Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman, the kind and non-judgmental hosts of Pointless. Photo: Getty Images
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At once fascinating, horrifying and mildly arousing, ignorance porn is everywhere (and I love it)

Shows like Pointless satisfy a new itch - to gawp at those who don't know obvious things, like what toast is. It's hardcore ignorance porn at its best.

“Stupidity is a talent for misconception,” said Edgar Allan Poe, ages ago.

While shaping the history of gothic literature, marrying his 13-year-old cousin, contracting various antiquated diseases and fixating, verbosely, on decomposing flesh, Edgar Allan “Fun Times” Poe took a moment to recognise stupidity as a talent.

Fast forward nearly 200 years, cross the Atlantic to the UK, and a couple of monumentally-talented quiz show contestants have never heard of the guy.

I watch BBC One’s Pointless religiously. Working from (your parents’) home has its perks. Being able to drop everything, every weekday evening at 5.15, yell, “Pointless!” at my mum and have her “warm up” the TV in preparation for our 45 minutes of pure, tea-fuelled viewing bliss, is probably the perkiest perk.

Pointless, for those who are missing out horribly, is a programme where some people who – well – probably shouldn’t be competing on a quiz show, and a few slightly cleverer people, battle it out to see who has the most obscure knowledge. While the smarty pantses usually win, the entertainment is provided almost entirely by the people who think linoleum is a vegetable, lemons are bats and Ross Kemp is the capital of France. Or, as was the case in a recent show, have never heard of Edgar Allan Poe.

Now, I don’t want to sound all “I have an English literature degree, I eat artichokes and know who the fuck Edgar Allan Poe is”. But, for a poet, this guy is remarkably visible in popular culture. He’s heavily referenced in more than one Simpsons episode. His sad, moustachioed face is practically a logo. If the name isn’t ringing any bells, I challenge you to Google image it and not recognise that face. You’ve probably at least seen it on a T-shirt worn by a gothy teenager who thinks that he knows some unfathomably dark truth because he smokes Djarum Black cigarettes and has Nosferatu on DVD.

But back to Pointless. When a contestant comes up with a particularly silly answer to a question I practically start salivating. Meanwhile, presenters Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman (who seems like the nicest man on earth) are ostensibly non-judgemental. True professionalism, it seems, is keeping a straight face when someone has just come up with Simon Cowell when asked to name someone on the Forbes list of the world’s most powerful people (this actually happened).

“Dude, no way does she think that! Jesus fucking Christ, what is wrong with people?” I’ll say, so excited by this horrible situation that I’ve started calling my mum “dude”. There’s no way around it: delving into the great, echoey gaps in other people’s knowledge makes for weirdly compelling TV. This is ignorance porn. It’s the phenomenon of someone saying something so stupid that it kind of makes you want to tug on your balls. This is unfortunate for me, seeing as I have very few testicles. Nevertheless, it’s a combination of fascination, horror and, for some reason, mild arousal.

When I was very little, I cut my finger. Having never seen blood before, I was so panicked that I kept a plaster on it for what seemed like months. When I finally psyched myself up into taking the plaster off, the tip of my finger had turned green and smelled like vinegar. I stared at that finger for a long, long time. It was so horrendous, so unashamedly repulsive that it was almost handsome. Like an inside-out Ryan Gosling, with his guts flailing all over the place. I enjoy other people’s ignorance in the same way that I enjoyed that unholy green finger.  

And I know it’s not just me. Ignorance porn is absolutely everywhere. Last month, for example, Tamara Ecclestone (a socialite of some description) revealed that she doesn’t know what toast is. By some miracle, this woman has thrived for thirty years in this unforgiving world, without that little nugget of knowledge. What ensued was an internet-wide extravaganza of people tugging on their balls. “She doesn’t. Know. What. Toast. Is. Holy shitbiscuits this is nuts,” said the internet, while enjoying itself thoroughly.

Similarly, earlier this year, when some poor 20-year-old from Blackpool tweeted about the UK’s “President Barraco Barner”, she became an unwitting ignorance porn star. The Only Way Is Essex's Joey Essex, on the other hand, is a true veteran of ignorance porn. The entire premise of the TOWIE spinoff, Educating Joey Essex, was “Joey Essex is not a particularly bright guy”.

Ignorance porn even has its very own Redtube in BuzzFeed, which seems to thrive on listing people who have been publicly thick. I can only speculate that our morbid obsession with other people’s stupidity comes from collective low self-esteem. Want to feel intelligent? Peruse a BuzzFeed listicle of cretins. What’s actually happening here is bullying on a humungous scale. It’s like everyone who was teased at school for being bookish is exacting revenge against The Idiotic.

Admittedly, there are almost definitely gaps in my knowledge that could form someone else’s ignorance porn. I have close to no knowledge of physics, and if I was tasked with killing, eviscerating and cooking a cow, I wouldn’t know where to start. In fact, judging other people’s ignorance has made me utterly fixated on my own. I recently read the entire Wikipedia entry for microwaves, because I realised I had absolutely no idea how one works. And when it comes to ignorance porn, I’m a sports fan’s wet dream. Honest to God, The only cricketer I can name off the top of my head is the retired Ian Botham – and that’s only because he starred in that recent Twitter dick pic debacle. For all I know, those people who had never heard of Edgar Allan Poe could’ve been experts in cricket, microwaves and animal slaughter.

As ignorance porn has proven, stupidity is this great, palpable, throbbing thing. It almost seems a shame that we can’t harness its power as a source of clean energy. Imagine it: something resembling a wind turbine powered by people asking what the capital of Africa is.

Until that breakthrough, I’m going to try and cut down on my unhealthy ignorance porn habit. And maybe try out a butchery course.  

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

HELEN SLOAN / THE FALL 3 LTD
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The Fall is back - and once again making me weary

Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should pull the plug on it at last. Plus: Damned.

It is with much weariness that I return to The Fall (Thursdays, 9pm), the creepy drama that still doesn’t know whether it wants to be a horror-fest or a love story. I’ve written in the past about what I regard as its basic misogyny – to sum up, it seems to me to make a fetish of the violence committed against women, a preoccupation it pathetically tries to disguise by dint of its main character being a female detective – and I don’t propose to return to that theme now. However, in its early days, it was at least moderately gripping. Now, though, it appears to be recovering from some kind of nervous breakdown. If in series two the plot was wobbling all over the place, series three has misplaced the idea of drama altogether. Nothing is happening. At all.

To recap: at the end of the last series, Paul Spector, aka the Belfast Strangler (Jamie Dornan), had been shot while in police custody, somewhat improbably by a man who blames him for the demise of his marriage (oh, that Spector were only responsible for breaking up a few relationships). On the plus side for his supposed nemesis, DSI Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), before he fell he led them to Rose Stagg, the ex-girlfriend he’d locked in the boot of a car some days previously, and she is going to live. On the minus side, Spector’s injuries are so bad, it’s touch and go whether he’ll survive, and so Gibson may never see him brought to justice. Of course, the word “justice” is something of a red herring here.

The real reason she wants Spector to live is more dubious. As she stared at his body in the ICU, all tubes and monitors, her expression was so obviously sexual – her mouth opened, and stayed that way, as her eyes ran over every part of his body – that I half expected her to reach out and stroke him. Just in time for this nocturnal visit, she’d slipped into another of her slinky silk blouses that look like poured cream. (Moments earlier – think Jackie Kennedy in 1963 – she’d still been covered in her love object’s blood.)

The entire episode took place at the hospital, police procedural having morphed suddenly into Bodies or Cardiac Arrest. Except, this was so much more boring and cliché-bound than those excellent series – and so badly in need of their verisimilitude. When I watch The Fall, I’m all questions. Why doesn’t Stella ever tie her hair back? And why does she always wear high heels, even when trying to apprehend criminals? For how much longer will the presumably cash-strapped Police Service of Northern Ireland allow her to live in a posh hotel? Above all, I find myself thinking: why has this series been so acclaimed? First it was nasty, and then it was only bad. Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should join Gibson in the ICU, where together they can ceremonially pull the plug on it at last.

Can Jo Brand do for social workers in her new comedy, Damned, what she did a few years ago for geriatric nurses in the brilliant Getting On? I expect she probably can, even though this Channel 4 series (Tuesdays, 10pm), co-written with Morwenna Banks and Will Smith, does have an awfully inky heart. Hungry children, drug-addict parents, a man who can go nowhere without his oxygen tank: all three were present and correct when Rose (Brand) went to visit a client who turned out to be a woman who, long ago, had nicked her (Rose’s) boyfriend. Ha ha? Boohoo, more like.

Damned is basically The Office with added family dysfunction. Al (Alan Davies) is a hen-pecked wimp, Nitin (Himesh Patel) is a snitch, and Nat (Isy Suttie) is the stupidest and most annoying temp in the Western world. This lot have two bosses: Martin (Kevin Eldon), a kindly widower, and Denise (Georgie Glen), the cost-cutting line manager from hell. And Rose has a plonker of an ex-husband, Lee (Nick Hancock). “I’ve been invited to the Cotswolds for the weekend,” he told her, trying to wriggle out of looking after the children. “Is that why you look like a knob?” she replied.

Jerky camerawork, naturalistic acting, a certain daring when it comes to jokes about, say, race: these things are pretty familiar by now, but I like it all the same.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories