One of the most dispiriting experiences currently available is any commercial break during a televised football match. In a Champions League game, within seconds of the half-time whistle you are pitched into a garish carnival of crap which glaringly and proudly condenses Everything Wrong With Modern Britain into three bombastic minutes, beginning with the laughably pompous Champions League choral theme and then going downhill from there. Adverts follow for gambling, drinking, and borrowing money, along with violent computer games and cars. A multi-millionaire actor will exhort recession-hit viewers to bet on the next goal, via a handy app. Glossy couples and sexy croupiers make online cash-fleecing look like a James Bond casino. To pay for this, why not take out a loan from one of the friendly moneylenders with their CGI grannies that make debt look so cosy and respectable? Then you can spend it on Death Kill 6, whose in-game footage lets you see just how realistically you can blow people up for fun. But to remind you that you can’t really afford any of this, here’s a series of plutocratically rich sports stars being paid to sell you over-priced trainers which will, through magic, make you just like them. By the time its back to Adrian Chiles, I’m so depressed by the parade of tat that I’m switching to BBC4 to watch a reassuring documentary about restoring canals or the history of wallpaper. The extraordinary part is that the endless gambling ads and jolly TV loansharks are the legacy of a Labour government. I’m sure Attlee would be proud.
Comic stereotypes die hard, and frequently linger in the culture way beyond their sell-by date. I am travelling on trains a lot lately; up to Leeds for a corporate gig, down to Bristol for a recording, and in and out of London constantly. Every train has been on time, and railway stations are quite pleasant places to be; noticeably nicer, cleaner, and with a better variety of food and drink than they had even ten years ago. Jokes to this effect do not work. Audiences like to hear that trains are always late and stations are urine-stained hellholes selling ancient sandwiches. The fact that neither has been true for years does not seem to matter. There ought to be a term for this — ‘Humorous Image Retention Syndrome’ — the tendency of a joke to outlive its source material. It could be, of course, that comedians are just too lazy to change their act. Or it could be that bad experiences register with us more strongly than good. Certainly this seems to be the principle on which we judge, say, the NHS.
I learn from my newspaper that a third of boys say they never or rarely write anything outside of a classroom, and that three quarters think that writing is ‘not cool’. When my daughter was six, she came home from school with her English homework. What was it? Write a story? A poem? No. It was sheet of repetetive exercises headed Underline the Connective in the Sentence. Mr Gradgrind lives, I thought. Month after month there was never an ounce of creativity or imagination required, until every last ounce of childish delight in words and writing has been wrung out, and the child turned into a GCSE-passing zombie, ticking boxes and underlining connectives till even Michael Gove is happy. The results of this joyless approach speak for themselves; a generation of barely literate kids with no interest in reading or writing. It’s my generation’s fault, of course; we were taught by Seventies hippies who didn’t bother with grammar or spelling till we were older. When we were six, all they wanted us to do was write stories. Despite my utter lack of grammatical training, I managed to end up doing a degree in English. I write for a living. But I am hopeless at underlining connectives.
Driving to gigs always reminds me of the extent to which middle-classness has colonised all aspects of British life. Motorway service areas are all Surrey high-streets now, with an M&S and a branch of Costa Coffee. No visit to a motorway services is complete without spotting an old couple who forgot to pack their flask, emerging dazed from Starbucks muttering in disbelief that they just paid six quid for two hot drinks. Far better to stay at home and watch a TV landscape which consists almost entirely of activities which 30 years ago were the stuff of social satire: people doing up houses, cooking foreign food for dinner parties, auctioning antiques, landscaping gardens or looking for holiday homes abroad — all mainstream mass-entertainment. The parody middle class has conquered Britain. We just hate to admit it.
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Steve Punt is a comedian and writer. He presents BBC Radio 4’s The Now Show, and will be on tour with Hugh Dennis early next year: see www.rbmcomedy.com
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