I paid a visit to the BFI Mediatheque at Derby’s Quad on Sunday and came away freshly amazed by the quality of public information films and television of post-war Britain, and with lots of thoughts about the desirability (or otherwise) of a ‘paternalistic’ television culture in which television is used not to give people ‘what they want’, but to stretch their understanding and interests beyond their everyday circumstances: an argument made powerfully by k-punk here. I want to try and work through some of those arguments in here, and (very) tentatively sketch out a vision of a ‘folk television’, which I think might offer a more attractive solution.
Before I get onto the real matters of substance here, I have to engage in semantics and say that quite aside from its meaning, I cannot endorse the term paternalism. What’s inherently male about helping people better themselves? Of course, there isn’t a handy non-gendered term that could be used here: parentalism lacks a history of being used politically (and is too easily misread as paternalism), whilst ‘maternalism’ carries connotations of over-protection and- perhaps- obscuritanism. And then of course there’s the ghastly ‘Nanny State’, of which the less said the better (although I am a fan of Mark having fun with it and creating Marxist Supernanny). For the purposes of this piece I guess we must also consider Auntie Beeb too (‘auntie knows best!’): but I’m not sure ‘auntieism’ would get very far. So- for want of a better term- and because others have used it, I’ll reluctantly stick with paternalism for now (I won’t endorse it wholly anyway, so I can live with myself).
I’m certainly sympathetic to the aesthetic arguments being made in favour of paternalism: the programmes I saw at the Quad today were of a quality and quiet ambition rarely seen on contemporary television. A short ATV documentary on the villages of Derwent and Ashopton- flooded to make way for Derwent Water reservoir- contained interviews with former residents that were everything modern day voxpops aren’t (full of ambiguity, thoughtfulness and considered slowness), whilst the narration was starkly poetic (if endearingly clunky in places). The Central Office of Information’s Charley In New Town, meanwhile, utilised the groundbreaking animations of Halas and Batchelor to make the case for new town developments (although it utterly fails as propaganda to my contemporary, London-lusting eyes- the ‘vibrancy’ of the city which repulses Charley is what I find so alluring).
There are a thousand more examples of television of this quality that I could draw on, and I’m sure many of you have your own favourites. It certainly seems preferable to me to what we so frequently wallow in when we watch contemporary television (and I can claim no innocence here- I’ll watch Take Me Out and tweet about X-Factor, largely for what I might pretentiously call ‘instant sociological interest’ [which in itself has worrying class connotations]).
But politically? This is all rather worrying. As someone with anarchist tendencies, I believe that ultimately, people can know what’s best for them and that giving responsibility for ‘betterment’ to whoever controls the television airwaves is a dangerous thing indeed: it’s not a huge leap from saying that ‘admirable characters should not be seen eating chocolate and chips’ (as Edward Barnes- head of BBC Childrens’ Television did in 1974), to altogether more sinister pronouncements about what ‘admirable characters’ should not do or what backgrounds they should not come from.
But I do think there’s much to be said for a return to television that doesn’t treat its viewers like gawping idiots who are incapable of dealing with either depth of subject or daring styles (I’m perhaps on dangerous ground with the latter claim- some of the rankest TV is occasionally stylistically innovative: even Hollyoaks has its moments). I noted above that I believe ‘ultimately, people can know what’s best for them’- but the ‘ultimately’ and the itallicisation were used deliberately and I don’t believe we’re yet at a point where people do know what’s best for them. So what do we do until then?
Like any anarchistic type, I fully advocate the building of prefigurative communities and relationships which echo the kind of society I wish to see develop- one where there is no need for direction from above (paternal or otherwise); where democracy doesn’t mean equality of emptiness and freedom doesn’t mean the freedom to choose between Bruce Forsyth and Simon Cowell. That, indeed, is what my concept of nomadic utopianism is about (though no references to Brucey in my thesis as yet), and why I’m so interested in the politics of collectively improvising music.
But it’s not enough on its own. We can create autonomous spaces all we like, but whilst the spectacle pumps out mass stupidity we won’t get very far. Television needs to be a central battleground through which we convey our ideas (which- lest anyone say this is ‘ideological’ in that ‘and therefore a Very Bad Thing’ kind of voice- is exactly what neoliberalism currently uses it for). This is difficult, for whilst music and the arts are perfectly amenable to DIY aesthetics built from the bottom-up, the vastly increased amounts of money needed to make televisions and film make this a rather more difficult proposition.
It needn’t be an impossible proposition, however, and one programme I saw at the Mediatheque today- The Battle of Kinder Scout– offered a glimpse of what television can do: how it can advance worthy causes without being patronising and/or hierarchical. It’s perhaps best be described as ‘folk television’- not because its host is Ewan MacColl- but because its stars are, well, folk- at their best and their worst (the word ‘folk’ is the right one here, I feel, because it lacks the mundanity of ‘ordinary people’- and, in referencing folk music, acknowledges that it’s ‘ordinary people’ who have some of the most extraordinary stories to tell).
Striking the perfect balance between emotional involvement and authoritative detachment (as is the case in the best of his radio ballads), MacColl calmly and powerfully tells the story of the mass trespass on Kinder Scout of 1932 which lead to the right to roam, with plenty of space given to the protagonists of the day (from both sides) to tell their stories. The programme was most powerful when it showed a group of ramblers who were given prison sentences for riotous behaviour reunited with an unpleasantly unrepentant chap who’d worked for the landowner and attacked the trespassers armed with a hefty stick (along with more information on the programme, a transcript of their meeting can be found here– it’s interesting to note how the rhetoric of the landowner’s employee is remarkably similar to the rhetoric of the right over the recent student protests). There was no hyperbole, no dramatic reconstruction, just people with something interesting to say- and it was utterly gripping.
Such ‘folk television’ seems to me a viable alternative to the dichotomy of paternal vs shit. Let’s see people talking about issues they care about, or about their lives- not in the token position of questioner on Question Time, or in Speak Your Brains voxpops on the news, or in documentaries where they’re used to illustrate some grander point- perhaps disingenuously*- but in their space and on their terms. This isn’t a revolutionary idea, of course- the Free Cinema Movement would fit nicely with what I’m advocating, but it’s one which seems sadly neglected in today’s infantilised and infantilising TV fodder. But it’s one worth fighting before, because the sheer power of folk can stretch a viewer’s understanding and interests beyond the everyday, and towards a better tomorrow.
*Of course, I love the work of Werner Herzog, who’s as disingenuous as they come when it comes to documentary making, and I wouldn’t want to limit television/film to a folk style.