Saturday, March 03, 2007

Race oddity

As Life On Mars settles into its second and final series, it's apparently being marketed to the same viewers who lap up Top Gear and its ilk, as wish fulfilment for overgrown schoolboys who feel emasculated by the 21st century. Interview chores this time round have been taken on not by John Simm, who plays nominal hero Sam Tyler; but by Philip Glenister, whose DCI Gene Hunt would take 'unreconstructed' as a compliment, after he'd chinned you for being a university-educated ponce. Glenister's certainly on-message if he wants to appeal to the Clarkson fans out there: "I talk to a lot of people and here's a funny thing," he told the Telegraph. "I haven't yet met one who has said to me: 'This political correctness business - isn't it great that we've got it?'"

It might appear that Life On Mars has fallen victim to the same fate as Johnny Speight's Till Death Us Do Part, which set out to satirise racism, then saw its villain become a hero. Tyler hates being stuck in this backwater of bigotry, confronting, whereas the viewers see it as a rather refreshing diversion. But is the tale of the stranded copper really as dangerous as it thinks? Sure, the pre-PC PCs smoke and drink and pinch birds' bums, and Hunt is a marvellously judged tribute to the mighty Jack Regan. But, for the most part, we laugh at them, not with them, and sigh along with the more enlightened Tyler. For example, one recent episode sees a black detective seconded to the squad. Ray Carling, the most Neanderthal member of the team, gets his jabs in, but the worst he can come up with is an anaodyne gag about "spadework". Is that really the nastiest abuse a non-white policeman could expect in the canteen culture of the 1970s? If frustrated blokes think they're getting a vicarious dose of the years when racism and sexism didn't need to come with quotation marks, they're deluding themselves.

Maybe this is the problem with retrospective pastiche: in attempting to achieve a perspective on the past, we lose the essence. But did TV ever really express the racism and sexism of the era? I recently watched the first episode of the 1969 sitcom Curry and Chips, also created by Speight, about a Pakistani starting work in a factory. Clips occasionally show up on cheerful compilations about 'TV Hell', or earnest documentaries about the representation of ethnic minorities in less enlightened times, but otherwise the show might as well be an urban myth.

First off, despite the presence of Eric Sykes and Spike Milligan, it's not very good. The jokes are heavy-handed, the pacing is non-existent, actors (especially Milligan) are visibly corpsing, and the jackal-like studio audience is profoundly annoying. But is it racist? Well, characters use words like 'wog' and 'Paki' a lot, which is disturbing to modern sensibilities. But it's made quite clear that the worst offender, the Powellite Norm, is a moron (as was the case with the similarly taboo Love Thy Neighbour). Sykes, as the manager, is a decent bloke who tries to help the new recruit to feel at home. Not that the moral battle lines are so cut and dried; you could almost call the whole thing nuanced. A black character, played by Kenny Lynch, joins in the abuse of the newcomer, arguing "At least I was born here". A landlady expresses reservations about taking him in, but relents after she decides that he's quite good looking. Could this have been the inspiration for last year's Oscar surprise, the bit-crap-and-muddled-but-its-heart's-in-the-right-place Crash?

Probably the aspect of the show that's hardest to stomach is the presence of Milligan, browned-up to play Kevin O'Grady (his mother was Irish, so the story goes), with an excruciating Gunga Din accent. White actors in minstrel mode make us very uneasy, but Milligan's performance is so stilted and unnatural, that the racial provenance soon becomes irrelevant. The whole point is that he's an outsider and a catalyst, and might have come from anywhere in space (like Mork from Ork) or time (like Sam Tyler). After all, it's hardly a documentary.

Perhaps that's the thing to remember, when pondering what Life On Mars tells us about the frustrations of contemporary masculinity. The past that viewers see, playing out to a glam-rock soundtrack, is a scrubbed-up version of the reality of those years. And the much-maligned 'political correctness' (if that includes the unspoken assumption that racism is a bad thing) was alive and well on TV even then.


Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

Life On Mars can work on different levels. Some people watch it to be reminded what a disorganised mess Britain was in the 1970's and how, ahem, unenlightened people were (have things really changed so much?).

On the other hand, there are people like my in laws who watch it because it reminds them of "the good old days" (apparently). "It's set in the days when policemen could still give a good hiding to some cheeky young yob. They couldn't get away with that now. If a policeman tried that now he'd end up being arrested and the yob would get away scot free. Terrible these days, isn't it?". That's what my mother in law said.

Anonymous said...

I think it's Madness gone Politically Correct!

Annie said...

Haven't ever seen Life on Mars, but really couldn't stand Till Death Do Us Part - it might have been satirising racism, but just didn't come across as that funny (- unlike Rising Damp. Rigby was a great anti-hero.)

Billy said...

Having watched, Life on Mars, I'm glad I wasn't alive (for much of) the 70s.

Spinsterella said...

I'm not enjoying Series 2 so much.

The body count is way too high and they seem to have forgotten the jokes this time around.

And John Simm still hasn't tken his shirt off either. Most disappointing.

Tim F said...

Betty: The question is, whether that's deliberate. Johnny Speight always claimed that TDUDP was a satire of bigotry, but some critics have suggested that he was emotionally closer to Alf than he let on.

Thank you, Mr McPherson.

Annie: I agree. One day I'll do a post about the greatest sitcoms of all time (heretically leaving out Til Death, Dad's Army and Only Fools).

Billy: You missed the summer of '76, when all the ladybirds went vampire psycho!

Spin: Tyler is a weedy, chinless muppet. You want some Gene Genie action, love. Bet he keeps his driving gloves on.

West said...

"Is that really the nastiest abuse a non-white policeman could expect in the canteen culture of the 1970s?"

I'm sure non-white officers hear far worse than that even now, Tim.

You should have a look at this book by one of my old lecturers:

British low culture : from safari suits to sexploitation / Leon Hunt.
Routledge, 1998.

He makes the point that Love Thy Neighbour had a very large black audience - most likely because it was the only show that had lead actors who were black. He also compares the overt racism of Eddie with the more subtle (and perhaps more horrible) assumptions that appeared in Rising Damp. There's a scene in which Rigsby and the Richard Beckisale character are both astonished to find that Philip has a *black* girlfriend - the 'wisdom' being that as he could have any girl he chooses, he would naturally want a blonde beauty....(cringe.)

Nice post Tim - if it wasn't for the fact that it took the writers *7* years to get it to screen, I'd add that the Time Traveller meets the Sweeney concept is perhaps a little too contrived and made to measure for the soundbiters who commission what we laughably call Televison drama nowadays...

L.U.V. on ya,


llewtrah said...

I was 8 in 1973.

Other race references from the old days:

Mixed Blessings - sitcom about white man marrying black girl; full of jokes about "call a spade a spade"

Mind Your Language - set in an English as a 2nd language class for adults, poked fun equally at illogical English language and hapless foreigners struggling to learn it

It Ain't 'alf Hot Mum - Bates blacked up and doing his "we British" bit in the early series

Some nameless 1970s sitcom about a black family, it was supposed to be groundbreaking but just pandered to stereotypes.

And while we're about such things, not racist but .... Look Out, Here Comes Selwyn Froggitt (sitcome about a simple bloke)

Of course therre was always Don Warrington's character in Rising Damp. Warrington is ageing well and still has a voice that makes women go weak at the knees :)