Sunday, 3 January 2016

Sherlock and the Kulturkampf in the West

Is it just me or are the establishment media somewhat overdoing the feminist, multicultural, 'green' and minority messaging in popular culture at the moment? The high (or is it low) point was the ridiculous drug-induced fantasy about a secret society of avenging put-upon women faced with Victorian patriarchy in BBC's flagship Sherlock on New Years Day.

The programme was saved by the excellent scripting, directing and action but, bluntly, it was intellectually ridiculous at so many levels (in retrospect, the idea that Holmes took so long to solve it in itself was absurd), a pandering to the sort of person who likes persecuting male scientists and actually is deluded enough to think that we live in a 'rape culture' in modern Britain. The worst aspect is the number of creative men who are colluding in the misrepresentation of history, the rewriting of our culture along ideological lines and the falsification of actually existing gender relations then (the Victorian age) and now.

Why do so many men so self-hate that they have to promote a false image of reality for ideological reasons? Do women or minorities really think that being pandered to in this way by the elite actually changes anything much in terms of power relations? Where is the analysis? Of course, one welcomes the new openness to black actors and I suppose it is decent to allow 'colour blindness' to have Olde England populated now with feisty women and gentlemen of colour where such things would be more than unlikely at the time.

Dickens' world was a largely white world as was King Arthur's though this is not to gainsay the too-easily forgotten contribution of black Britons to the creation of the 'nation'. But going to the next stage and re-inventing history, albeit as Sherlock's fantasy, to pander to parts of the audience is going too far, apart from the implicit approval of terrorism and murder in the plot which Agatha Christie's Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot (let alone Conan Doyle) would never have countenanced. It is part of a trend - the BBC's Merlin made a go of recreating an entertaining middle brow version of Arthurian Britain but its Atlantis not merely failed to be about the legend of Atlantis but presented the youth of Britain with a complete travesty of Graeco-Roman mythology, confusing names and attributes in the worst sort of mash up.

One suspects here that, across a wider front, a bunch of middle grade minds have just accessed the power to promote their academically-derived ideology (are they people who have come out of the cultural and creative studies departments of the New Labour era and now are in a position to undertake the commissioning of our lighter popular culture?). On the one hand, they want to 'message' us. On the other they want to be 'post-modern' and treat all the artefacts of culture as simply memes to be shuffled in a tombola. They seem intent on posturing their rectitude and their wide but shallow reading to each other and over us like children in a sweet shop with no supervision and far too much pocket money.

The rest of the population have long since already 'got it' certainly in relatively civilised and rather lazy Britain (the genders are equal, society is complex and should be tolerant and minorities are part of our national family). As the voting figures for the National Front have shown, Britons are genuinely far too easy-going and lazy to be seduced by continental fascisms. They are looking for nothing more than a bit of entertainment or some reliable information and not underhand cultural manipulation from third rate Gramscians who are creating a Ministry of Information out of thin air.

The real skill for modern creatives is to create a viable 'universe', one that is clearly fictional but can be endlessly reinvented and expanded (as Marvel has done repeatedly right up to Jennifer Jones and DC have done with the excellent Gotham) that still remains coherent and relates to some solid framework. The BBC has a problem with this. Even Dr Who is beginning to drift again (although the last series developed its intellectual cohesion for those who were patient with it).  The debate about having a black or a woman or black woman Dr. Who is part of the rot. Yes, 'he' could shift gender or skin colour (and why not? though he seems to be quite keen on being Scottish) but this should be because it works naturally and not because it is buggin's turn for another identity group. And better would be a strong female fantasy figure with their own franchise from the beginning instead of being given a hand-me-down to please those who get excited about having women on bank notes.

So long as the actual writing and performing is still good, these ideologues will get away with it but I suspect 2016 may be the year when the massive wave of 'creative' genre TV (much of it surging eastwards from the US) may finally crash into the shore as the right-on repetition of themes ebbs into public irritation. Since people just want to be entertained, many are just going to be switching off if the preaching becomes as unsubtle as New Year's Day's little performance ... worse, it actually fuels the populist revolt and there are signs of this in the US already.

With nowhere else to go, the irritated will be happy to have people like Trump offer a counter-ideology that is closer to their actual experience of life. I am a Leftie but my teeth start to grit now when I hear one of the left-wing wits on Radio 4 ceasing to be witty and just offering me a 'right on' and unfunny lecture from the circuit. Once again, an own goal results from metropolitan liberals being not quite so bright as they think they are and not seeing that the 'great unwashed' will only take so much cultural manipulation before they start getting angry. They do not need the Daily Mail to point it out to them. People generally hate to be lied to, patronised, preached at or treated like idiots - and the 'creatives' who dominate popular culture are getting close to being far too obvious about doing all of these.

The BBC is becoming a joke in this respect with intense messaging directed at the population from Radio 4 onwards. Woman's Hour seems particularly stuck in the past but BBC radio drama is becoming tiresome with its endless earnest problem plays and the Right does have a point with the leeway given to those 'comedians' (see above) who have moved from satire and humour to intense rants about the world. It is becoming a spoken version of the Guardian which is as bad as if our national broadcaster had become the spoken version of the Daily Mail or the Times.

The scripting of BBC television drama often falls into the same category. Much of this drama is superb. Stellan Skarsgard's visit to London for River was a message drama about tolerance for people who 'hear voices' set in a classic police procedural but the scripting, direction and acting (notably by Adeel Akhtar but by the whole crew) made it work. It was 'subtle'. Channel 4 seems to do things even better nowadays - Humans was full of ideas introducing the impact of AI and robotics to the general population. It did what good drama should do - raise questions and make people think for themselves rather than confirm prejudices and provide propaganda fuel.

The BBC loses credibility as soon as the messaging shifts beyond the decent business of giving strong roles to women and to non-white Britons (many of whom are superb actors worthy of playing more than Jane Austen heroines and Othello) and ceases to be subtle. Worse, it is insulting to those actors and actresses where it confuses their colour-blind talent in well crafted drama with the need to make points heavily and repeatedly about (say) global warming (yawn!) or equality (snore!) that are unsubtle. Remember Bob Peck in Edge of Darkness? Now that was well drawn messaging about an environmental issue that made you think because it was carefully contextualised in the politics of the day.

With American drama, we play a domestic game where we class a film or a series as a 'Democrat' or 'Republican' drama. We have rather enjoyed the arrival of entertaining patriotic democratic shows like Sleepy Hollow and Falling Skies despite the positioning of we Brits as exemplars of the enemy, a positioning which we do not take too seriously. But both are inferior to the more subtle and ideology-free but thought-provoking Fringe. This holiday the mash-up and creative Jekyll & Hyde from ITV was the high point simply because it played the interwar period dead straight with due homage to the pulp literature of the period and still gave strong and plausible roles to women.

Gender politics should be worn lightly, ethnic actors should not be patronised, messaging should be indirect and subtle and the historical context respected without being slavishly followed. We expect the BBC to respect us intellectually and culturally because we pay for it and not have it foist on us the plot nonsense of New Year's Day under cover of a fantasy that was out of character for Sherlock Holmes but in character for the cultural studies academics of the last thirty years. Enough already!