July 30th, 2009


A sneer on the face of a judge

I don't live in Britain. I sometimes watch UK TV, though -- stuff like Michael Wood's 2007 BBC series The Story of India. What I see of more mainstream terrestrial UK TV is just glimpses here and there. But patterns emerge in those glimpses, and I want to write about one such pattern today, a scene I've seen again and again -- obsessively repeated, you might say -- in TV coming out of the UK this decade. You could boil it down to a facial expression: a sneer on the face of a judge. I want to think about this sneer, and what it means, and what part of the modern British psyche it comes from.

I think I may have traced this sneer back to its origins. It appears in a key scene in the hit 2000 UK musical Billy Elliot. This is the nerve-wracking moment when Billy, the plucky little working class dancer, is auditioning for the Royal Ballet School:

Now, what strikes me about this scene is how absurdly one-dimensional the judges are. They're snooty, tight-arsed, glacial, priggish, posh, intimidating, like governesses from the 1950s. There's a weird mismatch of representational styles here, for while Billy is drawn fairly naturalistically, the judges are straight out of a Ronald Searle drawing for a Molesworth book. To feel identification with them, or affection for them, would clearly be out of the question. They're there to be hated... but not hated enough that you go off, decide to ignore them, and just do your own thing. No, you hate them, but you also stick around to show them. You're plucky -- like Billy!

"You don't have to like us," the Royal Ballet School judges seem to say, "but you have to recognize our authority. If you want to show you're talented, we're the guardians of your hoped-for glory. We are tough, snooty, easy to dislike, but ultimately just. The full weight of a British institution is behind us, and makes you fear us. But this institution is not entirely closed to you, should you possess exceptional talent. Yes, this nation is ultimately meritocratic! Position is earned! And your fear will turn to jubilation if we suddenly switch from sneering disdain to grudging or even fully-fledged admiration, based on an extraordinary performance from you! Then your passive-aggressive working class dislike for us -- the ruling class! -- will turn to gratitude, and you will be ushered into a place of glory within the institution we control. Our recognition of your talent will lead to your recognition of the legitimacy of our power. We are harsh but fair, a school of hard truths. We are the Royal Ballet School. Above us is the queen, sovereign of the realm, and above the queen is God."

I see echoes of this scene -- this particular organisation of class and hate and opportunity -- all over UK television this decade. It's as characteristic of the British TV mindset this decade as someone tasting food and declaring it extraordinarily tasty is characteristic of the Japanese. I see this set-up, this relationship, this "license to hate", this agreement between two parties that one should judge and the other be judged, in Britain's Got Talent, Dragon's Den, The Weakest Link, Pop Idol, in house make-over shows, cookery shows, style advice shows, and interview shows like Hard Talk, which "plays hardball" with its guests, just as the dreaded Jeremy Paxman does on Newsnight. It's become a formula. How do you dramatize information on British TV? Why, give it a compelling edge of nastiness of course! Set up withering celebrity "experts", and find someone for them to judge.

I find this politically reactionary and emotionally immature. It seems to encourage -- or simply reflect -- a society where it's okay to be openly scornful, derisive or mistrustful of other people. It suggests a tolerance for hostility, a harnessing of hatred, as if negative emotions like these were the very petroleum of the social engine. It depicts a situation where "experts" (from a higher class than the people they're judging) address performers with the "dark sarcasm" and undisputed power of teachers addressing children. It also stages reaction shots and repartee in ways that look insultingly fake and contrived. The whole thing seems designed to appeal to people who want both to hate and respect their masters: oderint dum metuant "Let them hate so long as they fear".

In "the judgement scenario" social Darwinism is harnessed to a parody of Britain's existing class hierarchy, thus legitimating it as a quasi-natural force. Anne Robinson, the actress-hostess of quiz show The Weakest Link, has the kind of accent the British political overclass long ago learned to disguise with empathetic glottal stops. But Anne is playing a character who's merciless and "cut-glass posh", a cross between Margaret Thatcher and a sadistic headmistress. She's the personification of dharma -- the iron-clad law of the universe -- as it might be seen by a particularly masochistic worm about to be speared by a starling. As someone who divides winners from losers, Robinson incarnates natural selection executed by a brahmin. And yet it's all, transparently, a role-play game, like renting a prostitute to spank you. Why, when you could dream anything, dream this -- over and over?

Natural selection in a business context is played out in Dragon's Den. Here, business people have to pitch money-making ideas in front of a panel of "multi-millionaire investors" with some tough questions for them. Good ideas get the cash, bad ones get derision and the key scowl. Failing here is like getting kicked out of the Big Brother house: you lose, and life is all about winners and losers, and the winners are the ones who choose who gets to join them at the top.

These ideas don't stay tidily confined to the proscenium arch of the TV set, unfortunately. ILX, a bulletin board I used to frequent, added a "Suggest Ban" button a couple of years ago, allowing users to vote other users "out of the house", hence declaring people with unpopular opinions "the weakest link" and waving them "goodbye". It gets used to boot out anyone with a mildly divergent take. That isn't exactly pluralism, now, is it, boys? In good societies, surely everyone has something to contribute? And just what are the implications of this "eliminate the weakest link" idea for immigration, for dealing with the homeless and the socially excluded, for integrating the talentless? How do people feel about living in a society where judges sneer openly?

The awful thing is that there's no escape: since you're supposed to hate the judges and be hated by them, you're part of the basic set-up of these shows even when you criticize them. You fit right into the formula. And look, here I am judging, and sneering, too!