Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Noughties fantasy worlds

Television comedy is slowly becoming a dire mulch of crappy game-show formats, bland observational comics impressing the easily impressed l!ve at the Hammersmith Odeon and the main players being nicked by Sky who’ll parse substandard material in the name of ‘presence in the market’. But the noughties produced a slew of great productions, often in the slipstream of Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci’s Partridge/Day Today/Brasseye work, that through their attitudes to drinks and drugs told us a lot about social trends in the decade. For the purposes of this I’m setting aside programmes such as Black Books and Pulling, where booze is often the principal motor of often very funny comedy but not much else gets a look in. Regrettably, it has not been possible to include Two Pints of Lager in this piece.

A workplace comedy with the focus on job precarity due to downsizing and streamlining, the setting only allows for legalised escapism. An enhancer of mundane existence, a validator of life itself and the portal to greater, more exciting things – that was booze’s role in The Office, often led by the insufferable manager David Brent (as in real life, Ricky). Welsh woman getting it in the car park by the northern salesman (‘nearly done’); Gareth’s threesome with a wild chic and her willing spouse after Chasers; Tim the Loser getting it on with new Swindon girl, all outcomes are possible once the can of Stella is cracked open. All these things bring about is temporary situations, a transgressive blip without enough substance to dissuade any character from not turning up and logging on. Consolation for life in Slough. For Brent though these things are still off limits due to the considerable wall he puts up in the form of his ego. That doesn’t stop him reminiscing to a disinterested Tim about long nights in the pub with Finchy, Gareth and co, in sync with the prevalent school of thought that needless weekday drinking is somehow cool. No wonder suburban hostelries are on their arse if they’re the only people left in them.

In such normalising circumstances, drugs is just ‘waccy baccy’ with no other substances mentioned. Of course Brent is ‘mad enough without the gear’ and always off ‘to munchie city’ when high, he tells the fellow motivational speaker in a memorable scene. Like his hero Ian Botham, he’s ‘smoked the odd doobie’ but, as with the support cast with their boozy fumblings, not enough to put him off wasting time and his life at work.

In Peepshow, a sitcom closely bound to the fragile ups and downs of modern consumer capitalism, with work vital for one and anathema for another, the prognosis is gloomier in some respects as the theme involving alcohol is one of dependence. ‘Let’s get cunted’ as a salesman droog says on the eve of (not after) a major Kettering conference. Booze pops up in any and most situations – a yard of ale with Christian relatives, a can or two in the supermarket or waiting outside a church to punch an ex-monk, a pack of Aussies ‘getting shitfaced’ on a Wednesday night. Dobby says ‘it facilitates the talking of shite’, and Mark adds ‘in the long term there’s depression, lethargy and addiction but who’s looking to the long term?’ Indeed, if anything unites Mark and Jez, the conventional odd couple of British comedy, it’s their love of drink. Johnson the boss also sums up the love-hate relationship with alcohol well, being mostly dry and puritanically ‘clean and serene’ but ultimately unable to resist the alcoholic lifeforce in the final NYE party. Poor me, pour me another drink.

Booze serves all social functions from consolation to innocent hedonism and often makes farcical situations even worse, yet it is the attitude to drugs that is far more revealing. Here, a didactic tone often appears, coke turns Superhans into a gibbering wreck in the toilet and of course he’s forever the cartoon for his crack habit (yeah, what a joke!), Sophie is seen to go distinctly flakey and unreliable (those old chestnuts) when she starts dabbling in E while her dealer friend is ‘not a bad person, but a moron’, and in the last series there is a denouement of sorts when even Superhands’ own party is seen as too out-there to experience. So while drug-talk provides some of the best lines and scenes, usually via Superhans and his talk of ‘nature’s glue’, dropping acid at a birth and the k-hole he administers Sophie’s cousin-cum-bedroom producer, we’re always encouraged to see such activity as marginal, stupid and dangerous.

It’s an interesting take, and while they would hardly lose their core audience if they took a bit more of a 30something Skins line on narcotics, perhaps its longevity is partly accounted for by the writers’ mainstream ‘look at the sad druggies’ stance, allowing the more casual fan to feel comfortable with the Croydon tower block world. Sometimes, Peepshow was more like Men Behaving Badly than anyone would care to admit. But this stance has always made me feel less than comfortable, and this extends into other areas where the writers are less sure-footed, such as homosexuality. Careful, if you get high you may suck your best friend off!

On to Nathan Barley, Brooker and Morris’ early evocation of the nice ’n sleazy nation of hipsters aka ‘self-facilitating media nodes’. With more weight given to specific signifiers of people type and place and the painful irony of criticising a hermetic world you are actually part of, there is less on the social rituals of intoxication, so we see the old east end boozer now ‘Nailgun Arms’ a lot but there is less on the activities therein. There are also events and clubs in an identifiably Shoreditchy milieu, but little excessive drinking and drugging shown as the activity takes on the more nebulously modern tag of ‘partying’. Indulgers are cast as loners who depend on drink and drugs and are out of step with the in-crowd too busy being cool. Dan Ashcroft, the anti-hip writer who slags off the idiots, is an idiot too for caning it on the execrable schmooze circuit too much, as is evident when he wakes up in Barley’s office covered in paint. Then there’s the young cokehead, who the scheming Barley is happy to say ‘go on, get it up your beak’ without partaking himself. And Barley himself is made more laughable by his use of strong weed (‘colossal amounts of TCP’). He thinks it aids the creative process, but of course it doesn’t. Probably. Not unless you have installed some very hardworking filters.

Ashcroft gains a small victory when Barley copies his Geek pie hairdo and is still winning after Pingu’s defenestration, but he fucks up with Barley in his pants and the Shoreditch twat wins out, switching back on to the programme of highly networked self-promotion, bagging the TV series and subjecting a comatose Ashcroft to his whims. Don’t drink kids, you’ll lose your status as the plum writer on an edgy magazine and some twat with a web audience of other twats will take over.

Finally, the Mighty Boosh. Despite much emphasis on the ephemera of pop subculture for the material that provides our knowing laughter – breakdancing mutants, Vince’s ‘harsh tasty’ beats for the cobra, Bollo’s DJ slots at Fabric, punkgothbluesmodjazz younameit – life's drinkers, tokers, pill-poppers and snorters are almost marginalised. Naboo aside (who has smoked so much he has magic powers), they pop up as odds and sods such as the Scottish street alky, the actor-lush, Sammy the Crab ‘off his tits’, shamen Kirk on one. But when Fielding and Barratt, who had already explored the techno hippy waffler with his Pod act with Tim Hope, do touch on hedonism, they get it right, with some funny, accurate lines delivered round the shamen stag tour, for instance.

In Booshworld, there is generally no need to portray temporary oblivion when there is a premium on adventure, fantasy and otherworlds – which is sometimes little more than a conceit and a device given that most of the time ‘the humour’ is Vince and Howard riffing off each other, placing them in traditional comedy duo territory. The message almost seems to be: don’t hammer it too much, because you wont be able to indulge in this shit-chatting. I have a friend like this, a lad who has lived in several east London interzones (Whitechapel, Broadway Market, Bethnal Green) and knows one or two of the Boosh entourage, who resolutely avoids serious talk. Often the ‘game’ with him is how you can follow one meaningless statement with another. What are his views on the world? Don’t be so gauche, we’re talking about creatives here.

Over the course of the three series they move from the Zooniverse to Naboo’s flat and frequent mentions of Camden onto the Dalston shop, with the last being key to the outlook. In the Boosh as in hipster zones such as the real Dalston itself, there is a sense that youthful contemporary cool society, with its handheld gadgets, instant access to all of life’s wonders and mysteries and wilful ignorance of class and race (easily achieved when you're white and well off), is already nicely deranged enough, providing infinite jumping off points for endless, directionless, issue-less conversation. But that would be a conceit too. Booshers or Barleys may not need industrial quantities of booze and the other stuff, but they are still just as divorced from reality.


David W. Kasper said...

Still reckon Nathan Barley was highly underrated. It was a howl of hatred & pain against who (now) produces our culture. But Charlie Brooker has a contradictory relationship to that whole milieu, doesn't he? Despite the (northern) 'outsider' alter-ego he presented himself as, he's the one with several TV shows under his belt, the celeb wife and the lucrative Guardian gig. Also, for all his (often funny) railing against the crapness of mainstream media, he devoted an awful lot of gushing column space to shows either hideously overrated (24, The Wire) or frankly unwatchable ('reality' TV, Simon Cowell, food/property porn). He's not a 'sellout' because he didn't have anything to sellout from the outset. A lot of his grumbles seem based on the difficulty of joining the 'idiots', rather than setting himself apart.

I recall some would dismiss Nathan Barley because "only people like that find it funny", but it does create genuine discomfort. Especially now, when we see the hideous results of what those circles had to offer all around us. (Blue) Jam satirised the horrors of a more settled middle-class existence, but both shows were diagnoses of the same 'disease'. Britain has felt like a very sick place in the past ten years or so. Brooker is as much of a 'symptom' as anything.

Culla said...

brooker is still careful to retain the anger but metes it out inconsistently (with some targets clearly not worthy of such vitriol) but that's the problem when the main focus has always been media presentation/meeja hoors rather than underlying trends. also agreed on barley; plotlines sometimes strained but the milieu and the language (notice whenever barley was in difficulty the silver spoon voice returned) was spot on. the booshers are just slightly more innocent/less entitled versions but it's the same world. and it's not just hipsterists who invent this absurd terminology and phrases for their cliques

of course there are a load of spoof Barleys on twittter. no one doing anything interesting of course

ralph dorey said...

I'm not sure about Nathan Barley. I think the paedophile episode of Brass Eye was the beginning of the end for morris as he seemed to become aware of the reputation and audience he had developed and started aiming his work directly at at. Prior to this his work seemed less precious and less concerned with delivering a specific message. Likewise when Nathan Barley existed only as a two sentence tv listing for the show "Cunt" on TV Go Home it seemed perfect. To spin this out into a 6 (?) part series seemed only to do too things, remind us that "These people always win" and like the character of Ashcroft/Brooker himself struggle with a self-loathing desire to actually just be part of it all. I remember reading a review with some editor of a magazine like Face who pointed out that not only was the show about 5 years too late but ultimately the satire didn't (couldn't) push further than the thing being satirised. At the time the show was being produced I lived in Whitechapel and I remember walking to meet a friend in Old Street and passing through the street where filming was taking place on what later turned out to be a shot from the first episode. There were people in stupid clothes racing electric wheelchairs down a street while other people filmed them. I'd only been in London for a about a year or so but I'd met enough apalling middle class "creatives" with access to production equipment and a self satisfied immaturity that this wasn't particularly surprising. When I later saw that it was a scene intended as satire, it was hard to not to see at least a partial enjoyment on the part of those making the joke. It is also not hard for me to see that as with Beavis and Butthead, the intended targets of the attack might actually read it as a celebration and something to aspire to.

The Mighty Boosh did one series (and earlier radio?) of a very good comedy show which I think was matched at the time only by Monkey Dust. However after that I found the self-satisfaction and ironic name dropping a little to hard to deal with, coming to a head in the third series which just made me cringe with embarrassment at its earnest pop references for Peaches Geldof generation covered with the implausible deniability of critique.

Finally, the best media satire of the last decade is "Ed Reardon's Week".

David W. Kasper said...

One character that 'worked' in NB was the Dave Stewart stand-in (with the pink elephant 'creative centre' pissing money down the toilet). That was a 'type' that gained unaccountable power in Blair's 'creative economy'. I've met some - it seems every major city has its own once-famous 80s has-beens; wielding 'clout' well beyond their capabilities, but still able to make or break younger wannabes.

And Ralph - I still reckon his cringe-making interview with 'Weekend on Sunday' was a classic scene!

Just occurred to me that the direct ('austere'?) descendant of Boosh and Barley could be Inbetweeners. A similar mockery/celebration of (male, middle-class) immaturity and delusion - the trivial banter in all three follows a similar 'rhythm', although the later show is the most popular because their age makes them more sympathetic characters.

Culla said...

yes on Doug Rocket character, a great turn by performance artist David Hoyle (who we roped in for for our own comedy project, admittedly at its tail-end when it was foundering under misdirection, and i still havent got round to seeing his directorial debut). Less bound by the Hosegate milieu and full of pointless quirks and whims like his 'ape hours' and his Email - the Musical, this is what happens when success distorts reality into Stewart-esque Paradise Syndrome. It's elements like this that help lift Barley the show beyond the one-like joke that is Cunt the column

Anonymous said...

I thought this was a 90s blog