Archives for category: politics

If I was to make a list of my favourite people, I would have to place Ian Hislop near the top. I think Private Eye should be read by everyone, especially around election time, to help them make educated decisions as to how genuine the parties and individual MP’s are being. Beneath his satire on Have I Got News For You, he also offers some searing insights.

Hislop is also a great documentary maker. In the past he has covered the Welfare state, railways and philanthropy. His most recent one is Who Do We Let In? Britain’s First Immigration Row. It positions our current obsession with immigration within the context of Britain’s move from open doors in the mid-Victorian era to the first pieces of peacetime immigration legislation in the early 20th century.

Along the way there were some interesting stories. How Britain was so open doored, it even harboured terrorists to prove its liberalism (the fact said terrorist was French perhaps helped). How Winston Churchill was so incensed by the anti-immigration rhetoric of his colleagues in the 1900’s, we switched from the Conservatives to the Liberals. How Britain became the proud home so thousands of Belgians fleeing the German army during the First World War.

The most interesting moment though was Hislop’s interview with Katie Hopkins about the media’s role in fuelling immigration fear. Hopkins seemed to take pride in her role, claiming that two things sell papers – Maddie McCann and immigration. She also pushed back strongly on the idea that she was pedalling hate, claiming to be merely defending a country she loved, which is strange, considering most of her journalism involves talking the country down in a way that if it was done by a Leftie, would be seen as unpatriotic. Most chillingly though, she laid the blame for her and other right-wing commentators at the feet of Hislop, positing him and the ‘liberal elite’ as Frankenstein, she as their monster.

One of the things that came out repeatedly in the documentary was that history is often a cycle. In this case, a surge of immigration creates fears of crime, cultural clashes and threats to employment. Then those immigrants assimilate, aping their hosts’ habits, before the next generation sees a new set of immigrants, and the fears rise up again.

Hislop did leave us with a lesson, albeit a slightly theoretical one. Although open door immigration wouldn’t work (although other than going against popular opinion he doesn’t say why), open mind would. In other words, be cautious but compassionate. Welcome those who can and will contribute regardless of their background and reach out to those who are without support. Keep out those who are obviously dangerous and try to ensure individual communities don’t get overwhelmed. Most importantly, stick to the facts and don’t get wrapped up in rhetoric. Britain’s history will always make it an asylum of nations. That doesn’t mean it isn’t one that doesn’t function.

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Confession time – there has been little new for me to watch this week. No new series have taken my fancy and my week has fell into a humdrum pattern of viewing. The good news is that this week coming there are a couple of new things on the horizon. For now though, you will have to suffer me talking about something I’ve discussed before.

The Last Leg has built a loyal following over the last five years. It has moved beyond its original remit of just being a Paralympics companion show to becoming an incisive current affairs programme, gleefully mixing pop culture references with satire to cut through the news of the week.

By and large, it does an excellent job. Neither forced to be neutral like the BBC or owned by someone with an agenda like our newspapers, it can break down stories to make them understandable whilst offering social commentary. It is positive and uplifting and is capable of discussing both sides of the argument whilst still able to draw a line when one side is talking nonsense. They even have a special ‘bullshit’ button to know when that line is being crossed.

Of course, time restraints mean that they can never go into too much detail, but shows like this are only ever intended to be a jumping off point, especially ones like this that aim to give some light relief. Of course, it is seen by many as a home to ‘libtards’, although this seems harsh when you consider they have been as quick to criticise the shortcomings of Clinton and Corbyn as they have to May and Trump, it’s just the latter two have now got power and need to be more accountable for what they say and do.

My biggest critique is that actually, for all its talk of equality and diversity, it sometimes fails its own standards. The last three female guests on the show, Victoria Coren Mitchell, Sandi Toksvig and Sharon Horgan, have all been paired with male guests, with only Horgan’s understandable, as it was her writing partner Rob Delaney. Both Coren Mitchell and Toksvig could hold their own. There didn’t seem to be a need to book a female guess to counter balance Kevin Bridges, and, as Harry Hill pointed out when he appeared, it was ironic that the show broadcast on International Women’s Day had five men and no women.

Similar arguments could be made regarding race and LGBT figures (Stormzy the sole BME guest and Toksvig ticking the LGBT box for the series). Nobody wants this reduced to a box-ticking exercise but something as simple as allowing female guests to fly solo would be a start.

Am I being pedantic? Maybe. But it would be a shame for a show that covers equality and diversity so well in other areas to fall on something as basic as this. Otherwise it might be their hiring policy that is termed ‘bullshit’.

Finding a pause in my Netflix viewing schedule (seriously, Netflix, when are you putting season 7 of The Good Wife up?), I decided to tackle one of those shows everyone has been telling me to watch. Yes, after four years of ‘how are you not watching this?’, I have finally capitulated and started House of Cards.

In many ways, this should be a great fit for me. There isn’t a huge gap in terms of legal and political dramas, I love a bit of plotting and scandal and I’m not averse to a streak of dark humour. When you consider how loved it is by so many, it is hard to imagine how I could not fall in love with yet.

And yet, two episodes in, I find myself feeling underwhelmed. Part of the problem is that I actually don’t have a huge love for breaking the fourth wall. If the golden rule of writing is ‘show, don’t tell’, having the character speak directly to the audience breaks that. In some ways it helps fill in the background, but even so, it seems actually to be a distraction.

My other beef with it is that, when all said and done, I find it slightly dull. I confess to here being part of the problem. Often when I watch things on Netflix, I am doing something else at the same time. Therefore, subtleties are often lost, so any slight-of-hand by characters doesn’t register as well. The Good Wife and Orange Is the New Black don’t suffer from this as much, so I feel less lost.

Nevertheless, I intend to carry on for a while yet before I give this up as a lost cause. It seems very much the kind of show that needs to unfurl and slowly envelop you in its energy. Stakes will slowly be raised, relationships will complicate and there will be a reward for those who devote time to it.

On a side note, I do wonder if part of my discomfort is that I have started watching this during one of the most divisive American elections in decades. Even though I am separated from events by the Atlantic, the palpable anger is still being felt. I’m not going to say what side I’m taking so as not to make my blog a home for both sides to sling mud. Perhaps in a more stable time, House of Cards would just be an entertaining distraction. In the current climate though, it feels all too horribly real.

Contrary to some arguments, satire appears to be in robust health. The sketch show has perhaps continued it’s slow death, although Tracey Ullman has giving it a bit of a boost, but panel shows have sprung up to take its place. Having said that, there does seem to be an increasingly blunted edge to their swords, particularly on the BBC, who are having to kiss the arse of a government that overtly hates them.

So it is little surprise then that the brightest future for a satire is a) American and b) animated. The Simpsons arguably started this charge, with South Park and Seth McFarlane’s Family Guy and American Dad following suit. Joining the charge of the laughs brigade is Bordertown, a cousin of the aforementioned of American Dad. It has a similar tone and target, focusing on the ludicrous actions and bewildering popularity of right-wing political movements and their supporters. What AD did to the Republican movement, Bordertown is doing to the hot potato of immigration.

At the centre of the show are two families living in a small town on the US/Mexico border. The Buckwald’s are borderline red-necks. You can imagine them supporting Trump and not batting an eye at the violent mob that swirls around him. The Gonzalez family are Mexican immigrants who have achieved a modest level of success. Most of the humour revolves around the patriarch of the former, Bud, being jealous of the latter’s head of house, Ernesto.

A lot of the jokes hit home in a fairly blunt manner. It’s quite clear that the reason for the Gonzalez’s success is having a better work ethic, entrepreneurial vision and a sincere gratitude for life. Meanwhile, the Buckwald’s are comparatively uneducated, lazy and consumed by material greed. This is, of course, more black and white than reality, but some points still stand. Those who look frustratingly at immigrants climbing past them don’t realise the work the immigrants put in to doing so. Certainly in Britain, the tools are there for everyone to achieve, it’s just that some choose not to and prefer to complain about those that do.

Of course, it’s all well and good making some wise satire, but if it’s not funny it is not going to hit its mark. Thankfully, to me at least, it is. I have laughed several times at each episode so far, which is an achievement in itself. Yes, some of the humour is a little basic, and I am still not a fan of toilet humour. But, overall, I am charmed by it. Reviews suggest I am in a minority, but I’m used to that. Sadly, those of us that look beyond the spin around immigration often are.

‘Poverty porn’ is one of TV’s most controversial genres at the moment. There is a debate about how much such programmes are a look at life at the bottom of society’s scrapheap in terms of highlighting issues, and how much they are exploiting the less fortunate. Added to this is the fact these shows naturally target the most extreme examples of those on the welfare examples, whether it is those bringing in tens of thousands of pounds (often in the way it is framed unfairly so) or those struggling to make ends meet.

Benefits Britain: Life on the Dole is one such example of this genre, and compared to Benefits Street is a lot less worried about hiding its exploitative side. This week’s episode covered three particular welfare claimants in seaside towns: single-mum Stacey, EDL-supporter Dave, and ‘welfare veteran’ Debbie. In at least 2 of the three cases the viewer was actively encouraged to be angry at the claimant.

In the case of Dave, this for me at least came in his constant bashing of immigration. They were stopping him getting a job for agreeing to work for less money, had houses built for them and were discriminating against him, he claimed. But a keen-eared viewer would see that things didn’t add up with his story. Dave said he had given up work to look after his sick mum, yet bar one very short scene he never showed that he was. And besides, if he chose to give up work, surely he can’t blame an immigrant for not having one? In a bizarre turn of events, by the end of the episode he had actually started working for one in a kebab shop. I would have liked a catch-up at the end of the episode to see how he was faring, but we were denied. I would also like when people like Dave blame ‘non-indigenous people’ for their plight to be more openly challenged, or for at least for their opinions to be delved into a little more, but I suppose that denies the sound bite we as viewers apparently crave.

Debbie was arguably framed in even worse terms by the editors. We were told repeatedly about the thousands of pounds she earned on benefits, as she rolled her fags, drank her beer and threw dinner parties for her neighbours just to make space in the fridge for buying too much food from shopping. It was harder to feel sympathetic for her plight because she did not appear to be suffering, hence why her rants about how posh people look down on her became edited into comedy. Frustratingly, whilst she may represent what middle England most fears about the welfare system, she was the only one to take the battle to the rich. If tax avoidance wasn’t such big news right now, many people would just disregard her comments as those belonging to just another ne’er-do-well. A more cogent person making these comments would certainly have garnered more respect from the viewer.

Stacey’s story was a little different. Out of work bringing up a baby in a flat smaller than your average kitchen, she genuinely came across as someone who needed a helping hand, as opposed to being on the take. Her dreams for her young soon – school, college, university, a career – are simple enough in practice but a million times harder for her to achieve in reality than we would give credit for. The sheer joy on her face at just being able to take him swimming melted my heart that had remained icy throughout. But even here there were nods from the editors that it was her fault. Again, the shots of fags, the numerous tattoos etc. All this silently telling the viewer ‘well she must have got the money from somewhere’. I resisted this trap, and only wish her well. The right support could see her and her son really get something out of life. Sadly, you feel that it just won’t happen.

For me there is no debate about these types of programmes. In failing to go beyond the surface and sensationalising what they find, the producers encourage a divide between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. These extremes are treated as the norm, and quite frankly insult the intelligence of the viewer and of the individuals taking part. We need proper debates about welfare, not tittle-tattle. Until then, being poor will mean big business for TV execs.

Christmas contains two massive TV highlights for me. The first is The Big Fat Quiz of the Year, the bawdy pub-quiz style show where Jimmy Carr and guests take satirical potshots at popular culture. Apparently, some people got offended this year, although the biggest surprise was how many were offended by it despite not even watching it. Ofcom rightly dismissed these people, leaving their cult leader (the Daily Mail) chewing over how to go after the main ‘offenders’ next. James Corden, watch out. One step wrong at The Brits this week and you could be toast.

The second TV treat is Charlie Brooker’s Yearly Wipe, which acts rather like the former, but with less quizzy high-jinks and more vitriol. The satire has a more brutal edge, but it very rarely goes after a target unfairly. So I was delighted to see that BBC2 had commissioned a weekly series. Perhaps this is genuine interest in developing the show. Or maybe they just need to fill in time before BBC1 broadcasts the next series of Have I Got News For You. It doesn’t matter, I’m happy with their decision anyway.

Weekly Wipe contains pretty much the same ingredients as its yearly parent. Brooker uses monologues to skewer the ridiculous and stupid, be they groups, individuals or events. His vast popular culture knowledge means celebrities and the media who track their every move are prime targets, often deservedly. Films, TV and adverts are all ripped apart, unless he likes something (e.g. Django Unchained), in which case other people’s reactions to it are slaughtered.

Current events aren’t ignored either. The most recent episode looked at both the horsemeat scandal and the gay marriage vote. The former is easy to write about- everyone across the spectrum is fairly shocked, even if some know-it-alls claim otherwise. The latter poses a more interesting dilemma. As Brooker rightly identifies in his monologue, anyone pro-gay marriage is seen as being brainwashed by a liberal media. It is interesting how the left-wing media and right-wing media blame each other for manipulating the public. The left blame the Murdoch empire and the Daily Mail for creating a landscape that encourages women to be judged by their looks and maintaining a white middle-class establishment, whilst the right attacks Guardian readers for society being too PC and not letting us deport immigrants. Neither has the stranglehold the other suggests in reality, but try telling them that.

To his credit, Brooker satirises both camps. His attack on the anti-camps are pretty much the same as you could read on Twitter e.g. making decisions based on religion is a bit silly, this kind of prejudice is outdated etc. His critique of the pro-camp in many respects was more of a satire of the media’s treatment of them- the same couple wheeled out, asked the same questions. It was interesting how the two groups were never allowed to comment on each others arguments, as if gay people and straight people live in separate towns.

Brooker is brilliant at these monologues, but the show is not without its faults. The one section that I do not get, and actually bores me, is the Shitpeas and Cunk bits. Is the point that stupid people give opinions that they are not qualified for? If so, that is much better satirised in Brooker’s mockery of internet comment forums Points off of You. I wonder off and pour myself a drink when they come on.

But this a minor blip. The rest of the show is, bizarrely considering Brooker’s downcast demeanour, a joy. I hope the show gets recommissioned for later in the year. We will need something to get us through the winter nights.

Political and social satire is a difficult thing to get right. Be too glib, and people will dismiss what you have to say and therefore your aims you will never be accomplished. Be too serious, and you essentially just become another version of the news. Which is why good satire is to be treasured. So why is there so little of it? Ok, we have panel shows like Have I Got News For You and Mock the Week. But all too often they just become shows were 4 (or 6) men, and the occasional token woman, compete to be funny. With the exception of the peerless Ian Hislop, there is little insight into the news that is actually being satirised.

Thankfully10 o’ Clock Livefills that gap. And my word is it an enoyable hour! We all knew of course going into this that Charlie Brooker does excellent monologues and that Jimmy Carr is the king of the one-liner. The revelation came in the shape of David Mitchell. Again, we all knew that he was able to destroy arguments with a mind thaat is more logic machine than thought processor, but the effectiveness of it in the first series, whether it was a monologue, one-on-one interview or studio debate, was brilliant to watch.

Of course the first series had its faults. If the debates involved three people then it often became the two loudest voices that got heard, irregardless of whether they were the best ones. Lauren Laverne looked lost, more often forced to play supply teacher to her naughty tearaway co-presenters. Carr was also wasted, forced into dull and obvious sketches. So when the second series returned I tuned in to see what had changed.

Well, good news! Most of the faults have gone. The debates are now streamlined to two participants, given Mitchell more time to ask genuine questions. Laverne has now been given her own monologues, and a good job she does of them too. Brooker’s role hasn’t changed, but then it didn’t need to. One fly in the ointment though- Carr’s sketches are still in. Why? Are you that scared of taxing people’s intellects that you have to give them a 5 minute break besides the adverts?

Other items have been sacrificed to make space for the sketches. Mitchell’s monologues. And his one-on-one interviews. If you don’t want him having to much screen time, why not give the latter to Carr? Or move people round a bit. Give Laverne the debates to chair, Mitchell an interview and Carr a monologue. Or develop something new- Carr does a q +a with a guest and the audience. Let’s face it, if you are treading on Newsnight‘s toes you might as well do it to Question Time as well. Wahtever you do Channel 4, just find something to replace those sketches. This show is too good to waste.