Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Professor Mary Beard ruckus and British vs. North American telly

The basic idea.
There was much brouhaha induced this week in Britain. It was prompted by restaurant and television critic A.A.Gill making some very unwise and ill-considered remarks about the appearance of the highly intelligent and witty academic Mary Beard (presenter of the current telly program The Romans and writer of the blog "A Don's Life").

In particular, he called her “too ugly for television” which earned him this strong yet civilized rebuke in the Daily Mail (of all newspapers!) Twitter has been buzzing with the fallout, followed by a large groundswell of support for Beard. I'm rather dismayed by this whole episode, having in the past been an ardent fan of Gill's food writing. Personal disappointment aside, it does raise the interesting fact of the British/North American divide in the Hollywood-ish “attractiveness” scale of television personalities. It seems, all to the good in my opinion, that British television (perhaps as it is still in many ways dominated by the BBC) allows more scope for intelligent and interesting commentators to rise to the surface. It has long been noted, by people such as Ricky Gervais and others, that stereotypical “British teeth” would simply not be tolerated on American television. Perhaps it is a culture which values witticisms and a knowledge of Wittgenstein rather more?

I am interested in the thoughts of my fellow contributors on this subject... 


On Sunday morning (EST), I awoke to tweets in support of Mary Beard. I knew she had a new special on tv but these weren't regular messages conveying general enjoyment/ congratulations for an interesting episode. It turns out A.A. Gill (since when did he become a tv critic? are the skills of "critic" universal and so transferable?) had turned his sights on Professor Beard. Specifically, he thought that she could have scrubbed up a bit nicer ("Did she try to look so haggard?" and "Shouldn't she be sexing herself up a bit?" were some of his choice remarks) if she was to appear in our living rooms to share her insights about Ancient Roman society.

Gill's writing has a prickly quality. It's amusing when he applies his skills to skewering country pubs or Pizza Express. It is categorically unfunny when he's being unabashedly mean-spirited about something as trivial as the shape/ size of someone's teeth. As if Mary Beard has nothing to offer to the television audience if she's not "hot"/ attractive/ conventionally beautiful. In this clip, she's teaching students the merits of Latin and the Classics. Her enthusiasm is infectious. Is it the case that her messy tresses were so distracting that he couldn't even hear what she had to say?

The first (and cheapest) response would be: has he looked in the mirror recently? No doubt there would be a section of women who find his lean librarian-like features appealing. But, that would be stooping to Gill's level. I was more intrigued by this idea that Gill put forth that one had to conform to a specific idea of "presentable" to be taken seriously on television. As the @IdleHistorian mentioned, this seemed to me a very American/ Hollywood value that is inconsistent with what I have come to understand as the standard for British tv. Sure, things might be getting blonder or glossier but this is a relatively recent phenomenon. The UK is a country where: David Starkey, Andrew Marr, and Jeremy Clarkson regularly appear on telly and directly shape the public discourse on politics and history. They certainly don't have the boyish good looks/ perma-tan of a Brian Willams (NBC Nightly News) or Matt Lauer (The Today Show) but neither does the public require that of them. The most popular and long running evening soaps in the UK are Coronation Street and Eastenders, where most characters look like slightly more attractive versions of regular people. In Britain, the elderly stay on the small screens and are culturally relevant in a way that is unknown in the North American context. It is also the case that historians/ academics/ scholars take on much more of a public role in the UK. Until Starkey proclaimed his agreement with Enoch Powell's 1968 "Rivers of Blood" speech on Newsnight, he presented at least one special program a year. In Canada, history themed shows rarely get attention outside of publicly owned stations: PBS, CBC, TVO.

This quality, for me, has made British tv grittier and more "authentic." It's something that is more relatable and more intellectually stimulating. It places the emphasis on the quality of content over the flash aesthetics. So, I found Gill's remarks childish to be sure but also un-British.

As I'm writing this, it also occurs to me that this is a gender issue. Gill thought he could get away with being a bully because Professor Beard is a woman and he could count on support from other "lads" (and women too because as Samantha Brick claimed, we're catty like that) who were also offended by her wrinkly skin. Unfortunately for Gill, the episode has exposed his sexist tendencies. Maybe he should stick to critiquing food. Food doesn't fight back. He clearly doesn't have the same charm as Charlie Brooker when it comes to processing the small screen. 

Badly done old chap.



Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Mr. Charlton Brooker

fig 1: what stinks?

Have you ever read something on your commute (tube/ bus/ train) that made you laugh so hard/ out loud that suddenly you became the "strange person" that other passengers avoided? That's happened to yours truly. And clutched in my hands was a copy of Charlie Brooker's The Hell of It All. Now, I had never read Brooker until I stayed in London for research. I thought his byline photo (see fig. 1: in which he looks like he's smelling something horrid) was off-putting. But, when you're on the tube for 40 minutes every morning, you get desperate. You can't just stare into thin air or people watch. That would be creepy. Enter the wild ramblings of one @charltonbrooker.

Brooker is a Guardian columnist. He (used to) regularly rant and rave about television shows (reality tv), politics, the modern world. Brooker is now a dad and is involved in numerous tv projects so his columns appear less frequently. You'd think that this type of incessant complaining would be irritating. But, it's his gift for incisive social critique in the bluntest and most exaggerated terms that makes him a favourite. I knew that we shared a world view when I read his article on nightclubs ("The hell of nightclubs," 13 Aug 2007). He called them "insufferable dungeons of misery" that (since the ban on cigarettes) smell of "crotch sweat and hair wax." Perfectly articulated! Unlike David Mitchell, who can be a bit haughty (a self-admitted SWOT, Cambridge educated, not one of the plebs) when he sneers at social conventions and everyday stupidity, Brooker's acerbic wit is used to convey the (sometimes) irrational fury we all feel about, for example, spiders ("Planet of Spiders" 3 September 2007) or usages of "Keep Calm" ("Wondering what to give up for the New Year?" 8 Jan 2012). We're all just as pissed off with the absurdity of life in the modern world ... but most of us (especially if you're a Canuck) are too polite to chuck it back in the world's face. Charlie doesn't waste his time with such concerns. Brooker's brand of comedy ("edgy") doesn't really exist in Canada. Which leaves curmudgeons-in-training without much guidance.The closest approximation would be Rick Mercer but he's closer to the Daily Show/ Colbert Report model. And, Rick (though equally razor-sharp) has never called a Canadian politician a "universal disappointment sponge" (a term that was used by CB to describe the role of Nick Clegg in the Coalition Government). Too bad.

fig 2: still smelling something but less repulsed by it
The @IdleHistorian and I were lucky enough to attend a taping of Brooker's show You Have Been Watching (series 2, episode 6: an episode that featured Reginald D. Hunter and Sarah Millican and in which they lambasted the Canadian show 'The Listener' -- rightly so! ). He had a new poofy/ posh haircut (see fig 2: unlike the byline photo) and perhaps ever so slighly less grumpy in 3-d. I only regret that I didn't launch myself at him so that he could sign my book ...


As the person currently in possession of @SloaneScholar1's copy of Charlie Brooker book, The Hell of It All (I've somewhat taken it hostage)*, I can second the laugh-out-loud experience of reading his work. He, in the vein of many British cultural talents, is so much more than a writer - a commentator, telly presenter, comedian (of sorts), and all-round curmudgeon. But the curmudgeonly persona, one suspects, is at least partly a performance. As witnessed by his recent touching effusiveness over his status as a new father, there is no heart of stone at the core of the man. He also has that disarming quality of infusing just enough of his own vulnerability and uncertainty into his writing. He is angrier than the everyman, but still the everyman.

When really riled, however, he does not stint in defaming his adversaries in the worst possible terms. But his chosen targets are usually those who we could all agree need to be taken down a peg or two: bankers, bigots, manipulative marketers, shallow celebrities, and overconfident businessmen. He gets his blood in a boil so that you don't have to. Even some of his stranger causes, such as his weeks-long rant against this John Lewis Christmas advert from last year, strike some sort of chord. Even if you personally liked the John Lewis ad, you too feel his inchoate resentment against consumerism and the disjointed values of our society. His brilliantly conceived programs critiquing the media, Screenwipe and Newswipe, fulfil a similar cultural need.

As my friend @SloaneScholar1 suggests, we really do not have the same level of edginess in Canadian commentary. This is probably due to several factors, but the primary one of stereotypical Canadian "niceness" cannot be ignored. British public figures are expected to take personal attacks and dish them back in a manner that would be almost unthinkable here. It is difficult to imagine a rotund Canadian politician such as John Prescott or, now, Eric Pickles, receiving the same level of ridicule vis-a-vis their eating habits that occurs almost weekly on panel shows such as Have I Got News For You. The pros and cons of both cultures are debatable (expect if, perhaps, you ARE Eric Pickles), but undeniably the absence of this discourse means that we have a different sort of society on this side of the pond.

In the age of the internet, however, the need for Charlie Brooker's commentary is easily satisfied.

*@SloaneScholar1 has custody of @IdleHistorian's copy of Anger Management by Giles Coren

Your weekly serving of Brooker LIVE!

I won't contribute any further to the fawning over Charlie Brooker, because it's now abundantly clear that he's brilliant, and if you haven't read his column or watched old episodes of Screenwipe on YouTube until your eyeballs are raw you basically haven't lived. Plus I think all of this praise would make him bristle uncomfortably. I like my Charlie Brooker bitter and jaded. Like a strong cup of coffee flavoured with moral indignation.

We have been wondering if his new fatherhood will soften his expertly sharpened barbs, as he sheds the self-described air of a creepy basement masturbator and is inducted into a society of fellow floppy-haired pram pushers. Will marvelling at his new son's ability to babble, defecate and produce all manners of ooze turn him into a cuddly mug? Is domestic bliss an antidote to acerbic wit?

I want to believe that's not the case. Mostly because it feels pretty outrageously sexist. The notion that Brooker would be softened or somehow discursively "feminized" through active fatherhood or the influence of a loving wife is one that belongs back in the 1960s, hidden under a hoop skirt and chained to a stove top.

But part of what makes Brooker's work so compelling is that there is a palpable outrage beneath his words that could erupt into a fist-pounding, mouth-foaming fit at any time. I don't think it's domesticity that would tame this, but really any kind of genuine, true happiness. Placid contentment.  And I really don't think we have anything to worry about on this score. Because no matter how much happiness Brooker finds in his personal life, and I truly hope it is quite a bit, I think the man has too much of a social conscience to be truly completely happy without society, media and politics becoming less ruinously fucked up.

So here's to many more years of Brooker commentary ahead, with a hope that we eventually come to a time when we can all be less justifiably angry.


Saturday, April 7, 2012

Reflections on the Canadian Anglophile

What does it mean to be an Anglophile in a place like Canada? Ostensibly Canada, at least the English-speaking regions, still bears many remnants of Empire. Our British heritage, no matter our various individual nations of origin, is a common thread, even if often unnoticed. The Queen is on our stamps, banknotes, and in pictures in the Post Office - of course. The monarchy is respected in a measured Canadian way. We embraced Wills and Kate last summer without the cynicism of the Aussies or the Brits, and equally without the celebrity-enthusiasm of the Americans. These are the more obvious slices of British tradition. There are also cultural, military, and governmental ones. There is perpetual talk about the weather. A tendency towards self-deprecation. All this is true.

But for the true Anglophile, there is another level of appreciating British culture (beyond Jane Austen and castles) that often gets lost when conversing on this continent. The BBC Quiz shows: Have I Got News for You, 8 out of 10 Cats. The brilliance of David Mitchell. The significance of being a Daily Mail reader vs. a reader of The Guardian. The sadness of Nick Clegg. And the posh buffoonery of Boris Johnson. The vagaries of British transport. The controversies of Top Gear. The way in which rows over pasties become an art in political absurdity. The tabloids. The Royals. The Hooray Henrys and the Tatler set. The appreciation of sandwich shops, M & S, and how sometimes everything is just "brilliant" or "rubbish."

We three friends, the dramatis personae of this blog, seek to peruse some of these topics, in a probing but lighthearted manner. Because when it comes to appreciating British culture from afar, to borrow a slogan from Tesco: Every little helps.


Indeed, as my learned friend the @idlehistorian has articulated, reminders of Canada's ties to Britain are everywhere. But, until recently, it has never been apart of any government's agenda to highlight and impress upon our younger generations the significance of these ties. If our fearless leader had his way, our school children would be pledging allegiance to the Queen & country in the morning! Perhaps this is one of the reasons (outside of high profile royal visits) Canadians can be rather detached from this aspect of their identity.

As Time Goes By
This Anglophile's tastes were moulded by PBS  in the early 90s (WNED, Buffalo) -- basically programming aimed at ex-pats of a certain age -- which, brought countless British television shows/ tv personalities into my living room. I knew who Helen Mirren and Judi Dench were before Hollywood caught on and made them into "movie stars." As I cultivated my (admittedly) pretentious teenage persona, I explored the rich troves of British music (available through YTV's Hit List, which lulled in audiences first by playing cool Britpop like Blur and Pulp and then descending into the saccharine bubble gum pop of Westlife et al.)

Until the last 5 years (am I exaggerating?), it was difficult to be an up-to-date Anglophile. You needed friends to send you magazines. You needed to special order cds. There was no "British" dvd section at your local HMV and so you read about/ watched clips of new movies/ tv shows, that would never be picked up by international distributors,  rather than get the real thing. And, it occurred to me: the "British" culture that most people had contact with was a particular imagined variety that catered to nostalgic babyboomers. Now, thanks to technology and globalization (and Downton Abbey), Canadians can now quite easily access the full gamut of British tv, music, literature, news, politics now in real-time. We get, therefore, a more complicated image of Britain. Much less rosy than that seen through the lives of our favourite aged Holland Park couple. We live in happy times!


Calling myself an 'anglophile' makes me sound like I spend a lot of time loving up on myself. To describe myself as cattle, I am British born and Canadian raised. My family lives in both countries, and I split my time accordingly. Any dual national or immigrant can attest that when you are from two (or more) places, you feel like you belong everywhere and nowhere. One place inevitably changes while you are in the other, and there is always something you are missing. You are constantly, simultaneously home and away. (Is the title of that Soap much deeper than I previously assumed? Poignant!)

Who's got the bigger mouth?
I'm glad that I have fallen in with a set of Canadians who love the minutiae of British popular culture, and a set of Brits and Londoners who are internationally minded and weirdly appreciative of Canadiana.

The overlapping identities that come with dual nationality are always most apparent when I'm going through customs or meeting new people. "Where are you from?" becomes an existential question! Or at least an opportunity for a treatise on national identity, memory and belonging. (I am clearly hilarious at a party.) So, this is the charge I have taken up as an Anglo-Canadian: to be completely obnoxious about how great British culture is when I'm in Canada, and be oddly insistent about my Canadian accent and pronunciation when I am in England. (It's YouTUBE, not YouCHUBE.) I love hockey and cricket, Pimm's and Keith's, the CBC and the BBC. I hate Don Cherry and Jeremy Clarkson. I love Charlie Brooker and Rick Mercer. I will never pronounce it "aluminium." Lemsip is infinitely better than Neo Citran. Macaroni and Cheese should come in a box with powder. Eggs taste best hard boiled, covered in sausage and deep fried in breadcrumbs. So let it be written.

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