At April’s annual Oxford-Cambridge Jack Wills Boating Festival of Blonde Quiffs on the Thames, a dangerous new form of protestor called a ‘swimmer’, or ‘breast-stroke Marxist’, disrupted the world-famous race, halting two very snazzy boats carrying lots of pointlessly muscly, pointlessly expensive people down a river. The BBC’s anointed correspondent for the sporting endeavours of the landed gentry, Clare Balding, whizzed up and down the Thames on her speedboat, telling us viewers how wickedly important it was that we watched the action (with Balding taking a watery break from her usual presenting haunt – standing next to some tiny, rich, white folks who crouch on horses and beat the crap out of them and crash them and shoot them).
The BBC, like Sky Sports’ shouty football coverage, has a perpetual propensity for self-inflated chest-pumping. Auntie’s TV events are not events – they are Events. Indeed, like all TV – we can blame 24-hour rolling news with its debasing use of ‘breaking news’ – the BBC is a hearty supporter of the hyperbolic. Big events like the World Cup final, the royal wedding and, to a lesser extent, the Boat Race, get their own dose of super slo-mo HD introductions, usually some silly poetry, gloriously epic Hans Zimmer-esque music, and so on. TV sells TV like nothing else. These are glossy productions designed to sell you one (and only one) type of product: suburban, petit-bourgeois, pro-monarchy identity fetishism.
The Boat Race was watched by 3.3m people. A hefty chunk, yes – but that is less than 6% of the UK’s population. Now, no argument (not even with the cavalier brilliance of the first two paragraphs here) could sensibly suggest that the Boat Race has any great impact on British socio-cultural values. But it is, definitively, a chunk of something much larger – TV’s remarkable ability to anaesthetise us. Few question the weight of the ‘history’ or ‘tradition’ of the Boat Race – we just reckon Balding is warmly leafing through our own cultural fabric, saying nice things in nice ways about ‘pride’ and ‘passion’ and ‘institutions’ and seldom considering what we are being asked to swallow as history – as truth.
The Boat Race and royal wedding, like the Olympics and Jubilee coverage will be, are part of a national infatuation with a sort of uniform faux-heritage. TV Event narratives – read by a Huw Edwards or a Gary Lineker – always tap in to some collective sense of identity, usually national, but often white, or middle-class, that are designed in some way to make the viewing unit (the family, the couple, the futon masturbator) feel attached to the national, communal whole. That’s hardly an outrageous statement: TV has been used for propaganda since its creation. What is outrageous is that it is still so prevalent now, in 2012, in our crunched, creditless times, in the shows we watch and the coverage we absorb and that a particular brand of ideas and values can be so unchallenged and can permeate our living rooms in such an unassuming way.
In the United States, tradition is a potent weapon in political rhetoric, far more so than in the UK. In Whitehall, much like Alastair Campbell’s assertion that New Labour’s would not ‘do God’, since the mid-90s one would struggle to find continued, explicit references to national identity in either the manifestos, press releases, policy statements or conference speeches of the mainstream parties. Contemporary political discourse simply does not ‘do Britishness’. Chest-thumping, Rule Britannia love-ins are the product only of the media. We’ve known for many years about how the newspapers use constructed notions of identity in order to whip up tensions – and sell papers. (The Daily Mail and the Daily Express are almost single-handedly responsible for the EDL and the BNP.) But these identity straw men are also stitched into the lining of televisual ‘culture’.
The Hunger Games, out in cinemas at around the same time as the Boat Race, was a brilliant, if slightly nonsensical (200mph super-trains, dresses made of fire – but no guns?) fictionalisation of how a politico-X Factor would run the world. Think The Voice with Lenin and Ceausescu on the panel. I know, I know – it’s fiction. And the novel is atrocious. But the film is excellent, and a fictional reductio ad absurdum is not always worthless. In the film, ‘heritage’ and ‘tradition’ are used to justify the subjugation of the rural poor to the will of the urban elite, with a game, for the entertainment of the ruling class, in which the poor must fight and kill each other for the ‘glory’ of their particular district. Now think about the X Factor. No contestant is being told to give their life in the arena (only their productive labour power) but the show’s competitors are predominantly working-class, painted as proud [insert region]ers, doing it for their mates at the local or for their families. The poor are plucky nobodies whose heartfelt tales are gently piped into Surrey living rooms, the Saturday audience of the eye-wettingly mawkish.
Television owns, builds and propagates a comfy idea of Britishness, not unlike in fin de siecle Europe. From the middle of the nineteenth century, the British upper class created the pomp and circumstance of the monarchy. Pall Mall, Trooping the Colour – we associate these traditions with centuries of heritage. But, in reality, they were created in the lifetimes of, at most, your grandma’s grandma – in the last one hundred and fifty years. And yet, we take it for granted that the monarchy, with all its ceremonial farts and flag-waving is part of our DNA. It isn’t. It is no more a part of us than a hairstyle or a jumper.
Like television, history is concocted by whomsoever is powerful enough to do so, by whoever the hell needs us to believe that the English bravery is in our blood. For the glory of our people, never ever shall be slaves, and so on. TV is the organ of the elites. So when Sue Barker or that bloke who does Formula 1 are grinning at us all summer with hours of saccharine Olympics coverage, and they start talking crudely about ‘strength’ and ‘passion’ and ‘patriotic spirit’, you’ll think about The Hunger Games, won’t you? The festival of Britishness will include only those whom television producers wish to include. If you are not that kind of British then you are not a winner. And you are not invited.
(This is an article for the fantastic Limbo Quarterly, which is out now and available here.)