In this lighthearted article from 1987, Michael Johnson discusses some of the latest American media exports that have got the “uptight British viewer” equally disturbed and intrigued. Thanks to the expansion of satellite and cable networks at the start of the decade and the profitability of international syndication, the British public now had “an even sweeter diet of brain candy” available. Johnson pokes fun at three American talk shows, “The Dr Ruth Good Sex Show”, “Divorce Court” and “The Phil Donahue Show”, while attempting to dissect the differences between their British and American audiences. “The Dr Ruth Good Sex Show” was a sex advice programme, hosted by Dr Ruth Westheimer, “an expert in erections and orgasms”, who encouraged discussions on different aspects of relationships and human sexuality. While “The Phil Donahue Show” took a more similar approach to other daytime talk shows, “Divorce Court”, as a “stage-set mock courtroom”, was a precursor to the myriad of “reality-based” shock-TV shows we still enjoy today.
While some of the high-brow cable offerings nicely supplement the existing fare, the worst of the programmes are far more repugnant than Starsky and Hutch, The A-Team and other such silliness already corrupting respectable British homes via BBC and Independent Television. Thanks to cable, we now have available an even sweeter diet of brain candy – sentimental movies that never made it in the paying movie market, endless hours of rock music videos, old cowboy films with right and wrong clearly laid out, and, as filler, the cutesy situation comedies dating back to the 1950s and 1960s.
But for the uptight British viewer, all this pales before the open discussion of kinky sex. Tuning into The Dr Ruth Good Sex Show for the first time is the greatest shock of all. Dr Ruth is a very modern sexologist of German extraction who dispenses intimate advice in a bizarre accent while wiggling and twinkling before the camera. Shaped and sized like a female ET, she is an expert in erections and orgasms, which she dissects in startling detail. Her offhand comment that a wife should feel free to toss onion rings at her husband’s private parts – if he likes it – has become a classic line in the States. How could he like it?
A couple of weeks ago she interviewed two lesbian lawyers who were suffering a patch of “marital difficulties” because one of the girls had dared to be friendly with a man at the office. Dr Ruth earnestly counselled them to examine whether they were true lesbians. To the layman, it was clear that at least one of them had a switch-hitter inside her trying to get out.
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This is not post-11pm viewing with little triangles in the corner of the screen. It pours into the home in massive doses, day and night, aimed at housewives during the day, and apparently aimed at couples in the evenings. It makes a change from copulating turtles and other close-ups of nature’s ooze and slime on BBC2, perhaps. But first-time viewers often misunderstand the show as tasteless satire, in the Private Eye or Spitting Image vein, only to find themselves mesmerised by Dr Ruth’s ability to get away with it. Gradually one realises that this is not satire, it is much worse. These Americans are sincere.
Dr Ruth is clinical. Another show disseminated by Westminster Cable, Divorce Court, is low drama. The cast includes a real-life retired judge who holds sway in a stage-set mock courtroom in which unemployed actors spill their fictionalised sordid stories of adultery, mental cruelty and other misdeeds for the judge and a slathering public to hear. (One wife recently claimed she wanted out of her marriage because her husband had become a weird religious fanatic and was starving the children with his wheatgerm diet, and donating the family savings to the sect. Another husband complained that his wife was sexually loose, and therefore was not entitled to half his property in the divorce settlement. She countered that he was the loose one, and had insisted on an “open marriage” and evenings with “swingers”. She won.) The awful acting and worse scripting make this another seeming satire.
Perhaps the show with the greatest skin-crawl factor is The Phil Donahue Show, a fearless discussion programme hosted by boyish, blow-dried Phil Donahue. It is a super-slick chat show that brings in famous guests to rap with the audience of Midwestern housewives and also take calls from the public. This Chicago-based production, syndicated throughout the country, achieved its peak a few years ago when a US Congressman phoned in to scold his wife (the famous guest) for appearing nude in Playboy magazine. The Midwestern housewives squealed with glee. And in another recent show, a fat and greasy husband appeared onstage with his similar-looking wife to extol the joys of sleeping around. Their children are kept informed of all the affairs, they said, because total honesty is the objective.
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Like Dr Ruth and Divorce Court, this material has been pulled out of the library and sold abroad in bulk. The effect of back-to-back programming throughout the day, rather than in smaller doses as originally programmed in the US market, makes it seem all the worse. Dr Ruth never seems to get tired. Phil Donahue thrusts his microphone into ladies’ faces all day long. The judge bangs his gavel non-stop.
Like other popular entertainments, the television invasion has made thinking Americans in Britain worry about the impact their countrymen are having on what has always been revered as a superior place. We can take the abuse but we cannot stop its cause.
When one American writer visited Shakespeare’s home a few years ago, she was so excited, she later recalled, “I thought the top of my head would come off”. It would be a pity to spoil that kind of enthusiasm through degenerate offerings of our own making.
Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).