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Nothing makes me want to break fingers more than a dud television show

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

Sunday evening and I am packing the kids off quickly because I want to get back home in time for the new Blandings series on the telly. We don’t watch much television at the Hovel – Laurie is actually under the impression that we don’t have one but it’s there, right in the corner of the living room, gathering dust when it is not being pressed into service as a vehicle for watching DVDs on.

It’s not a matter of ethical principle – it’s just that there’s no point in turning it on to see if anything good’s on, because there won’t be. Such stuff as I do watch I tend to catch up with on iPlayer, which rules out all the commercial channels, of course, and then I only watch University Challenge and Doctor Who, even though the latter is beginning to try my patience. I mean, we all know their Christmas specials are rubbish but the latest one was rubbish in the extreme. When Stephen Moffat signed the contract to help with the script to the appalling Tintinmovie, was one of the conditions of payment that he would have his brain removed? It’s the only explanation I can think of, for he used to be wonderful.

Anyway, the list of shows that I don’t watch is a long one. Clive James said he gave up on 24 once he realised that every time Jack Bauer’s phone went off it meant his daughter had been kidnapped again, and I think episode 12 of the second series of 24was when I thought to myself: You know what? I don’t actually have to watch any more of this at all. This epiphany applied across the board and across every part of the schedules.

It is a truism that freelance journalists spend their days eating biscuits and watching daytime TV but we don’t really; if we did our brains would turn to mush and we wouldn’t be able to do our jobs. You might not think those jobs are that demanding in the first place but they do require us to be able to put one word after another, and the last time I checked, daytime TV put you in a place where even that was impossible.

The worry is that evening TV is starting to go the same way. I started watching the latest series of I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here! on the grounds that (a) everyone’s allowed one guilty pleasure, (b) watching Nadine Dorries’s political career go down the dunny was a civic duty and (c) there was little harm in watching a bunch of self-selected freaks demean themselves for publicity. In the end I only managed about four or five days of it – I was wrong about (c) after all. I do not think the producers of the show would be that offended if I said that there was little more they could do with the format to make it look original. Even Ant and Dec were making jokes about that and it wasn’t really a good sign.

But there is a time when TV is an innocent balm and, what with one thing and another, it had been a trying week and I had pleasant memories of Fry and Laurie as Jeeves and Wooster. One look at the publicity pictures for the new series, though, had given me cause for misgivings – as far as I recalled, Lord Emsworth was a rangy, scraggy figure of an earl and not even the most flattering members of Timothy Spall’s entourage would call him that. Still, he is a fine actor and I have a soft spot for Jennifer Saunders. Above all, though, I have a soft spot for P G Wodehouse and his Blandings stories, which is what should have kept me away from the television that Sunday evening.

The curious thing when TV people muck something up is not that they do it at all, for we have come to expect this of them, but that they do it so spectacularly. I have never wanted to work in TV – and even when I’ve stepped in to do a spot of TV reviewing when a critic has been away, I’ve ended my stint feeling as if I had walked though a bemerded field in plimsolls – but how it manages to summon up such contempt for the creative process and the public is quite impressive.

We have a perfectly good television critic of our own who can explain just why and how bad the show was, and my job is only to pass on to the reader my sense of rage and bitterness, but I really would like someone to tell me what goes on in the meetings where travesties like this are commissioned. I would also like to find the people responsible and break their fingers, so they can’t sign anything off, or write any more scripts again. The bastards ruined Sunday for millions. And me.


Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.