Tuesday, 6 October 2015

The Comic Strip Presents & Others: The New Statesman

The subject of time has come up in the classic TV blogosphere this week, so of course I have to leap in and give my two penn'orth. My impression of time in the world of TV is that it depends on the programme and the viewer's first experience of it. The later Avengers were made before I was born, for example, but seem very recent to me because of my early experience of them on the young Channel Four. Many of the 1970s shows I have talked about here seem very old because they were broadcast when I was a very small child, while the shows from the 80s and 90s when I was at some very difficult ages, are etched on my memory as if yesterday. I would also suggest that older production values and social concerns can make shows seem older than newer ones.
Recently I have been rediscovering a whole movement of 1980s comedy. I have posted several times here on the subject of comedy recently, and what surprises me most is how little I have posted on it. Of course this is because much of the pre-mid-1980s TV comedy is (in my humble opinion) really not much cop. Then in the 1980s a whole 'alternative' comedy movement came along which was actually funny and remains so thirty years later. The first of those programmes was The Comic Strip Presents…, which I'm sure I will come to at some point. I have already touched on the wonderful Young Ones. But I have not yet posted on Bottom, Filthy Rich and Catflap, French and Saunders, Ab Fab or The New Statesman, which is the subject of this post.
I have a feeling that probably The New Statesman would have been a better vehicle for celebrating Rik Mayall's talent in the wake of his death than is The Young Ones. The other series for which he is known often rely on a comic counterpoint between Mayall and Adrian Edmondson, but The New Statesman gives him much more of a solo stage, to which the other characters are subsidiary. Nor can this programme be considered a mere rehash of Yes, (Prime) Minister, although it seems to cover much of the same territory. The Yes, Minister programmes give me the heeby jeebies, because it depicts what to me is a chilling world of personal careerism, backhanders, and the prevention of any real progress by the machinations of the civil service. Yes, Minister serves up an all too real world of politics and diplomacy which is easily transferrable to any forum in the world, where nothing really matters. Bizarrely The New Statesman manages to take the same material and make it hilarious for me.
I'm not sure why. Nor does it seem dated, and can make me laugh out loud at this length of time. It certainly should seem dated, since it very much reflects the 1980s, the age of the 'yuppie' in the UK. Its concerns are completely of that age: AIDS is mentioned, parliamentary corruption and perversion, police influence in public life, sexual morality, conflict with trades unionists, radioactive waste dumping, and Jeffrey Archer and the Vatican Bank even get a mention. This list includes virtually all of the major concerns of the time, and as far as this blog is concerned, represents what came next in the history of the usual 1960s preoccupations in my habitual viewing.
I think that probably I would recommend this as an antidote to dewy-eyed Anglophiles, in need of seeing the seedy underbelly of British public life as it is. I love the bit where B'Stard takes money from a blind beggar to put in the parking meter: these are often the people who represent us. I love the scenes in the House of Commons (Did you know that to this day the BBC maintains a complete replica of the House of Commons?) and non-native Brits viewing it should not be shocked at the abuse our parliamentarians give each other in the chamber. That is traditional and allowed! The show's Wikipedia page accurately summarises B'Stard's attitudes, which stand as a summary & criticism of parliamentarians' attitudes of the time:
'Over the course of the series, stage shows and newspaper columns, Alan opined on numerous topics, most of which demonstrated his contempt for the working class and indeed anyone not of the political and financial elite (the ordinaries). During an argument with a constituent, B'Stard declared that he believed he was helping British industry by driving a Bentley (a [Lagonda] In series 4) and having his suits handmade by British craftsmen. B'Stard's arrogance even extended to stating that there was nothing wrong with the education system that couldn't be put right with £2,500 a term, and that NHS waiting lists could be abolished by shutting down the health service, thereby eradicating poor people and eliminating poverty. B'Stard continued this train of thought through his defection to New Labour when he was instrumental in arranging a postcode lottery for cancer treatment so that "only the right people get better". Alan at one time proposed inverting the rallying cry of the American War of Independence by stating that "No representation without taxation" was a more fitting clarion call, believing people such as himself (the "enterprising, over-taxed minority") to be called on far too often to bail out other members of society. Alan used the same argument when proposing to cut off all social security payments to elderly people as he believes they should have considered how they would look after themselves instead of wasting their money on "ghastly holidays in Blackpool". When being interviewed by Brian Walden, Alan readily consented that should he rule the UK, the rich would only pay tax on their cocaine, children would be forced to work in mills and the elderly and infirm would be left to die by the thousands.' (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_New_Statesman)
One thing which I find particularly clever is the way B'Stard's reputation manager, Norman, gradually undertakes what we would now call a gender reassignment, becoming more feminine at each appearance, and even commenting on her increasing femininity. This is cleverly juxtaposed with the fear which the Prime Minister inspires every time she is mentioned. Mrs Thatcher's name is never actually mentioned by anyone in parliament, and they always refer to her as 'she' in a tone which manages to be fearful without being overdone at all. It is clear that the one actual female character in parliament is not feminine at all!
The scenes which take place in B'Stard's constituency are also charming, displaying a community of eccentrics including his father in law, and the retired hangman who runs a pub.
Normally I would criticise the fact that there are some familiar faces in the cast (Peter Sallis plays the former hangman, for example), but their presence is not intrusive. In fact I have been sitting here trying to think of some criticism to make of this show, and been completely unable to do so!

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Apartheid in The Prisoner: Many Happy Returns

I have commented before in this series of posts, that it is possible to read virtually anything into The Prisoner if you try hard enough, and that is certainly true. Certainly the elements of apartheid relating to power, conformity, nonconformity, and control, all find very strong echoes in the dynamics of Number 6's experience. But I feel this episode takes us very close to the heart of apartheid and its real point. In fact I feel it could be argued that the opening sequence of almost every episode replays Number 6's forced removal, echoing that of the people forcibly removed from areas rezoned for whites, under South African apartheid. I'm afraid this is going to be a post where I largely marshall evidence brought from elsewhere, and that is largely because I can't summarise the forced removals better than they are here:
'From 1960 to 1983, the apartheid government forcibly moved 3.5 million black South Africans in one of the largest mass removals of people in modern history. There were several political and economic reasons for these removals. First, during the 1950s and 1960s, large-scale removals of Africans, Indians, and Coloureds were carried out to implement the Group Areas Act, which mandated residential segregation throughout the country. More than 860,000 people were forced to move in order to divide and control racially-separate communities at a time of growing organized resistance to apartheid in urban areas; the removals also worked to the economic detriment of Indian shop owners. Sophiatown in Johannesburg (1955-63) and District Six in Cape Town (beginning in 1968) were among the vibrant multi-racial communities that were destroyed by government bulldozers when these areas were declared "white." Blacks were forcibly removed to distant segregated townships, sometimes 30 kilometers (19 miles) from places of employment in the central cities. In Cape Town, many informal settlements were destroyed. In one incident over four days in 1985, Africans resisted being moved from Crossroads to the new government-run Khayelitsha township farter away; 18 people were killed and 230 were injured. 
'Second, African farm laborers made up the largest number of forcibly removed people, mainly pushed out of their jobs by mechanization of agriculture. While this process has happened in many other countries, in South Africa these rural residents were not permitted to move to towns to find new jobs. Instead, they were segregated into desperately poor and overcrowded rural areas where there usually were no job prospects.
'Third, removals were an essential tool of the apartheid government's Bantustan (or homeland) policy aimed at stripping all Africans of any political rights as well as their citizenship in South Africa. Hundreds of thousands of Africans were moved to resettlement camps in the bantustans with no services or jobs. The massive removals in the early 1960s to overcrowded, infertile places in the Eastern Cape such as Dimbaza, Ilinge, and Sada were condemned internationally. These were dumping grounds for Africans who were "superfluous to the labor market," as a 1967 government circular called them. Ultimately, these people were to become the responsibility of "independent" Bantustans so that the white regime would have no financial responsibility for the welfare of people there. Hundreds of thousands of other Africans were dispossessed of land and homes where they had lived for generations in what the government called "Black spots" in areas that the government had designated as part of "white" South Africa. Also, some entire townships were destroyed and their residents removed to just inside the borders of bantustans where they now faced long commutes to their jobs. By the 1980s, popular resistance to removals was widespread, and government plans to remove up to two million more people were never carried out.' (Source)
If it seems as if I'm making too much of the removal issue, when I'm supposedly writing a post concerning returns, that is actually because I'm doing it deliberately before turning it on its headby commenting that actually the point of this episode is to turn therecurring removal theme of the rest of the show into a return. Of course the point of the return is that Number 6 cannot return to what he has known because his home and car have been usurped by the Village authorities. He has been truly disappeared in a passive way, just as many people were in South Africa. This impossibility of return and its parallels with apartheid forced removals are reinforced in this account relating to forced removals in Sophiatown, Johannesburg (the removals in District Six of Cape Town were more contemporary with the making of the show and may therefore have been more influential but this quote happens to say exactly what I want to say:
'Nobody argued that Sophiatown wasn't a slum, at least in part. The journalist Anthony Sampson, who knew both the neighborhood and its people quite well, once wrote that it "was filthy, overcrowded and it stank...." It was also, he quickly added, "the heartland of developing urban black culture -- it vibrated with activity, talk and excitement." And, so, everybody -- everybody, that is, who was black or politically progressive -- would have agreed with Father Huddleston that "...the Government's scheme was not slum-clearance but robbery: robbery carried out in the interests of and under pressure from the neighboring white suburbs: a political manoeuvre."'(Source)
The apartheid authorities were not really relocating people to a suitable place under their racial policy, they were really taking what people had for themselves. The illustrations to this post are before and after pictures of Sohpiatown – it was made impossible to return. Subsequently the area was renamed Triomf and housing built for working-class Afrikaners, although it has now been renamed Sophiatown again.
The message that the apartheid authorities were giving to the displaced non-whites is almost exactly what the Village authorities are saying to Number 6: We will do what we like, ensure you have no recourse to law, we will take what is yours, including name and identity, and you can never return. In the case of this episode, Number 6's solitude is additionally reinforced by the empty Village and lack of speech in the first part. The message is chilling in the extreme, and one calculated to induce despair.
Image credit: here

Monday, 21 September 2015

Apartheid in The Prisoner: The General

Dead easy to see echoes of South African apartheid in this one. Speed learn equates almost seamlessly with the 'Bantu education' legally allowed to the black majority by the white majority during the apartheid era. The point, of course, is that speed learn is not education at all: no attempt is made to develop an ability toi marshall evidence or analyse. It is based solely on repetition, which is explicitly shown up to be its failing in this episode, although ironically it seems that Number 6 has failed to realise that until it is pointed out to him.
I have commented in previous posts in this series, on the condescending way in which the white settlers of South Africa (obviously this would tend to go for white colonialists anywhere) viewed the indigenous people of the country. I have quoted at length on how there are still these views going round that black people cannot think like white people, can't think ahead, make judgements or decisions, and so on. It is also touted around that the average IQ in sub-Saharan Africa is relatively lower than that elsewhere in the world (conveniently it is always ignored that there are a number of things which are crippling to IQ level, such as poor nutrition, and also the fact that IQ as an indicator of intelligence only tests one sort of intelligence). If you were to accept this view of black people's intelligence it may make a very good argument for limiting their education to such useful subjects as dusting and washing dishes (seriously). If you particularly want to read more twaddle in this vein with specific reference to Bantu education, you can find it here.
This view of black people as primitive or child-like actually led to them being treated as permanently children (perhaps this is best seen in the ongoing use of the word 'girl' for any female domestic worker, and ditto 'boy' for a man, regardless of age. This infantilisation comes out at its full extent in this quote:
'The honourable member had a lot to say about Bantu who are sometimes only able to go to see pictures which children under 12 can see. Our problem, and the problem of the Board, is simply this. There are films which you cannot approve for the more primitive Bantu, and if you say that Bantu are permitted, you cannot prevent the primitive Bantu from seeing them. We cannot then discriminate between the more sophisticated Bantu and the primitive Bantu who could be very adversely affected by such a film. – Deputy Minister of the Interior Dr S W van der Merwe, House of Assembly, September 4 1970. The film Zulu, made in South Africa, was Banned for "Bantu…and other persons between the ages of 4 and 12", which meant that Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, who had played the role of King Cetshwayo, was unable to see it.' (cited in Ben MacLennan: Apartheid The Lighter Side. Chameleon Press, Plumstead, 1990, p. 106)
The claimed pursuit of 'suitable' education of the Bantu led to the Bantu Education Act No. 47 of 1953:
'A pillar of the apartheid project, this legislation was intended to separate black South Africans from the main, comparatively very well-resourced education system for whites. Authored by Dr. H. F. Verwoerd (then Minister of Native Affairs, later Prime Minister), it established a Black Education Department in the Department of Native Affairs. They were tasked with the compilation of a curriculum that suited the "nature and requirements of the black people". African children students were to be educated in a way that was appropriate for their culture. No consultation occurred on this. All the definitions of culture, appropriate education content and levels, all the decisions about purpose and outcomes of the system were controlled by the apartheid government. Its stated aim was to prevent Africans receiving an education that would lead them to aspire to positions they wouldn't be allowed to hold in society. Instead Africans were to receive an education designed to provide them with skills to serve their own people in the Bantustan 'homelands' or to work in manual labour jobs under white control. This legislation was condemned and rejected as inferior from the time of its introduction. This cornerstone of apartheid ideology-in-practice wreaked havoc on the education of black people in South Africa, and deprived and disadvantaged millions for decades. Its devastating personal, political and economic effects continue to be felt and wrestled with today.' (Source)
This quotation of course points out the ultimate aim of any restrictive approach to education. Bantu education was designed to keep the Bantu in a subordinate place. How does this translate to the purpose of speed learn? My feeling is that this is probably a point at which the comparison falls down slightly, since the main means of control used in The Village is actually isolation – in The Village, and sometimes by The Village. The residents are sufficiently controlled by being there, and the more institutional aspects of life there are sufficient to quash any rebellion. I feel the purpose of speed learn is ultimately like many of the other exercises (art competitions, etc) organised by the village: they are completely pointless, really, serve to distract an already broken population from questioning authority, and may provide a useful yardstick of how well the residents have 'adapted' to The Village.
Obviously, the way through this edifice of pretence is to ask the one question the machine can't answer, which requires the ability to think about it. I feel this 'tramlines' approach to education has an interesting modern echo which would have been unforeseen at the time. In the 1960s a university degree was eminently more valuable than it is now, so that claim that education of that level could be completed in three minutes would have been even more of an achievement then. Nowadays a master's degree seems to have the standing that a bachelor's degree once had. When employment is on a downturn, governments have a habit of pushing people into education to get them off the unemployment numbers. Doesn't this sound just like the sort of meaningless occupation which speed learn is?
(Image credit: here)

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Adam Adamant Lives: The Doomsday Plan

We told you to take the tract.
It can be a lonely business, this blogging lark. Fortunately the aficionados of the more recherché television programmes, seek each other out in the darker corners of the blogosphere and compare notes. Let's face it, when people at work talk about what TV they've watched last night, nobody's going to want to hear about, say, Gurney Slade, are they? One of the gentle readers who is kind enough to reference this blog on his own is Mitchell Hadley, who recently again has referred to me. I do hope he doesn't stop blogging, he has good stuff to say, and my only sorrow is that I don't know many of the programmes he talks about. Anyway, he was talking about a post on the Classic Film and TV café blog about Adam Adamant Lives, which made me realise it has been a little while since I have watched through the series and made me dust off the discs. I find to my horror that my first post on Adam Adamant, in which I witter on about some of the background of the show, was getting on for two years ago, so it's high time I avoided apartheid in The Prisoner again and wrote about this episode.
I was going to say that I disagreed with a major point in Classic Film and TV Café piece, which is that the more modern setting of this show was a mistake and it would have been better left as a period drama. On consideration, though, I find I do agree with the idea, only coming from the other side. I found that when I first wrote about it, I would have preferred it if the producers had dropped the period details completely and made it a completely 1960s show, so perhaps I'm really saying, Write a period or modern drama, don't try to do both.
Doomsday Plan is an episode which doesn't jarringly refer to Mr Adamant's decades-old sensibilities, at least to my mind. In fact I think it may be one of the more characteristically 1960s episodes (although I wouldn't go the stake about this opinion, since the one about the dodgy washing powder is genuinely creepy), since it touches on some genuinely 1960s fears, ones which naturally keep coming up here. For a start, there is the fear of the end of the world. I have commented before that this fear became very real as the 1970s wore on (touched on here by the idea of chemical warfare). The evil mastermind in this case (in addition to doing a wonderful Hammer impression on the organ) is placed interestingly in a religious context. Viewers on the other side of the Atlantic may perhaps not realise the extent to which Britain has lost its Christianity in the years since the Second World War. By the 1960s the churches were panicking about this and trying to be relevant to attract people. The irony here is that the evil mastermind is anything but relevant, rather he peddles fairly traditional fire and brimstone. I suspect that fifty years ago, this would still have had the effect of shocking those with a Christian background. Nowadays the effect on the viewer would probably be hilarity. It is interesting to see that his mission hall is actually fairly full, yet he is clearly portrayed as a crank throughout the episode. I wonder whether his congregation are all members of his conspiracy, but that is not apparent when you first see them. The impression given is a very impressive one of a church congregation, and the sense of illusion slipping away as it becomes apparent that all is not what it seems, is very effective.
Visually, I literally cannot fault this. Scenes are all obviously chosen for visual effectiveness – actually, this has just made me think of how this visual effectiveness gave way to the largely drab scenery of the 1970s and makes me wonder how it could be. In this visual respect, black and white TV beats everything else hands down. The scenes change quickly enough to give the show interest. The characters are drawn with broad strokes, slightly larger than life, which may be one of the reasons this one works so well, because it means that Adamant is seen next to characters who match him in size, rather than next to normal people, whose proximity makes him look like a caricature. Sounds are used effectively, including hymn tunes.
This also may be one of the Adamant episodes which most apes The Avengers, and fan will recognise many echoes of black and white Diana Rigg episodes. I mean, there's an evil megalomaniac who isn't satisfied with the potting shed. What's not to love? The main difference with The Avengers, which oozes sexiness, is the complete absence of sex. Adam Adamant is at most ever chivalrous towards women, and there is never any indication of a sexual dynamic.
I've been trying very hard to think of a valid criticism of this show, and I suppose I've finally hit on one. Without the intricacies of adult life, its struggles, difficult decisions, arguments, loves, passions, a story of any description merely functions on the level of a fairy tale. And of course it is Adamant's chivalrousness which is the cause of his apparent downfall in this episode. I feel The Avengers would have come to the bit of the story where it looks as if all is lost, with much more style and sophistication. This is not really a sophisticated story at all (remember, it is supposed to be in the swinging London of the 1960s), and that limitation is imposed by the character of Adam Adamant himself. Once again, a 1960s TV show which was not intended to be chewed over in the way I am here, shows its flaws when over-analysed.
So in summary, an excellent episode, which even I would find difficult to criticise, but don't expect the glamour or sophistication of some other 1960s TV shows in the limitations of the Adam Adamant formula.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

The Strange World of Gurney Slade

Anyone reading my last post, about Monty Python's Flying Circus, might have thought that I managed to deal with one of the greats of cult television in what was at best a low-key, if not sloppy, way. Naturally, the real purpose of that post was to bring the subject of Monty Python 'into the room', before I write about Gurney Slade. That is of course also the reason I delineate the TV comedy that I do like in that post.
Since the avowed purpose of this blog since I began it has been to avoid description almost completely and concentrate on analysis, for a very comprehensive blog post which manages to combine intelligent analysis with more description than I would like to include here, I would refer you here So on with the analysis. My first and foremost reaction to Gurney Slade is that I have been putting off writing this post for some months. I have owned the disc for that long, watched it through twice, but I also realise that I have been avoiding watching it because I was half-intending to write my neglected blog post. I realise that this avoidance has been because I perceive this series as one of the greats of cult TV, and while I may be casual in handling Monty Python, I don't want to do this one a disservice. This difference in approach to the two series indicates a completely arbitrary difference of perception. And this lengthy navel-gazing indicates the effect of watching several episodes of Gurney Slade on the same day, and my perceived need to be reflective about it.
If at this point you should wish to break off and read Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica instead, I will quite understand, because I'm going to seem very critical of this show, despite my apparently laudatory comments above. The main reason I wanted to praise up Monty Python on the blog before bringing up Gurney Slade, is that I feel Monty Python gets it exactly right and Gurney Slade gets it so wrong in so many ways. My flight into introspective reflection above, is intended to illustrate both the effect of the show, its main theme, and some indication of the necessary thought to understand this.
The other day I was telling one of my colleagues how I was waiting for the bus to work and a seagull came strutting towards me on the pavement, just exactly as if it was telling me off. She looked at me as if I'd got two heads, and suggested I should keep those sort of thoughts to myself. My point here is that as Gurney Slade so rightly says, we all have a Gurneyland in our head. It is our own personal Gurneyland, and Gurney Slade's own Gurneyland fails because it is his own. Such a reflective show misses it completely by effectively being a passive viewing of somebody else's own personal odd thoughts. The other things is, of course, that while we all genuinely have a Gurneyland, we rightly keep it to ourselves, merely to enable us to live in civilised society. The Strange World of Gurney Slade will not only not encourage viewers to venture into their own 'Gurneyland', but most people's automatic response will be discomfort at the sort of things being made public that most people keep inside. Gurney Slade violates one of the main functions of television for many people: it's a friend, a confidante, an advisor, an escape. It particularly normalises our social reactions and behaviour. For Gurney Slade to do something so 'inappropriate' as expose a man's inner world in the context of a TV show, is to invite trouble. Now you may reply that not many years after this, such things as the exploration of, for example, sexual fantasies, became increasingly socially acceptable, but the social acceptability is what makes us comfortable with them. Talking dustbins and newspaper headlines with personal messages for the reader, have always been the territory of the psychiatrist, and there is no indication here that Gurney Slade is mentally unwell, which would again make it socially acceptable and comfortable for the viewer. Gurney Slade is often compared to The Prisoner, and I find it interesting to note that The Prisoner also had an infuriating effect on its original viewers. However, I feel that the multiple ways in which The Prisoner can be understood was probably its salvation, since it invites the viewer to think about the show and what it could refer to, in a way which ensures it still has its devout following 47 years later. Without these subtexts, Gurney Slade fails to draw the viewers intelligence in in the same way. It is a TV show about a TV show and there is a limit to how far you can go with that.
In my last post I placed the context for Monty Python's humour in intelligent university students' humour. It is difficult to place Gurney Slade's intellectual context in its period, because so much has happened since then. The humour of The Young Ones, for example, which uses may of the devices of Gurney Slade such as breaking the fourth wall and reflection on the medium of television, has come since then and can only colour my view of Gurney Slade. I would therefore theorise that Gurney Slade would finds its ideal audience in the 1950s intelligentsia, of the sort parodied now and then by Tony Hancock. These people would have a background in theatre, would probably hang around espresso bars in the evening, write their own poetry, probably wear black, and be considered beatniks by their neighbours. I'm ashamed to say that I think Gurney Slade's ideal audience, if they have proper jobs at all, would either work in the theatre or at the BBC. And of course this provides another context for Gurney Slade – I feel it is no chance that the studio in which much of the final episode is set, looks very much like an old-fashioned theatre. Gurney Slade is a theatre play. I feel if you imagine it played in a theatre, in a theatre set, it is ideally placed. To compare to Monty Python again, a major device used by Monty Python is to introduce the surreal and unexpected into a familiar world. Monty Python invites the viewer's imaginative participation much more by being set in a world which is very much our own; Gurney Slade is set in a theatre director's world.
Somewhat late in this blog post, I must also confess to a personal dislike of Anthony Newley. The place in the fifth episode where he breaks into song, shows his metier for what it really is, and introduces a bizarre 'variety' element into a surrealist comedy. I also feel he is too young for the role he is trying to pull off, and as a result comes off a bit too clever. My mention of variety above has made me think also of what the Great British Public's expectations of comedy at that time would have been, and I think they would have been much closer to variety, such as the Arthur Haynes show I reviewed recently, and which I felt was more to the taste of my mother or even grandmother. In addition to the faults I describe above, Gurney Slade came at a time in history that was in no way ready for it. That's what happens when you give the Golden Boy free rein to make a television show without stopping him. I have no doubt that Lew Grade wished he left him to singing and scripted parts in films.
My conclusion, therefore, is that if you want to watch a heavily reflexive, surreal, TV show, referencing the intellectual world of TV and theatre up to 1960, this is for you. If you want a good laugh and a cult show you will be able to talk to people about, stick to Monty Python or The Young Ones.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Monty Python & Cult TV Humour

I'm a strange sort of cult TV fan – I'm not a fanatical Dr Who completist, for example. Another show which I do love dearly and which I realise I have never written about here, is Monty Python's Flying Circus. Come to think of it, I realise I have rarely written about any show which can vaguely be described as funny. Dick Emery has featured here, and I keep meaning to write a piece about local lad Tony Hancock, but on the whole my posts here have tended to be about my love for the weird and wonderful, which is on the whole an accurate reflection of my viewing. Of the comedy shows I watch fairly regularly, I think the only one which can be accurately described as 'cult' would be The Young Ones, and apart from one post I have fought shy of writing about that, since I could never do it justice. I also watch Bottom, Hinge and Bracket, To The Manor Born, Spitting Image, Hale and Pace, and French and Saunders. I was disappointed recently to find that I didn't think Victoria Wood had worn as well as I'd hoped.
I feel that probably humour is one of the genres of television that doesn't wear well. You will notice that the funny shows I list above are very much of one period, and of course it was a very formative period to me. Perhaps everyone has their own moment of humour, and perhaps humour either goes in such fashions that it does not travel well. Certainly when I recently posted about a show reminding me of the music hall tradition, I was finding that it didn't do anything for me at all. Mr Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock, and The Circus are, however, classics. I think the reason for the is the complete avoidance of contemporary detail, exactly the timeless which allows The Avengers, which really takes place in a time which never existed, to appear much less dated than many contemporary shows.
So what period does Monty Python take place in? I would venture to say that it is a similar temporal and geographical space to The Avengers. So many of the jokes are timeless that Monty Python can still wear very well. Of course, not forgetting the 1960s preoccupations which often come up in this blog, the concerns of progress, society, and so on are present in buckets. Monty Python satirises these concerns, and pushes it as far as it can. It is never prurient, never smutty, and it speaks to the ridiculous in our world. The picture which illustrates this post is from a sketch called full frontal nudity. The illustration that I really want to talk about is from a sketch about the dull life of the city stockbroker (since it contains bare breasts and I can't find any definitive decision on whether they're OK with blogger and I don't want to get an adult listing, I have posted it on my flickr  here ). The toplessness on TV is not gratuitous, it is intended to be completely out of place and thus shock the viewer. That would also be the case with the animated woodcut of St Thomas Aquinas being snogged, which I am watching as I write this. 
I feel I actually asked the wrong question before – the correct setting for Monty Python is not a particular time or place. The correct setting is bright undergraduate humour. It is necessarily a young people's humour. To have the sharpness of attention and comment required to produce this you would have to be the brightest of the bright, incredibly well-read, in both literature and the newspaper establishment. It also requires a psychological insight I feel people rarely gain much before the end of their thirties: the whole point of the illustrated scene being part of the stockbroker's dull life, is that it isn't dull at all. The topless newsagent is there for him to see, but he doesn't. He's too busy looking at his newspaper and actually creates his own dullness.
I have also realised, watching through my box set for the first time, how badly-served Monty Python has actually been over the years, by being released in highlights and people's selections. I know I'm always on about how old TV shows need to be watched differently from modern ones, because of the complete lack of awareness in 1969 that this show could ever be watched back-to-back the way I am now. I also realise that the show needs to be watched in its integrity to get peaks and troughs in pace. Monty Python has tended to be caricatured by being cut up. Being watched at its own pace is the way to do it.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Apartheid in The Prisoner: The Schizoid Man

In my introduction to this series I commented that I didn't really want to get drawn into the interminable discussion among fans of The Prisoner, about the black or white blazers and black or white number badges. It would, however, be churlish not to mention the matter at all in connection with this episode. My personal conclusion, having dipped into this argument from both sides over the years, is that it is impossible to come to any conclusion about the significance of the badges. In fact I would theorise that they could even be one of the little things in the series intended to lead to fruitless discussion and never susceptible of a final conclusion. My personal opinion about the blazers in this episode would of course be that the whole point of this episode, including even its name, is that of a split or division, which in this episode becomes deliberately confused so that it is impossible to tell who is Number 6 or Number 12. Naturally it is always possible to tell Number 24 apart.
The issue of identification by whichever means does, however, have a more complex application to the ideas underlying South African apartheid, and so it is actually very easy to read a moral about apartheid into this episode. The issue is of course around identity, knowledge, ways of knowing, and confusion. The moral is itself a 'schizoid' one: if you try rigidly to divide and label people by whatever means, and then also try to change these rigid divisions, the only person you will end up confusing is yourself. To give another real apartheid-era example of exactly this situation where it becomes ridiculous:
'A new bus apartheid system of seating will come into force on some Peninsula routes on Monday. In the new system the front four rows of seats and the longitudinal seats over the off-side wheel in the lower saloon are reserved for Europeans, and the long seats over the near-side wheel for non-Europeans. The rest of the seats in the lower saloon and all seats in the upper saloon are for all classes. The system changes slightly on Sundays when non-Europeans have both of the long seats over the rear wheels, the Europeans having the first four rows. The trunk-route from Wynberg to Sea Point will be segregated only between the city and Sea Point, conductors changing the boards before reaching the city stop at the Waldorf. The Europeans-only service between the Sea Point and Diep River will be modified by the dropping of the Sea Point to Cape Town section. This service will be withdrawn on Saturday, August 22. – Cape Times, August 18 1959. In an interview a few days later the manager of City Tramways denied that people were confused by the new arrangement.' (cited in Ben MacLennan: Apartheid The Lighter Side. Chameleon Press, Plumstead, 1990, p. 29)
 In fact the fact that Number 6 can pull the wool over the eyes of his captors in this episode (albeit not winning) seems to me a perfect image of what actually happened in apartheid. Remember that the 1960s were the time when apartheid was at its peak, the South African economy was at its most successful ever, and the cracks had not yet started appearing, as they did in the 1970s and '80s. Had this show been made at the end of the 1980s, with at least one eye on making it possible to refer to South African apartheid, it would look quite different.
The Prisoner's approach to the 'shizoid' 1960s concerns of the primacy of Science, and yet the popularity of magic and everything 'alternative' is also strongly present here. In fact I feel that Number 6's psychic link with Number 24, which at one point trumps his captors' scientific approach, could be seen to refer to the condescending way in which colonial whites in Africa tended to look at black people. Once again there is a moral, and it is very simply that if you look on people as magically-thinking savages, you will tend to underestimate them. A recent example of that kind of thinking is found here, by a current South African pro-apartheid blogger (Caution: you will almost certainly find this offensive, I do myself):
'When one teaches blacks, it is not uncommon to find that they score well to very well in tests or exams where they have to repeat what they were taught. In fact it is almost well known amongst educators that blacks are better at this than whites.
'But when it comes to applying knowledge...when it comes to using logic, faultfinding and problem solving skills, blacks fall by the wayside. They just cannot do it.
'A black can pass all the theory exams to become a pilot, but put him in a simulator and subject him to crisis situations where he has to think rapidly, then one sees the cogs of the black cognitive system start flying all over the place. And I am talking about the one percent...the best of the best,. The other 99% are only good to dig ditches, provided they do not break the pick or spade.
'The proof is in the pudding [sic]. It is not as if the world is over run by Nobel Laureates for hard sciences like physics or chemistry. How many black astro or nuclear physicists do you know?
'The most amazing thing is that no matter how well Blacks are educated, they never let go of their superstitious believes in the Tokoloshe, Muti witchcraft and ancestor worship. Blacks who hold high positions today such as ministers in parliament or judges...blacks who are engineers, still consult the witchdoctor on a regular basis. Blacks still run around and attack everyone, including their own with pangas.
'No amount of western education will ever be sufficient to change the African black savage into respectable human beings. They are what they are. We have to be honest with ourselves and with blacks and accept them them for who and what they are. We have to realise that our cultures will never be compatible.' Source