Charlie Brooker explores the gulf between real life and television. How TV's notion of knowledge has changed from bespectacled experts to celebrity presenter drivel.
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All these people thirst for knowledge and they could get it from a device which demands
the attention of millions -
a machine capable of slinging images and sounds into every home.
TV could teach you a new language, parade the entirety of history in front of your face,
or just distract you with brightly-coloured bibble.
We all want to fill our brains with information, yet only few of us know as much as we think we know.
How much do you know?
What, the whole thing? About 20%, 25%.
OK, what did everyone in the world do yesterday?
I don't know.
-You don't know any of that?
How many atoms are there in the floorboards you're standing on?
-Do you see what I'm getting at?
Maybe we never really learned anything from TV, but were simply transfixed by it,
like apes dazzled by technology.
This week, How TV Ruined Your Life, by trying to actually tell you stuff.
Don't say, it didn't. It did.
This programme contains adult humour
EXPECTANT INTRODUCTORY MUSIC
'I'm going on a journey -
'a journey to find out just how much I've learned from television.
'It's a journey that will take me the length and breadth of part of the country,
'over a period of time.'
EXPECTANT INTRODUCTORY MUSIC STOPS SUDDENLY
Sorry, I've just remembered. I don't know how to drive.
I can't drive. This isn't...
This isn't my car. I'm not qualified to drive.
'Along the way, I'll be overcoming obstacles and doing my best to appear thoughtful,
'as though I'm coming to some sort of realisation about the visual language through which TV experts
'impart their knowledge - and not just staring stupidly out of a window.
'A thoughtful face might make me look like a documentary type,'
like Andrew Marr, seen here stylishly walking around America,
'in fascinating sequences, shot for a politics documentary.
He walks around and stops and looks at things and thinks for a bit and then walks out of shot
and then marches like a Terminator looking for a toilet,
striding up stairs, gliding through sliding doors, getting reflected in glass.
All the time, he looks rather profound,
even when he's having a piss.
'I hope I look that convincing, as I walk into this railway station.'
Television is a bit like a busy railway terminus,
filled with competing, bustling, streams of information,
each capable of snaking out in different directions, much like branch lines.
'It's not, really, but that gave me something vaguely philosophical to say'
'over these pedestrian shots of me getting onto a train,'
where I start my journey by looking intently at a newspaper,
'because the world of TV knowledge basically started with the news.'
Early news broadcasts were stern announcements from the authorities,
consisting of little more than still photographs
and explanatory diagrams, backed with a vocal summary.
The BBC news wallahs believed moving pictures would distract
the viewer and prevent them from absorbing the informational content.
Gradually, TV news loosened up and began to realise the advantages it had over newsprint.
Unlike their medieval ink and paper counterparts,
TV reporters could use the moving image to make
otherwise mundane stories more interesting and immersive.
This filthy smoke and chemical smog is again attacking the people
for whom there's most danger, the people with chest and heart trouble.
The translation of news into TV grew more sophisticated.
The newsroom arrived and more interesting graphics
and instead of a letters page, vox pops with the public.
-Can I interrupt you a tick? Are your prices up a lot?
Our prices are up according to the transport and difficulties
in getting it, and us pulling our guts out to fetch it to the public.
And when major events occurred, the printing press was left standing by television,
which could interrupt you in your own home to depress the arse off you.
-Over to the newsroom.
-The death of John F Kennedy happened in Dallas at 25 past 12.
What's more, rather than reading wordy dispatches from overseas war reporters,
TV viewers could follow the journalists into the action.
They needn't even wait for the gunfire to stop before filing their reports.
-There's heavy artillery support for the Americans and...
-..because of this, they're not immediately likely to lose out here.
TV news grew even more dynamic, as colour television arrived,
making events seem increasingly vivid and dispiriting and brutal and all horrible, like -
unless, like me, you enjoy a nice riot,
with a lovely shepherd's pie and a glass of chocolate milk.
Riot police were extremely fierce, often vicious.
He-he! It happened ages ago, it's funny!
Faced with a medium that made current affairs more exciting,
newspapers were forced to zhush up their own content,
downplaying their comparatively dry news material
and adding frothier piffle, which was proudly, and exhaustively,
trumpeted in the gaudy adverts of the time.
This man claims a Welsh housewife, under hypnosis,
returned to six previous lives. Can this be so?
The amazing evidence in tomorrow's Sunday Mirror.
Tommy Steele reveals the agony of staying at the top
How to get your man. A dozen ways to look more sexy.
Plus, win this dream outfit, in the marvellous Sunday Mirror, tomorrow.
But television wasn't content to simply provide a window on the world to show what was happening now.
It had grander ambitions. It wanted to show you the whole of civilisation.
Landmark documentary serials, such as Civilisation
and the epic, The Ascent Of Man
turned your TV into a home-based lecture theatre,
but a bit less boring than I've made that sound.
The Ascent Of Man, in particular, was a huge achievement.
Filmed over three years, it whisked the viewer around the globe, in the company of erudite academic,
Jacob Bronowski, who explained the history of mankind's scientific advancement,
using eloquent monologues, pioneering computer graphics
and an intelligent use of imagery, to make education fun.
As well as landmark documentaries about real events,
there were landmark dramas based on real events.
When TV turned history into drama, it cast Shakespearean actors and dressed them like tapestries.
Even though it was cheap and stagy, it was somehow convincing.
I mean, that's barely a tree, that's not outdoors, but bloody hell, that might be Henry VIII.
Television's mix of compelling fact and authentic drama was instructing viewers of all ages.
The television started instructing me back when I was a kiddiewink.
Occasionally, a TV would be wheeled into the classroom, a bit like a robot teacher.
This was exciting because it didn't feel like school. It felt like a break.
Even if the programme you were watching was boring,
it was better than being bored by a live human being.
With their storybook visuals and focus on primary concept,
schools programmes were an attempt to subtly plant fresh questions in kiddiewinks' minds.
Questions they'd never considered before.
Hello. Have you ever thought how important numbers are?
-Have you ever noticed how interesting human faces are?
-Have you tried looking at yourself in a kettle since last week?
Well, yeah, actually, I have.
The trouble is, the presenters' methodical basic use of language is inherently creepy.
It's a bit like you're coming around from a brain injury
and they're a bunch of well-meaning nurses sent to rehabilitate you.
Hello. Did you comb your hair when you got up this morning?
I forgot, so I'm doing it now.
I'm not sure why, but whenever I watch them,
I feel a bit like I'm a homicide detective and they're a suspect trying to act natural.
Hello. I didn't expect to see you.
The shop's not open, I'm afraid. You can see what I'm doing, if you like.
Where were you on the night of the 6th?!
If the presenters weren't creepy enough,
their various puppety, animated co-stars were downright petrifying.
Let's go in.
Woo! Get out!
Whenever your TV turns into an instructive words and pictures
light show, there's something faintly sinister.
What with the haunting music and visuals and the faintly medicated
air of some of the presenters, I think the only thing I learnt
was to mistrust everyone and everything on television.
Why don't you draw a picture of something that really frightens you?
Yeah, all right. What does a vagina look like?
'But while schools programmes were unintentionally frightening,
'it's worth reflecting, as I sit here, that television often deliberately used
'fear-mongering means to train younger viewers to look after themselves.'
In 1977, rural areas of the UK were treated to Apaches -
very much the Citizen Kane of terrifying, educational films.
This 50-minute summer holiday snuff-fest told the story of a gaggle of young dimbos,
who repeatedly go to play on a local farm, despite the fact that one of them dies there every bloody day.
Like all good movies, Apaches had its own trailer, seen here squashing one of the cast.
A few years after Britain's rustic kids stared at carnage in horror,
across the Pond, children were subjected
to an even more terrifying and lurid kind of warning.
-This is my future?
-It is if you don't get of those drugs.
Cartoon All-Stars To The Rescue is the powerful story of a teenager
dealing with drug and alcohol abuse.
Some of your favourite cartoon characters will help you understand
how drugs and alcohol can ruin your life.
BLEEP me, I want some heroin.
This crude, alarmist TV propaganda was a bad trip for millions of American kids.
Of course, we didn't get to see that on this side of the Pond, which is why we're all so well-adjusted,
but we got moral instruction from other cartoons.
For instance, almost every line of dialogue in the garish epic,
Thundercats, seem to be jammed with so much heavy-handed
moral guidance, it's amazing there was room for the vowels and consonants.
Rules are only meaningful if people agree to follow them.
Otherwise, they're just words.
Oh, go and edit The Guardian.
But perhaps the most strident moral supervision was smuggled inside the animated epic He-Man,
which was preachier here than nine priests glued to a schoolmaster,
and which regularly culminated in a philosophical lecture from one of its stars.
As we've just seen, Skeletor went back into the past to make evil things happen.
In reality, no-one can go back into the past, that's only make-believe.
Don't patronise me, I'm not stupid,
although I am 39 and bickering with He-Man.
But we can try to learn from the past,
from things that have happened to us.
I'd love to know what happened to make you dress like that. I'm guessing something with his uncle.
Of course, we fondly remember He-Man because we learned so much from it,
just as we fondly remember the cartoon based on Terry Wogan's chat show from the '80s.
Everyone remembers that, just ask the man in the street.
Do you remember the Wogan cartoon in the '80s?
The Wogan cartoon... No, I don't, but I remember the cartoons from the '80s, in my day,
was ThunderCats, Jayce And The Wheeled Warriors, Scooby-Doo Mysteries, er...
But the Wogan thing was like an animated version of Terry Wogan's chat show.
It was called Wo-Gan.
Oh, yeah, do you know what?
Thinking about it, yeah, I do actually remember that now, I think it was on CITV.
In today's story, we heard the actress Lorraine Chase explain how
people often judge her because of her cockney accent.
They treat her as though she's simple,
even though before becoming a model,
she invented the communications satellite, the shoe tree
and even the laser cow.
Lorraine is living proof that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover,
even a talking book with heavy mascara.
What about one in a ten-gallon hat?
Even you, JR!
HE LAUGHS DEMONICALLY
But I suppose the Wo-Gan cartoon doesn't actually tell us much
because it was in fact part of a fictional daydream I had while gazing out of this window.
This line between fiction and fact on television used to be clearly marked until it began to leave
such familiar territory behind to move into new, less concrete areas.
Viewers generally believed what they saw on screen, even though TV
occasionally told entertaining fibs, such as the famous Panorama report on the Italian spaghetti harvest.
But in 1977, Anglia TV when several leagues further with Alternative 3,
a sophisticated hour-long hoax in the style of an existing documentary strand called Science Report.
It made eerily convincing claims that a shadowy cabal of scientists and world governments were
conspiring to build a habitable base on the surface of Mars, and it ended
with what purported to be footage of a US-Soviet Martian landing in 1962,
culminating in something creepy wriggling around beneath the Martian soil.
My God, what is that?
But the row that followed Alternative 3 was nothing
compared to the stink left behind after the BBC's Ghostwatch.
Although scripted, Ghostwatch took the form of a live supernatural TV
special fronted by several familiar, well-loved faces, Michael Parkinson, Mike Smith and Sarah Greene.
But it also played host to a more sinister and unsettling presence.
Boo! I bet that scared you, didn't it?
No, this is not a mask, this is Craig Charles live, you lucky people!
Oh, and there was also a ghost, an evil spirit known as Mr Pipes, who, it was alleged, was causing
simply dreadful goings-on in a north London home.
At the time, viewers weren't accustomed to this kind of verite horror, and as all hell quite
literally broke loose on location, and things grew increasingly horrible in the studio,
the repeated fleeting appearances of Mr Pipes, seen here in the bedroom,
here reflected in the glass and here on CCTV, left many viewers genuinely terrified out of their wits.
In the days before Sky+, it wasn't possible to rewind and check that you'd seen what you thought you'd
just seen, and Ghostwatch knowingly toyed with viewers, replaying footage of one of Pipes's
appearances later with him missing so that viewers would start to think they were seeing things.
-Can we go forward slowly?
-Sure, sure. We're doing that now.
-Is that slow enough?
I can't see anything now myself, false alarm?
Things reached a chilling conclusion as it transpired the broadcast
itself was acting as a nationwide seance channelling evil forces
and Michael Parkinson was left wandering round an abandoned studio like a Yorkshireman possessed.
After Ghostwatch was broadcast, many were furious to discover they'd
been tricked by a cunning blurring of fact and fiction.
You used factual presenters, you meant to be deceiving.
You toyed with the emotions of the audience because the audience
weren't actually sure, I wasn't, if it was fact or fiction.
Ghostwatch had confused people by being a piece of fictional
entertainment masquerading as fact.
Shortly afterwards, a new genre in which fact masqueraded as fictional entertainment, rose in popularity.
Nosey parker fly on the wall documentary
series exemplified by the original 70s incarnation of The Family, had been around for several decades.
It's going to be a tremendous intrusion into your privacy because we will film everything.
But during the 90s, they morphed into a populist
new genre, the docusoap which made stars of regular
incompetent people spoons such as Maureen Reece from Driving School.
Woah, woahh, for Christ's sake.
She nearly killed someone.
Before long, docusoaps were focusing more heavily on the soap aspect,
turning their participants into bona-fide stars.
This lady, she's going to be a very big star, she really is.
A wonderful talent. Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Jane McDonald.
These were documentaries with all the factual information stripped out, well nearly all.
There was still room for the odd statistic.
By the end of this week, you'll have eaten, in total, £40,000 of meat and poultry.
Imagine if when the passengers shat it all out, it came out the
back of the ship in a long, unbroken turd rope, like the ones that hang off goldfish.
Anyway, that's a side thought, best to ignore it.
And just as documentaries were under pressure to become more populist, so was the news.
Ever since satellite news first appeared, the landscape
had become more competitive and the fight for impact intensified.
This is Sky News. 10 Britons will sell their kidneys to this man.
As a consequence across the board, the graphics steadily became more fearsome and bombastic.
The sets more cavernous and self-important and the delivery more theatrical.
The Liberal Democrats have accused the other two parties of gazing into the gutter.
And part of this more crowd pleasing approach was that the opinion of the viewer grew steadily more important.
This situation reached a peak in 1997 after the death of Princess Diana,
when the opinion of the man in the street actually became the emotive
focus of much of the news coverage.
Good evening, it's been a day like no other, a day for the people stunned by the news of Diana's death and a
day that rewrote the rules about how a grieving nation should react.
The outpouring of emotion just grows by the day.
The Queen's not in residence today but where the hell is the flag hey?
You see what I'm saying about the Establishment?
Current affairs was no longer a stern proclamation from
the establishment and was becoming more like a public sounding board.
News in general had started to move away from explaining the world to us
and move towards us explaining our view of the world to them.
If you've got a story to tell, we'd love to hear from you.
The e-mail address as always, your news.
All the while the internet were starting to overtake TV as the source of instant news
and just as newspapers reacted to TV by becoming spicier, TV news morphed into rolling news
in which everything became a sensational non-stop crisis full of incremental, horrible developments.
We can now tell you that he's actually unconscious and his kidneys have stopped working.
It's become a hope sapping broadcast from the depression dimension when
someone simply reads aloud a list of the worst events in the world.
He killed his 74 year-old grand mother, also his mother, his uncle,
his cousin, his 15 year-old second cousin.
-In addition, he killed a baby who was 18 months old,
he killed the sheriff deputy's wife, he killed two pedestrians, he killed a petrol station assistant, he
killed a motorist, he shot the chief of police and he shot himself. I'll let you digest that for a moment.
We're going to be back with all the top stories and indeed the business news.
Thanks for that.
Today's news often seems to be about nothing but the thrill of the chase,
an endless parade of fresh horror piled upon fresh horror.
No time for reflection, just pictures.
Look at this, then look at this, come on tune in rubberneckers, have a bloody good gawp.
We'll just come underneath this cordon.
Barry the cameraman, can you get under here?
Forgive the camera just moving around.
Soon it becomes meaningless which has the side-effect of making reality itself feel somehow unreal,
like a work of fiction writing itself a destiny beyond our control.
All we can do is stare at it in stunned desperation.
If 24 hour news was stranding viewers in a nihilistic wilderness,
the other source of knowledge, the TV documentary had changed too.
Where once documentary experts were expected to speak and walk around like academics, there's a growing
assumption that today's viewer won't pay attention to facts unless there's a star attached,
preferably one with a shaky link to the subject.
For instance, because the actor, Ross Kemp, played a hard ex soldier
in EastEnders, he was considered an
ideal choice to send to Afghanistan
to show how a real war works.
The most exciting morning I've had in a very long time, I can assure you of that.
Weirdly, it turned out he's actually pretty good at this.
All of which opened the floodgates for other celebrity experts.
One consistent thumbprint of "expertainment" is to confuse
fictional characters with the actors that portray them.
Because he played a vet in African based, Wild at Heart, ITV thought it would be a good idea
to send Stephen Tompkinson animal mending round Africa.
In fact even Tompkinson seems to have forgotten he's an actor.
My journey begins in Tanzania on Africa's
east coast where I'll test my veterinary expertise with some of the hardest-working vets in the world.
And if you need an expert on cats, who better than Joanna Lumley.
She's a bit feline, well she purrs when she talks, she even looks a bit like a cat.
Christ, this is perfect, she must love cats.
She'll show us the family tabby in a moment, you wait.
My journey begins here at home and
it begins with a confession. We don't have a cat.
Oh, well I suppose it must be quite hard to find someone in Britain who owns a cat.
No one seems to have proper expertise any more.
Griff Rhys Jones's chief qualification for splashing round
Britain's rivers, is that he's 60% water like the rest of us.
While sending renowned investigative journalist Daniel Dyer to explore
the phenomenon of UFOs seems odd,
because he's not an expert and seems to have made his mind up before he sets out according to the title.
I'm going to ask you straightaway, do you believe there's intelligent life?
In this room?
He's also easily swayed by evidence like
dodgy footage of what looks like a rubber alien mask at a window.
What the hell is that?
Hope no one shows him Santa Claus, The Movie! He'll shit himself.
These days, you don't even have to be vaguely suitable to
front a documentary series, provided you're a celebrity.
I have always been passionate about rave culture and I'm on a very personal journey to discover the
roots of this fascinating scene and its diverse yet controversial musical legacy.
Summer of love, 88. It was simply parties.
89 was probably even bigger.
Some of them do's were 10,000 strong.
Everyone was together, you could go, you could be playing a tune at 120 bpm,
go down to Aphrodisiac or something which was about 100 bpm.
All the girls on the podium, all the dancers everywhere, glow sticks,
just a sea of glow sticks everywhere.
Don't you remember the dummies?
You must have had a Vicks rubbed on your back at one point when you was at a rave.
Everyone had that.
They were the days though, hey?
Raving, wicked. Be nice to go back there wouldn't it?
To like the proper days when we were all out there.
Once documentaries were happy to show you stuff and take time to let you absorb it.
Gradually they morphed into grandiose visual spectaculars like
Walking With Dinosaurs.
We'll show you how these magnificent creatures live.
How they eat, fight and reproduce.
Sensation was starting to overwhelm fact and before long
if we wanted to learn about, say, the Blitz,
it was no longer good enough to listen to people who actually lived through it.
Boring. Instead, you had to hold your own Blitz
in shows like the TV experiment, Blitz Street, which would answer
the burning question of what would
happen if 1940s German explosives were dropped on British houses.
A question most of us would have thought was pretty comprehensively
answered by the six-year experiment known as World War 2.
To see where it's heading, look no further than Deadliest Warrior,
a flabbergasting show which explores
history's more fearsome brawlers by pitting them against each other
in a manner which defies both sense and taste.
The notoriously evil Nazi Waffen SS, Hitler's deadly assault courses that launched World War 2,
versus the vicious Viet Cong, murderous masters of jungle warfare.
Each week, two sides are chosen and then the deadliest warrior
team gleefully explore the injurious possibilities by road
testing their respective arsenals on bio mechanically accurate dummies and the occasional dead animal.
For instance, here we discover what happens
when you detonate a Viet Cong land mine
beside a deceased pig, which
sounds like the most mental Heston Blumenthal recipe of all time.
Basically what they've done is they've taken the tragic futility of war and used it to blow up a pig.
Once they work out who has got the edge in which top trump style
category, their resident computer expert runs a simulation pitching
the two sides against each other in an imaginary mind space in which only one can emerge victorious.
The thing is it's so far removed from reality, you end up picking sides like it's a sport which means
it's possible to watch this and find yourself cheering on the Nazis like they're Tim Henman or something.
Go on Nazi, kill him(!)
Oh no, the poor Nazi(!)
Get him, yes(!) Hooray for the Nazis(!) Go on(!)
Come on. Come on,
Yay, the Nazis won(!)
Hooray for the Nazis, hooray for the Nazis everyone(!)
Hooray, hooray for the Nazis(!)
Yay. Hooray for the Nazis, Yay(!)
Please don't take this out of context and put it on YouTube.
When you're dealing with the world in which facts are treated as though
they've been dreamed up, you may as well make factual programmes,
not just about stuff we know, but about stuff we don't know, ie the unknown, you know?
Back in 1992, a fictional spook show caused a stink because
viewers thought it was real.
Yet 10 years later, viewers were so desensitised to
fact bending, ostensibly real paranormal investigations had become a telly staple.
We've had viewers saying they've seen orbs, the small lights that
they've seen in various places.
We think we've caught sight of them.
Have a look at this footage which we recorded earlier on.
That's amazing is it not?
Thanks in part to TV's obsession with the supernatural, these days almost every son of a
bitch in the country claims to have encountered a ghost at some point.
Real life Spook Talk.
I used to have this cup.
It was a blue mug with a chip on the rim where you drink from.
Anyway, one night, I broke it.
Dropped it on something.
I go, "oh shit".
-A few weeks later, I was at a friend's house and I opened the cupboard and there it is.
-With the chip in it?
-No, that had gone.
We were staying in a hotel room and very gradually it got colder.
-How much colder?
-Not much, probably a couple of degrees.
And how long did this last?
-A couple of minutes.
-You've been watching real-life
Don't have nightmares.
It's not just supernatural bibble people are prepared to
believe, they'll choke down anything that looks like a documentary, even fatuous online conspiracy bum wash.
All TV taught us was to
believe what screens said,
even when they were lying.
TV's relationship with information has taken fact on a lengthy and unusual journey.
Documentaries morphed from highbrow,
historical lecturing into lowbrow historical pantomime remixing.
Our taste for experts shifted from knowledgeable, respectable academics
to tit witted celebrity puppets.
And what about those fact-based dramas?
This traditional sense of reverence
soon got pissed through a tinsel coated hosepipe.
Where once the Tudors looked like old paintings,
TV now portrayed them
like the cast of a sex craved 16th century take on Hollyoaks.
And the news went from a basic unemotional explanation of the facts
to a non-stop entertainment format sold on the basis of its emotive impact.
The world has changed and we must change with it.
An entertainment format which sometimes talks to you
like you're back in the classroom watching a schools programme.
So to have snow, the layers of the atmosphere below
cloud level must be cold enough to keep the flakes from melting.
Don't patronise me, I'm not stupid.
Although I'm 39 and bickering with the news.
So what did I learn from television apart from catchphrases and theme tunes? Almost nothing.
I just looked at stuff and ended up back where I started.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Charlie Brooker traces how TV's notion of knowledge has changed from bespectacled experts to celebrity presenter drivel. Warning: this episode contains an alien meeting with Danny Dyer and celebrity supernatural activity.