatre. She was horrified. Though not because they were blacked up, but because they were miming. A few years ago TV showed a clip of the minstrels as succeeding in insulting three kinds of people. The a*****e singer was got up in a kilt and was serenading a woman in a tube train set. Ie, sexually harassing the woman for a laugh. So a hat-trick then: insulting people of colour, Scots people and women. A true car crash of a performance.

    *Just one point. I have been a bit Anglophile in my choice of entertainers. Completely off subject, but just to acknowledge your readers across the Atlantic, I have been watching some clips of Jack Benny on Youtube. What a brilliant comedian. Flawless with timing and totally undated hilarity. A comedy genius.

  4. Roger says:

    Autobiographers rely on their memories, which are much less reliable than research notes, Brian Evans.The only autobiographer I know of who asked for help was Jeffrey Barnard who wrote letters to various papers to ask people to tell him anecdotes about his life as he couldn’t actually remember it. I don’t know what he heard, but he never wrote his autobiography.

  5. Brian Evans says:

    Roger, it’s not just unreliable memories, it’s selective memories- i.e.so Frankie Howerd “forgot” he had a partner of many years standing, who was living with him when he wrote his book?

    For a while, I knew a professional ghost writer, but he would name no names.

    Topically, it seems Nicola Sturgeon (conveniently?) “forgot” that someone told her of a certain person’s alleged roving hands.

  6. brooke says:

    Well, Mr. Fowler, now you know how the average reader feels! We’re fed up. Both publishing and visual media underestimate our intelligence and desire for innovation. Neither seems to understand that Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, etc. were popular, as were 20th c writers like Orwell, Wolfe, etc. Early TV in the US included great plays, dramatizations of literature, opera, dance, jazz, etc. Neighbors watched and talked about these shows. Sometimes racist, always sexist, TV reflected parts of the great wide world that I needed to learn about.

    Of course, entertainment business models have changed. And at-home media have benefited from lockdowns. However, for sacrificing quality and creativity, there will be retribution as people look for alternatives outside the boxes we’ve been staring at. Two generations have grown up with sophisticated, action-oriented gaming; Netflix dribble is not going to satisfy this population.

    I’m very frustrated with current mystery and crime offerings; the announcements of CWA awards and the Clinton/Penny collaboration did nothing to assuage my temper. I’m contemplating retaliatory actions: 1) establishing a discerning readers’ award, with a hefty prize (which will seldom be awarded!); and 2) more scathing reviews on Amazon and Good Reads—but then I’d have to read the stuff. Ugh.

  7. Jonah says:

    Ian Mason makes an excellent point of the intrusive background music so prevalent in TV programs these days. Not only is the music foreshadowing, but it’s telegraphing emotions that the dramas should be providing, and something do, without the need of background music.
    Without subscribing to a streaming service yet, living in the States, my experience of current British TV dramas is limited to what turns up on the PBS “Masterpiece Theatre” and its “Masterpiece” siblings (“Mystery”, “Contemporary”). The great Glenda Jackson certainly needed no background music to convey the disorientation and horrors of dementia in “Elizabeth Is Missing”. It seems that every mystery series is drowned with background music, such as “Miss Scarlett and the Duke”.
    Getting back to the point of our host’s article, “Miss Scarlett and the Duke”, about a female detective attempting to establish an agency in Victorian London, was entertaining with an appealing pair of actors as the leads (although it has the usual love/hate relationship between a woman up against the system and a man who represents that system – in this case, Scotland Yard). To my inexpert eyes, the historical details of the time seemed authentic. BUT the series fell apart in the last episode, with a poorly imagined plot of currency forgery reaching into Scotland Yard and the least believable criminal mastermind I’ve ever encountered! It’s as if the series’ creators ruled out all the believable suspects to surprise the audience with the most unlikely character as the villain. OK, Miss Scarlett’s kindly illiterate housekeeper would have been the most unlikely villain, but the actual villain was almost as unlikely.

  8. Roger says:

    All memories are, selective, Brian, and so are memoirs.
    I haven’t read Frankie Howerd’s autobiography, so I can’t tell, but – for example – the poet Edwin Muir hardly mentions his wife in his autobiography, but goes into great details about the dreams which inspired particular poems; similarly the Lord Chancellor Lord Maugham, brother to W.S., ha a long discussion on the Battle of the Somme and mention in passing that he had married and had several children because someone had told him readers might want to know that. Importance – a and the kind of importance things have – especially public importance and private importance – are often very different.

  9. Brian Evans says:

    Point taken Roger.

    I like what you say about Edwin Muir. One of the pioneer writers of the British canal system wrote his autobiog in, I think, the late 1940s. Despite living on a narrowboat with his wife, she gets merely a paragraph mention in the entire book.

  10. Loretta says:

    I admire a very well read man! So, few around these days or so it seems. However, have you ever read the book in which this wonderful passage is from-Ecclesiastes 3:1-8? I know I’m probably walking on shaky ground but you might give it a try. Btw, I’m currently reading “Oranges and Lemons” and just love it! I, too, after a frustrating year was getting bored with reading selections and stumbled upon this book. I very much look forward to reading all the others in this series and in order!

  11. Brian Evans says:

    Old age is a bugger….and the canal writers name is ….ta ra. L.T.C.Rolt.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    I was only prepared to watch Miss Scaarlet and the Duke because I had learned that there actually was a female detective in 1860 (working for Pinkertons and providing security for Lincoln on his way to Washington after his election). That last episode was a train wreck of plotting.The acting in the series was generally good, costumes and setting good but they needed some new writers. Give them marks for a person of colour in the characters (although they could have included a couple more in that context) and a gay man, although the poor soul was so weak and hesitant he gave homosexuality a bad name. There were references to situations of the time especially where a woman would have found herself in danger but it was played lightly. The tussle with the “dead” woman could have been far more important, the housekeeper’s illiteracy could have been used more… but I think they intended it to be light hearted, if crime in Victorian times could ever be so described.
    In the 1970s I criticised our minister for a “joke” he put in a sermon and which I felt was insulting to women and particularly mothers-in-law. He said that it was typical of humour when he was growing up and what was the big deal. I wanted to know if he wasn’t planning to move into modern times. I’ve been suspicious of the “It was acceptable at the time” argument ever since.
    Ghost writers. If a person has lived an interesting life, done interesting things and knows people would like to hear about it, but also knows they couldn’t write the story to save their soul, then hiring someone to work with them to put it into readable form is understandable.Acknowledgement and credit should be given. I’ve seen “written in collaboration with” and assume that authorised biographies come in there somewhere, too. An autobiography shouldn’t begin with a lie on the front cover.

  13. Peter T says:

    We’ve been watching Aurelio Zen on the Drama channel. It’s an excellent production, capturing the atmosphere of Dibdin’s books. It seems the BBC made only three episodes because ‘it was yet another crime series with a male chief inspector.’ We have a TV series original in more ways than most cancelled with the excuse of lack of originality? Or did it risk making people think?

  14. Bruce Rockwood says:

    Zen was great, should have been extended. The two seasons of Nero Wolfe with Timothy Hutton were well done in setting and ensemble cast. Currently like Lupin , do you have an opinion of it?

  15. Ian Luck says:

    I gave up watching broadcast television about five years ago. In a week’s TV, there would maybe appear three or for shows that I’d fancy watching. Any shows I wish to see now, I watch as s box set. ‘Everyone’s watching it’ shows don’t do it for me. I detested ‘The Wire’, and ‘Game Of Thrones’ bored me shitless after about five episodes. It sent me to sleep. Someone mentioned ‘Public Eye’. Now there’s a proper TV show. Gritty, dark, often no happy endings. Perfect. A lead character who is less than perfect, and often given the shitty end of the stick. Another show like this, was ‘Strangers’, starring the superbly dour Don Henderson as DI Bulman, a scruffy misanthrope, in fingerless gloves, who had the disconcerting habit, when talking to suspects, or people he didn’t care for, of inserting a Vicks inhaler into his nose, and inhaling deeply on it. A truly brilliant creation, indeed.
    I watched as many as I could find, last year. At the moment, I are mostly bin watchin’ ‘The Twilight Zone’, and ‘The Outer Limits’. My idea of comfort television. Most of the new stuff can just ‘Do One’. I’m not interested in any of it.

  16. StrveB says:

    Strangers and Bulman were written by Murray Smith, he also wrote The Paradise Club. He was a friend of Frederick Forsyth.
    When the Black and White Minstrels were on TV when I was a kid, I had no idea they were offensive to anyone, I just found them boring.

  17. Roger says:

    Robert Aickman, who worked with Rolt on saving the canals, wrote very good “strange stories” and a book The River Runs Uphill – on the campaign. Race against Time: How Britain’s Canal Heritage Was Saved by David Bolton is a very good account and includes a lot both of them didn’t mention, Brian Evans.
    The Autobiography of a Cad by A.G. Macdonnell (very different to England, their England). has useful advice on how to deal with ghostwriters – and literary agents, Helen Martin.

  18. Peter T says:

    Somehow, the old Lupin TV series with Descrieres is too fixed in my mind. Not that it was great. It was a very poor man’s Avengers.

  19. Andrew Holme says:

    Autobiographies and ghost writers. I’m two years late, I know, but I’m currently reading Elton John’s wonderful book, and I’m struggling to work out Alex Petridis’ role in it. Alex is a terrific journalist/writer and I’m presuming Elton didn’t sit down and type out every word, so how was it written? It is so clearly Elton’s authentic ‘voice’, that Alex has either simply transcribed hours of interviews or he’s managed to unerringly catch the man. It’s the funniest, joyous book I’ve read in years. Two bona fide belly laughs on each page. I’ll not be reading it on a train.

  20. Brian Evans says:

    Thanks for the tip Roger. I am about to look them up on Amazon, canals being an interest of mine.

  21. Helen Martin says:

    Yes, thanks, Roger. I love the concept of canals and would love to do a holiday on some – as Jan suggested some time ago. Thanks also for the Macdonnell book – I’m checking the library right after this. They’ve only failed me on the False Inspector Dew so far but I think they have some Cribb ones.

  22. Helen Martin says:

    Shouldn’t have said anything. They haven’t any of the three books. I’ll have to try the Vancouver System but inter-library loans are a little complicated these days. We’ll see.

  23. SteveB says:

    The Cribb book Mad Hatter’s Holiday is one of my favourite books – a wonderful evocation of a bygone ers

  24. Ian Luck says:

    The collection of LTC Rolt’s ghost stories, ‘Sleep No More’, is well worth getting. Pity he never wrote any more. Really creepy stories, well told.

  25. Richard says:

    “In pursuit of ratings [‘Behind Her Eyes’] treated its audience as morons.” Oh yes, Mr Fowler, but I was more than “annoyed.” Some programs are so bad that you want to take out full-page ads to discourage people from watching them.

  26. Paul C says:

    Talking of autobiographies, two of the best titles I’ve come across are ‘The Hindsight Saga’ by S J Perelman and ‘The Events Leading Up To My Death’ by Preston Sturges. Sadly they never got around to writing them so if anyone needs a title for their autobiography they could use one of these gems.

  27. bill051 says:

    One of the best things about “Public Eye” was that there were hardly any or no murders. The same was true of “Hazell”. Both programmes are being shown on Talking Pictures TV in the UK. These days it seems impossible to make a TV crime series or write a crime novel without murder. It’s ok, of course, if it’s a Peculiar Crime.

  28. Brooke says:

    Peter Lovesey’s Cribb series is a delight; “Swing, Swing Together,” on the canal (send up of Three Men in a Boat), The Detective Wore Silk Drawers, Abracadavar, Waxwork, and Invitation to a Dynamite Party.

  29. Paul C says:

    Hi Brooke – totally agree re Cribb. Waxwork is my favourite closely followed by ‘A Case of Spirits’ which is set in the irresistible world of Victorian seances. I remember ‘Silk Drawers’ on the shelf of a local second hand bookshop at Xmas so I’ll be straight in there when it reopens – fingers crossed…………

  30. Jan says:

    When did all this happen I ‘m still watching videos!

    On a more serious note as my internet is at best sketchy therefore Netflix is a bit of a no go area. I access a few of the freebie Sky channels as normal tv reception is that bad sky is provided.

    Can’t say I actively dislike terrestrial telly – it’s ok. Some of the more off beat channels are really ok. I can’t imagine ever feeling deprived if I can’t be watching stuff Chris defines as must see tv complete with subtitles as its broadcast in the original Bulgarian or Korean. Obviously it couldn’t/ wouldn’t be nearly as good without the original dialogue.

    Trouble with me is being proper thick I can’t always see the difference between being discerning and being contrary. Is something even better cos only there’s only about 15 others who are watching? Here yesterday I watched that David Attenborough programme about colour in the animal kingdom – it was really interesting.

    I NEVER watch Mr Attenborough cos my mum and dad always made me watch his animal programmes when I was a kid. I tell you what he hasn’t half aged since I last watched him.

    And last Monday I watched that Unforgiven or Unforgotten an ITV1 cop show. I NEVER watch old Bill shows and I only watched it cos Jamie Oliver has taken a serious turn for the worst and wanted to cook a pizza Sunday lunch. Honestly he’s lost it lockdown got to him for sure.

    That Unforgotten or Easily forgotten show was alright in fact I quite enjoyed it. Just shows you.

  31. Jan says:

    When did all this happen I ‘m still watching videos!

    On a more serious note as my internet is at best sketchy therefore Netflix is a bit of a no go area. I access a few of the freebie Sky channels as normal tv reception is that bad sky is provided.

    Can’t say I actively dislike terrestrial telly – it’s ok. Some of the more off beat channels are really ok. I can’t imagine ever feeling deprived if I can’t be watching stuff Chris defines as must see tv complete with subtitles as its broadcast in the original Bulgarian or Korean. Obviously it couldn’t/ wouldn’t be nearly as good without the original dialogue.

    Trouble with me is being proper thick I can’t always see the difference between being discerning and being contrary. Is something even better cos there’s only about 15 others who are watching? Here yesterday I watched that David Attenborough programme about colour in the animal kingdom – it was really interesting.

    I NEVER watch Mr Attenborough cos my mum and dad always made me watch his animal programmes when I was a kid. I tell you what he hasn’t half aged since I last watched him.

    And last Monday I watched that Unforgiven or Unforgotten an ITV1 cop show. I NEVER watch old Bill shows and I only watched it cos Jamie Oliver has taken a serious turn for the worst and wanted to cook a pizza Sunday lunch. Honestly he’s lost it lockdown got to him for sure.

    That Unforgotten or Easily forgotten show was alright in fact I quite enjoyed it. Just shows you.

  32. Roger says:

    Read Three Miles Up by Elizabeth Jane Howard (also involved in saving the canals) and you might feel less enthusiastic about canal holidays, Helen Martin.

    Rolt also wrote a novel – or “novel” – Ian Luck, a history of an imaginary industrial town.

  33. Roger says:

    Whoops!
    Winterstoke.

  34. Helen Martin says:

    First reaction, Roger, is to check the library. I think our librarians have a thing against canals because they haven’t accessioned “Three Miles Up”, either.

  35. Roger says:

    “Three Miles Up” is a short story. It turns up regulalry in anthologies.

  36. Keith says:

    You Tube is a go to retreat for me now and I have found a guy (Jago Hazzard) who makes little films about London Tube and Railway Stations or histories of tower blocks. His voice is soothing and the films remind me of Robyn Hitchcock’s Trams Of Old London. Just turn of your brain look and listen and a pleasant trance like state will ensue.

  37. Keith says:

    You Tube is a go to retreat for me now and I have found a guy who makes little films about London Tube and Railway Stations or histories of tower blocks. His voice is soothing and the films remind me of Robyn Hitchcock’s Trams Of Old London. Just turn of your brain look and listen and a pleasant trance like state
    Will ensue..

  38. Ian Luck says:

    Keith – Jago Hazzard is wonderful. I was randomly recommended him about last August time – he had about 1000 subscribers. He now has the far side of 98,000. Yes, he’s that good. Dryly funny, and a creator of genuinely interesting videos. His ‘Useful Beer Reviews’ are very funny indeed. How useful they are, I don’t know, but they did make me laugh. And someone who makes videos about railways, who has Geoff Marshall, who lives and breathes railways, as as subscriber, has to be worth watching.

  39. Brian Evans says:

    Ditto here, let’s hear it for Jago Hazzard. I can also recommend Sliver Foxes aka Foxes Afloat on You tube. They are travelling the canals in UK, living on a narrowboat. Each Friday they release a vlog about their travels of that week. They are really brilliant. Most vlogs include some fantastic drone shots of the canals. It is done by two blokes who are a couple. They also include the history of the canal places they visit. They make an hilarious double act, and the warmth that comes across from them is beautiful. They also include some very funny outtakes at the end. I would even recommend them to Admin, despite being in the countryside and very north of London. Go on, Chris, give it a go!!

  40. Ian Luck says:

    Yup, Foxes Afloat are yet another Quality Channel. They were brought to my attention by yet another of my favourite youtubers, Manchester’s Martin Zero, whose videos just get better and better. I love his enthusiasm and honesty – if he can’t find something, or doesn’t know what something is – he’ll say so. Not many other youtubers will do that.

  41. Charles Lachman says:

    Speaking of television, I just finished “Oranges and Lemons” and have followed Bryant and May since discovering them a few years ago. I wish someone would be “crazy enough to bring them to TV,” as your film agent believes they could. If done right, they could reinvigorate the whole British mystery genre. The main problem is: casting, the budget and keeping the originality, historical accuracy and humor of the novels intact. Not an easy task these days, but worth a try.

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