It's finally acceptable to cast off the shackles of TV snobbery

Who knows, Bim Adewunmi might even give the next series Big Brother a go.

Oh, I don’t watch Big Brother.” A harmless admission, right? It looks like a simple statement of telly preference, a brief glimpse into the personal habits and quirks a person has formed over years of watching the box in the corner.
 
But lurking behind those words is an unasked question, hanging invisibly at the end of that sentence. It is laced with mild incredulity and it goes a little something like, “But you do?!” You know what that is? That’s basic telly snobbery and we all engage in it.
 
Before you begin to protest a little too strenuously, take a hard look at yourself. If you watch television, you will have a show that you love, a show that you hate and a show that you’re a snob about. Come on. I’ll start with one trio that fits: I love The Good Wife; I hate Britain’s Got Talent and I look down on Big Brother (and all those who watch it). There is always a programme on the air that we feel is the very nadir of human civilisation, an insult to the riches that technology has brought to our lives, a waste of time and effort and a stain on the televisual landscape. That’s TV snobbery at its finest and don’t you deny it.
 
Television is a tribal medium. Clear evidence springs up in our own lives: the adults who were not allowed to watch ITV as children, because it was “common”, what with its advertisements and sense of fun. Or those of us who will not watch Coronation Street until forced to by extended family consensus at Christmas. Or even those people who exclusively watch box sets of HBO dramas that feature lashings of sex and black comedy and death. You pick your tribe and stick with it, because it is deft shorthand for the person you are, or perhaps the person you want to be (or be seen as). If you watch the Elmore Leonard adaptation of Justified, what does that say about you? If you love a nerdcom such as The Big Bang Theory, what are you projecting to the world? If you enjoy Sex and the City so much that you unashamedly call yourself a “total Carrie” in real-life situations, what is the world supposed to think?
 
I once worked alongside a man who very proudly and somewhat sniffily told me that he didn’t watch television. He said it – just like that – in that practised way that suggested to me that he had come to expect an awed gasp and a request to elaborate on his charming quirk.
 
So I obliged him – why, I asked, do you hate fun? And he gave the usual spiel that people like him give: oh, there’s never anything good on, I’d rather read a book and let my imagination soar free, it rots your brain and stunts your mental growth . . . On he went, ad nauseum, emphasis on the “nauseam”.
 
I thought about arguing the point – there I sat, an avid viewer of television, having imbibed hours of it a day every day since I was a child, and I was no less engaged in the world, no more stunted than any child of the 1980s, holding down jobs and paying taxes – but then I saved my breath. If you don’t want television, I thought, then television doesn’t want you.
 
And that sentiment is largely true of the programmes I (and you) hate. They’re not specifically looking for you, hankering after you to love and adore them. Television as it was in the days of one channel, then two, then five channels is gone, replaced by hundreds of channels, DVR (digital video recorders) and PVR (personal video recorders) and the king of bingeing, the box set. Shows are finding their audiences and growing with them, content to have found one at all. Nobody is really pushing to the front, shouting “like me, like me!”
 
In turn, that frees us to watch more things and cast off the shackles of the TV snobbery. Every autumn for the last few years, I’ve found myself engaging in energetic bouts of tweeting about the singing competition, The X Factor. I used to get a few people expressing surprise, mild dismay and disappointment when they saw my tweets but that’s largely stopped now; I’m allowed to like Frasier and The X Factor. Earlier this week, I watched the former contestant Rylan Clark presenting Big Brother’s Bit On The Side. My snobbery was no contest for his charm – the guy was no singer, but as a presenter? Boy, can he work a room.
 
Who knows, next series maybe I’ll give Big Brother a go after all. Another one bites the dust.
The set for the finale of last year's Celebrity Big Brother. Photograph: Getty Images

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear