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Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Desperate Times

If anyone has any doubt that we live in desperate times – which, according to the country song, means we should all think seriously about robbing banks for a living: not a bad idea in principle, since the banks seem to have robbed and ripped-off just about everyone lately; but as they don’t have any real money it’s perhaps not such a practical idea at the moment – so if, as we were saying, anyone doubts that times are desperate, and if the plight of the banks doesn’t convince them (sorry – him or her), then a person might consider the scrape in which ITV finds itself.
Our authority for this musing comes from The Times of London of 10 March 2009, and in particular Andrew Billen’s column in Times 2 (page 18). Wherein Billen reports the financially beleaguered ITV as saying that in future “it will not do anything as highbrow and experimental” as Lost in Austen.
Lost in Austen was a jeu d’esprit of a short ‘drama series’, in which a comely young lady of our own day, by means and for reasons not entirely explained, managed to swap eras and circumstances with Elizabeth Bennett – she of Pride and Prejudice – and win the heart of Mr Darcy. Miss Bennett was content to remain in the 21st century, rejoicing in a mobile telephone while (perhaps it’s an organic thing) apparently not noticing that children’s dental health might be better ensured with brush and paste than with twig and soot. So everyone lived happily ever after. We suppose.
To these giddy heights of intellectual intrigue, ITV is now saying it will not take us in future. In one sense, the world will scarcely be the poorer. Lost in Austen, whatever ITV or Andrew Billen may proclaim or even think [sic], was neither highbrow nor experimental. Nothing wrong with its bit of fun, but. It was a piece of whimsy, and about as taxing mentally as deciding how to deal with a stick of candyfloss on a windy overcast day on Bournemouth beach without getting either the pink stuff or sand in your hair (or both at once).
Answer, by the way: look sulky, don’t accept the treacherously smiling offers of candy floss – always pressed most enthusiastically by elder sisters of dubious motive – and ask Father why you can’t try some of what he’s got in that nice curved leather-covered silver flask that he keeps testing so carefully. You may get an earful, but at least the ear won’t be gummed up with spun sugar and sand (and perhaps an ant). In other words, if you wanted something highbrow and experimental, you would not choose to watch Lost in Austen. You might not choose to watch television, let alone ITV, at all.
But we do live in desperate times. This, according to what used to be a newspaper displaying some acumen across a broad range of its correspondents, the paper that said the Foreign Secretary was a better man drunk than the Prime Minister sober – in the days when we knew who was the Foreign Secretary – this is “highbrow”.
Our conclusion is that the things that beset ITV, which include both a besetting slump in revenue and a (to ITV) dread growth in competing digital channels – should be encouraged to prosper, and eat the ghastly thing up. If television is going to be any use to anyone at all, then the fewer cretinized monoliths it has and the more special-interest channels with genuinely dedicated producers, the better. People seem to be making money out of channels devoted to subjects as diverse as bridal shopping, jazz, paranormal claptrap, horses and ponies and country sports, military history, and unattainably expensive motor cars. Why stop there?
Otherwise, television is worth watching for (a) old movies (b) the occasional documentary – BBC4 and Channel Five seem to be winning this race – and (b) the news when it is news, such as the outbreak of a decently noticeable war or a monstrosity like 9/11. ITV could stick to that formula and maybe still make some money, if they improved the quality of the movies.
Is there a way of making decent TV out of literature? A way, that is, of treating Jane Austen in the ‘highbrow’ (horrible middlebrow word, actually) manner – the simple, subtle respect – she actually deserves, on TV? We don’t think so, but then we love books, their smell and texture, the heft in the hand and the setting of elegant type, the way a single sentence lit upon while looking for another will hold one entranced for an hour, stirring up so many unexpected reflections. But a decent treatment of books by ‘the media’ really ought to tempt someone with an eye or ear to radio. The ‘broadsheet’ newspapers don’t have the space or the budgets to do more than they do, and you can’t browse the web while driving the car.
Meanwhile, those who care will keep on reading. Occasionally hoping. These are desperate times, but interesting ones too.

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