"Via television it is possible to construct an illuminating alternative history of the last two decades," promises Phil Harrison in his introduction to The Age of Static. "How did we get here?"
The idea that modern Britain is rendered explicable by its television programming makes a certain amount of sense to people in Ireland. We've always felt we know more about the British than they know about us, all because we have "the channels".
Demonstrating this idea is easier said than done, however, and while Harrison has written an intriguing and entertaining survey of 21st-century British television trends, the notion that it adds up to an explanatory picture of the nation is a bit shaky. There’s just so much television, and you can feel Harrison gamely struggling beneath the weight of all that potential meaning.
His first chapter, Reality TV Reality, deftly guides us through the evolution of reality television programmes but is less successful when he tries to draw a straightforward relationship between such programming and the growth of right-wing populist politics.
Harrison, like other commentators, sees a reality-television aesthetic at work in the personae of Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. I get this temptation. Trump literally came into the US national consciousness through The Apprentice; Johnson thrived on Have I Got News for You; and Farage looks like an evil hand puppet on a children's programme.
But it feels wrong to pin those politicians’ preference for emotional gut reaction over facts so firmly on to new-fangled reality TV when there’s a very real and terrible history of autocratic populism already there to take the blame. A certain kind of populist politician has always been adept at using the mediums of their era. I’m not convinced that they’re really that shaped by them.
On the other hand, I really enjoyed his incisive analysis of contemporary British class politics in How the Other Half Live. Here he channel-hops from the working-class stereotypes of Little Britain to aspirational property investment in Location Location Location to the conservative solutionism of The Secret Millionaire and the poverty-baiting of Jeremy Kyle and Benefits Street.
He briefly recounts Britain's rich history of class-conscious drama and comedy, from Cathy Come Home to The Likely Lads, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and The Boys from the Blackstuff, and how it evaporated in the individualistic, post-historical 1990s. Then he discusses more recent outliers he feels have depicted real working-class lives: Paul Abbot's Shameless, the documentaries of Penny Woolcock, Ronan Bennett's Top Boy and Jimmy McGovern's Broken. I could have read several more instalments on this subject.
His chapter on how the “culture war” has played out on UK television again tries to pull too many disparate strands together. I suspect he’s filtering what went before Brexit with an analysis mirroring all the explanatory documentaries made after it.
For example, far from being on either side of a culture war, in their day, Jeremy Clarkson's Top Gear and Chris Morris's Brass Eye both seemed guilty of wallowing in the same bath of millenarian cynicism and tabloid baiting. In fact, I don't think the ideological culture war as we understand it today was on television at all. I think television largely missed it. I think that that war was actually played out in tabloids and Facebook and fringe extremist groups and it has been imported to television in more recent years to try to explain something much more amorphous and less explicable.
A chapter titled How the BBC Became the Story is a good round-up of the scandals the BBC has found itself recently embroiled in and the behind-the-scenes political wrangling that belies its supposed independence from government. He moves from the suicide of a BBC Radio 4 Today programme source, David Kelly, after their report on the government's justifications for the Iraq War to the BBC's apparent reluctance to uncover the crimes of Jimmy Savile to its involvement in an ongoing unwinnable dispute about "balance".
These things feel too different from each other to sit comfortably in one chapter. In the case of Today’s report on the government’s “sexed-up” dossier, the BBC arguably investigated too sloppily and broadcast too soon. On Savile, the BBC didn’t investigate at all, then broadcast its eventual analysis far too late. Apart from the fact that these issues helped undermine the institution’s confidence, they don’t necessarily chime with the subject of the rest of the chapter: the BBC’s self-destructive quest for “balance”.
Harrison explores the pressure the BBC is under to eliminate any suggestion of bias and how that has led to it uncritically broadcasting unscientific positions on climate change and platforming of extremist politicians. He’s on firm enough ground here, I think, suggesting that fact-checking should ultimately be the editorial mechanism for inclusion in news programmes, not a desire to represent all partisan opinion.
The best chapter, A Very British Identity Crisis, is about how Britain’s self-image has played out on television over the past 20 years. Against the backdrop of Brexit, Harrison examines how the irony-laden title of 1980s political drama A Very British Coup was adopted unironically in the new century.
In the past decade a plethora of shows with "British" in the title asserted a British national character while being simultaneously unwilling to in any way analyse or critique that character. Television-Britishness, Harrison argues, has largely been reduced to an ersatz postmodern grab-bag of tat (he correctly singles out the awful Downton Abbey for some ire) but he does find nuanced and reflective exceptions in Tony Grisoni's Southcliffe, Shane Meadows's This Is England and Mackenzie Crook's Detectorists. I could have read several more chapters on this subject.
Overall, The Age of Static is a zippy, well-written reminder of what has been happening on “the channels” in recent decades, and it features the bones of an interesting thesis about the need for both reflection and risk-taking in the face of unexamined neoliberalism and self-protective managerialism. But in going for a too comprehensive approach, the author provides lots of examples and not enough argument.
Looming around the edges of his paragraphs is a substantial left-wing polemic about the power of television that deserves more space. I think Phil Harrison still has a lot to say.