I presume that the creators of Rise and Fall (Channel 4) pitched it by reading the first line of JG Ballard’s High-Rise – “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months” – before adding, “And we want to make a TV show like this, for all the family, ideally in prime-time slots each weeknight.”
Sixteen people are split into a group of “rulers” and “grafters”, with the former living luxuriously in a penthouse atop a London skyscraper and the latter toiling joylessly for gruel in a basement below. You’ll remember this from the Stanford prison experiment – now considered unethical in social-science experiments but not on television – and, of course, from “capitalism”.
Where Rise and Fall departs from the Stanford prison experiment, High-Rise and contemporary “capitalism”, however, is that there’s a real possibility of social mobility in Rise and Fall (social mobility having been in steep decline in Britain since the 1970s). In Rise and Fall, plot twists allow the grafters to rise from their humble stations so they can graft believing that they are not poor but merely temporarily embarrassed millionaires. Or, more literally, thousandaires, because the prize is £100,000. Which wouldn’t even cover train fare in London these days.
In the first show the contestants mingle and give each other the reality-television side-eye. Rishika, a communications officer, on learning a fellow contestant is named Prince, says, “You’re the Prince, but I’m a queen. You’ll have to watch yourself,” because at some point in the 21st century people started to talk like professional wrestlers, and there’s no going back.
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A man named Jack explains that he is afflicted by a tragic British disorder: being a cheeky chappie. “I’m very cheeky. There’s a line, and I always like to cross it a little bit.” If I were his lawyer – and some day, please God, I will be – I’d advise him to stop saying that last sentence.
Then Greg James, the show’s presenter, wafts into the room with the force of a man who can’t decide between two first names. Refreshingly, Greg James is not a brash man. Sometimes you can forget he’s happening. He is more like a low-energy atmospheric condition than a presenter, a pleasant change in the temperature or an amiable fog. I can picture Greg James on a meteorological chart, represented by his big quiff. Perhaps the quiff is called Greg and the man is called James. I am intrigued by this “Greg James”. I wish I knew his surname.
In Marxist terms Greg James represents the historical forces necessary for political change. His presence marks the point at which some will board an elevator to the penthouse as rulers. A number of contestants make impassioned cases for their leadership skills. Matt, a nurse who looks as if he’s on the cusp of weeping, impresses everyone with his great love for all mankind (with luck not as a delicacy). They decide he should be their first ruler.
A few others board the lift based on similar prospectuses. An entrepreneur named Jeff is explaining how in life he has “stepped on people, but they didn’t know they were being stepped on” (a good political slogan, in fairness: “You’ll hardly notice I’m stepping on you”) when order breaks down and some people just run for the lift chaotically. Ah yes, people seizing power out of grasping self-entitlement and proximity to a lift. That’s the British establishment I know.
Six “rulers” are soon rising to the penthouse while the rest descend to the windowless basement to subsist on gruel, sleep in cold dormitories and wear prison jumpsuits. Upstairs the rulers banquet over views of London and say things like, “I get to live in luxury, and I deserve it,” or, “At home or in business, I love power. I love it.” You’ll be familiar with this type of statement from Matt Hancock’s leaked texts. But they also wring their hands and say, “We really have to come from a place of compassion,” and, “Their quality of life is in our hands” – and that’s nearly worse, to be honest.
Meanwhile in the basement they say things like, “I am in hell,” and, “I feel like I’ve been taken hostage.”
The rules are simple. The “grafters” must toil to create wealth at the instruction of the “rulers”, after which, as though propelled by an invisible hand, a select few may rise. The tasks they undertake are puzzling, and I’m not sure how they could be the basis for a productive economy, but I have no doubt these are actual jobs now in buccaneering, postsocialist Britain.
On day one, for example, they hold their arms aloft to keep an electrical current going while sporadically receiving electric shocks. Much as in the Milgram experiment, the rulers decide for how long to continue subjecting them to this. “Today was an incredibly difficult day,” Matt says sadly, lifting a champagne glass to his fellow rulers and contemplating the plight of the dispossessed. Then they magnanimously bestow tiny treats upon the grafters. This is, I believe, known as “third-way politics”.
As befits the condition of the working class under capitalism, many of the grafters already have Stockholm syndrome. A software engineer called Eddy wishes the rulers hadn’t wasted money on treats. If you were to do an MRI on Eddy at this point you’d see that his brain was doffing a flat cap and twirling a little Union Jack while saying “lawks!”
On day three their job is to “taste” mounds of pet food as it emerges on a conveyor belt. I don’t know why the sometime GB News pundit turned Rise and Fall grafter Sophie Corcoran is so revolted by this. Surely by her standards this is the taste of freedom. Isn’t this the low-regulation, red-tape-free Brexit she voted for, one in which wealth creators can electrocute the shiftless dog-food-eating working man? Anyway, the grafters all gag and vomit until the rulers decide that, while it’s ethical to have them vomiting for a while, it would be unethical to have them vomiting all the time. I believe this political philosophy is called “centrism”.
Moral injury sets in. The rulers become paranoid. Ramona vies for hard-edged autocracy too soon (this civilisation is in its oligarchic phase) and is dethroned. The newly ascendent Marina argues that because she knows the pain of the grafting classes she should inflict lots of pain on the grafting classes. Meanwhile, the compassionate oligarch Matt seems increasingly jumpy, probably because on some level he knows that the grafters will eventually assemble a guillotine and convene a revolutionary court. Rise and Fall is a nifty allegory, to be honest, and will be studied by political scientists for years.
I suspect that if Marx or Lenin were alive today, they would forgo political tracts in favour of reality-TV programmes like this. Because, quite frankly, there’s a chance that some viewers will watch and say, “Much like this mere entertainment, society too is unfair. We should overthrow the rentier class and seize the means of production.” Although there’s also a chance they’ll look at the grafters and envy their gruel and security of tenure. The ultimate outcome, really, is all of us sitting around a roasting dog in the remnants of a skyscraper, telling feral children about the things we used to watch on television.