27 February 2007

Getting Custerdy

At what point did we become too stupid to watch TV documentaries? Presumably about the same time we became unable to understand a news story unless it was related to a celebrity. Or when TV Execs started to create shows based upon a pun, rather than an idea: Life of Grime, Fat Men Can't Hunt.

And so was born the "docudrama": history as actors in costume raising their eyebrows cartoonishly. This week's crinoline-and-CGI concoction was the latest installment in the The Wild West (BBC2, Friday 23 February). In this case it was the much mythologised "last stand" of Custer, with Toby Stephens donning the floppy moustache, and the promise of startling new evidence that the most famous rout in American history so nearly went the other way. As a keen student of U.S. history, I was suckered in to watch, waiting to see the equivalent of the Titanic missing the iceberg.

This new evidence consisted of running through the familiar story of the Battle of Little Bighorn, while implying personal ambition amongst Custer's subordinates scuppered certain victory. This was history-as-football-manager, blaming defeat on the referee's eyesight - if only the river hadn't been banked by quicksand, if Custer's men hadn't dismounted, if Benteen had provided back-up in time. And if my cat could bark he'd be my dog.

To add weight to this rather flimsy reworking of the facts, we have to rely on dramatic set-pieces where Custer overrules Benteen, his second-in-command, and a grudge is born. But because there is no evidence other than innuendo, we have pantomime to fill in the gaps - instead of a new theory born of careful research and diligent fact-checking, we have a retelling of history based upon fictional dialogue, and motive proved by an actor's sneers.

The docudrama genre is to history programmes what Crimewatch is to current affairs. Crimewatch's fig leaf - that it helps to solve crime - doesn't hide the fact that almost all its viewers watch for vicarious pleasure. But at least it has a fig leaf; docudrama is the serpent in the tree of knowledge, tempting us with the false promise of Easy Answers and never having to think for ourselves.

25 February 2007

It'll be all Icke on the night

This week Channel Five repeated its Boxing Day documentary: "David Icke - was he right?" To many of us, this would seem to make for the world's shortest programme. But, apparently, like anything in the public eye after a certain period of time, the mere act of surviving invites a revised critical look. A revised critical look invites the possibility of acceptance, credibility even. But the only thing David Icke invites is incredulity.

Following the very public fall from TV sports presenter, to self-proclaimed shell-suited son of God, he has since found an audience who is receptive to his particular line of conspiracy. He has found acclaim in the United States of America, where conspiracy theories ring true with a certain slice of American society (probably 'sliver' is more accurate). According to US government statistics, 142,000 Americans are injured every year as a direct result of the act of getting dressed, so it perhaps not surprising that few thousand will find the idea of a shape-changing reptile conspiracy lucid and rational.

But in a world that finds reason to reprise the work of Jeff Wayne simply because he hasn't yet died, David Icke too has enjoyed some media interest. In our post-9/11 world of uncertainty, Icke's predictions can seem uncannily prescient: In January 1999, he wrote that "between 2000 and 2002, the United States will suffer a major attack on a large city". In his 1990 paperback, Truth Vibrations, he declared: "The years after the millennium will see gathering conflict all over the world to the point where the United Nations will be overwhelmed." And in the same book he predicted severe hurricanes around the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans after 2000.

Granted, predicting hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico is akin to predicting the next Pope would be a Roman Catholic. And anyone with a slight acquaintance with current affairs would recognise the Twin Towers attack on September 2001 was actually the fifth time Al Qaeda has directly attacked US property. Nevertheless, people started to sit up and take notice.

The programme seemed reluctant to bring up some of Mr Icke's other predictions, so I thought, in the interest of balance, I'd let you in on a couple:

The same "vibrations" that led to the supposed 9/11 prediction also led him to declare that “disruptive thought vibrations" originating with the Sicilian Mafia and the Tiananmen Square massacre in China had combined to set in motion a cataclysm lead to the explosion of Mount Rainier in the United States. No date was given.

This would be followed, he said, by the complete disappearance of New Zealand, the collapse of the Channel Tunnel, the fall of Naples Cathedral, and an unspecified failure of the Texas oil fields. These events would be brought about by the “archangel Ak-Taurus,” who, he said, had previously managed to thwart an attempt by the citizens of Atlantis to avoid the submersion of that civilization. The Atlanteans, said Mr. Icke, had been urged to tune in to the “power point” at Stonehenge, but they did not heed the warning and were thus destroyed.

Those of a nervous disposition may take some comfort in the fact King Arthur and Merlin, along with the archangels, have now turned off the power at Stonehenge so that Ak-Taurus cannot use it against mankind. But by Christmas 1991, Mr. Icke predicted, Cuba, Greece, the Isle of Arran, the cliffs of Kent, and Teesside would be hit by a great earthquake (8.0 on the Richter scale) that would submerge them.

"People think I'm some kind of prophet but I'm not someone who gets my information from the ether," says Icke. "I've been given the co-ordinates about how things work." Those co-ordinates would seem to be pointing to east London. Right around Barking.

24 February 2007

A ghostly M.O.

On this week's Haunted Homes on ITV2, a sinister spectre of soft furnishings was at work. This week's witless victims of supernatural phenomena were haunted by a spirit who liked to place cushions neatly on the sitting room table. Presenter Mia Dolan realised straightaway what she was up against:

"Stacking?? That is classic Poltergeist ".

It's this sort of forensic, detailed knowledge that is the hallmark of a quality show. Watch out, poltergeists, you are so busted.

Petitions update - to what porpoise?

A new petition finds its way onto the e-petitions page of the 10 Downing Street website (q.v.). Thirty five people feel strongly that:

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Return the powers of The Royal Perogative to The Sovereign (HM Queen Elizabeth II).

I'm sure these people have considered carefully the irony of using an open forum created by a democratically elected government to petition for the creation of an autocracy. But why leave such piddling matters as dissolving parliament, declaring war and states of emergency to the Queen? (Not to mention the ownership of wild unmarked white swans, sturgeons, dolphins, porpoises and whales swimming in open and common waters?) Surely the obvious answer is to choose someone every year through a 16-part ITV show on Saturday nights? Now that's participatory democracy.

In the event of a tie, the winner would be the first person to spell prerogative correctly.

Prep talk

Headline in the FT: "Bush denies preparing attack against Iran."

After not preparing properly for Iraq, you'd have thought he'd have learned his lesson.

16 February 2007

We the people...

Much has been made of the recent e-petition against the proposed imposition of "car tax as you go", signed by 1.5 million UK citizens and rising. The biggest surprise to most people was probably the fact that the government had created such a thing as an e-petitions page in the first place. Some people have been very excited by this revolution in e-democracy: at last there is something to stir the apathetic of this country to think and act politically, from the comfort of their armchairs. So let's look at what's been vexing the minds of the nation alongside car tax.

For Sam Kiss the government needed simply to make provisions for a free society. Sadly, by the close of that petition, she remained the only person willing to commit her name to such a proposition - surely a damning indictment on our sleepwalking into a police state? On the other hand, Roger Colwell urges us to join him in asking the government to consider security at airports - possibly suggesting he hasn't actually been on an aeroplane in the last 40 years.

But this is not merely the preserve of the foolish. Nick Bloom managed to convince 2,556 people to sign up to support his proposition that We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to prevail on the Civil Aviation Authority not to ignore the findings of its consultation with General Aviation on the mandatory imposition of Mode S equipment.

Similarly, 2,174 people were confident enough to put their names to support the proposal that We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to get the Health Service and medical profession to accept the WHO classification of ME/CFS as an organic neurological disorder and not as a psychosocial syndrome.

All in all, some 3209 petitions are currently live on the site, covering everything from petitioning the PM to make it compulsory... to employ a Traffic Warden in busy east coast holiday resorts through to asking him to help stop the satalite [sic] company from rubbishing scottish affairs.

Perhaps my favourite is Tim Ireland's proposal that We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to stand on his head and juggle ice-cream. Disappointingly, for the future of the country, that particular sentiment was 3,564 times more popular than making provision for a free society.

12 February 2007

Another country

In the face of constant speculation about juvenile drug taking, David Cameron, Conservative Party leader and prospective Prime Minister, has taken a firm stand on an important matter of principle. He admitted he had done things in his past he "should not have done", but insisted politicians were entitled to a "private past". As he spent the weekend feebly denying what is almost a matter of public record, his intentions were obvious: "I don't care if you know I took cannabis, but please don't remember that I went to Eton."

This "Private Past" is less a matter of principle than the pragmatism of a political grasper. Since he can make absolutely no political capital out of an upbringing of wealth and privilege, expediency is elevated to a badge of honour. Had "Dave" grown up on a council estate in Hackney, we'd have never have heard the end of it. What he actually means is the Conservative Party should be entitled to a "private past", lest we should think that nice George Osbourne is somehow connected to the same party that brought you Norman Lamont.

08 February 2007

Lord Reith on permanent rotation

Quiz time. Which of these programmes was NOT available to watch on TV last night:

a) Fat men can't hunt - a film crew follows a group of overwight Brits dropped in Africa to prove they have lost their hunter gather skills a mere 10,000 years after the invention of agriculture.

b) The Flavor [sic] of Love - different girls compete for the affections of former Public Enemy rapper Flavor Flav.

c) You don't know you were born - an actor tries to be a baker because his grandfather was a baker. Funnily enough, he isn't any good at it.

d) Monkey Tennis.

When they said the digital revolution was going to bring choice, I'm not sure I realised that it was a choice between 17 different sorts of excrement in televisual form. Coming soon - "I'm a TV Executive - get me a decent idea before someone burns down Television Centre", a new reality TV show where the stakes really are high.

The sad thing is, that the above quiz is really true, and I only made up one of the shows. The really sad thing is - the fictional show would probably have been better than any of the other three.