Just Above Sunset
October 16, 2005 - In the Air Tonight

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Our Man in London is Mike McCahill. Note: Mike McCahill was born in Warwickshire, England in 1978. He currently works as a film critic for The Scotsman, The Sunday Telegraph and the BBC, while trying to string together novels, screenplays and travel guides for places he's never actually been to. Mike divides his time between the Midlands and London, where professional duty requires he spend at least the first part of every week sitting in small dark rooms. With a couple of exceptions, he is open to offers.

What's been filling me with more guilt than anything else these last few days - more guilt, even, than I might feel for turning to Phil Collins to provide the title of this week's column - is the sense my previous column may have been grossly unfair. Or, at least, somewhat unbalanced.


Last week, you may or may not recall, myself and a friend and colleague, Mark Avery, tried to put America to rights by discussing your nation's current problems. I offered that conversation by way of a change: firstly, to open up this column so that there was, for once, more than one voice to be heard here (hey, now there were two); secondly, so that I could talk about America, rather than Britain. (Last week was a quiet week over here; the Conservatives held their annual party conference, and everybody fell asleep.)


Looking back at what we discussed in that column, I realise there wasn't enough of what I love about your country; myself and Mark might just have come across as two more European Yank-bashers. So, by way of atonement, the following paragraphs will be a brief list of some of the things I have always loved, or come recently to appreciate, about America. (Mark would like to add to this list "American self-belief" and "easy access to pornography".)


[deep breath] The Simpsons and Twin Peaks, still vying after all these years for the title of The Greatest Television Show Ever Produced; the three-minute pop song, generally excluding the collected works of Usher; those black-and-white cookies; Alicia Witt; the design of certain American cars, buildings and items of furniture, enough to turn even the eye of a straight guy like myself incontrovertibly queer; you get Wallace and Gromit in the same ways we do; your cheerfulness and generosity; the way certain blocks in New York smell entirely of Belgian waffles. [pauses for breath]


[continues] Wendy burgers; the fact the country that gave us Magnolia and Schindler's List can also arrive at Wayne's World and Harold and Kumar; all-night diners; Josh in The West Wing, and Sam Waterston in Law and Order, while we're on the subject of icons of liberal-minded cool; how you just love an English accent; and Mary-Louise Parker and Parker Posey. (But not Sarah Jessica Parker.)


Enough frivolity; or, rather, to a different sort of frivolity. This week, a survey was published which appeared to suggest European television has, over the last few years, devoted less broadcast time to educational programming, and more and more to the sensational. This struck me as not especially surprising, since a fair percentage of European (and especially British) television is now in the hands of trans-national companies like Endemol, the Dutch production house whose name suggests something you might put on hemorrhoids.


Actually, Endemol turn out to be the people behind Big Brother and so much more reality television. The company's movers and shakers made prominent appearances on UK TV on Sunday night, when Channel Four screened its 50 Greatest Documentaries show, a three-hour celebration of all things factual. (Yes, it was another list programme. As has been discussed in these pages over recent weeks, we Brits really don't have anything better to do.)


Those Endemol staff interviewed were insistent that their shows, which include such easily exportable franchises as Wife Swap and Faking It, have some kind of moral message to impart - that they weren't just about people having fights and sex on camera. From Faking It, for example, we could learn valuable lessons about humanity's capacity to adapt to new environments. And Wife Swap, of course, helps its participants to better appreciate their loved ones, while inspiring the viewer to consider what exactly makes a successful marriage.


These arguments would have more resonance if they'd been made in the context of a less spurious forum. The list-show is, by its very nature, intended to provoke argument and debate, but 50 Greatest Documentaries was, at points, entirely beyond reasonable discussion. Wife Swap and Faking It are popular prime-time entertainments, sure, but to suggest that Faking It (which, incidentally, screens in the UK on Channel Four) is a "greater" documentary than Hoop Dreams is laughable.


The same with Wife Swap (again, screened on Channel Four), which according to the list forms a more considerable document than, say, Shoah or The Sorrow and the Pity (neither of which made the Top 50). For what it's worth, the top three went as follows:


1. 7 Up (director Michael Apted's ongoing, epic documentary series, made for television, following the progress of a sample set of British citizens at seven-year intervals throughout these individuals' lives);


2. Touching the Void (officially, now, the most overrated documentary of all time);


3. Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore's debut Roger & Me, in my opinion the best of all his films to date, was again nowhere to be seen; Fahrenheit 9/11 came in further down the list).


The cynical might wonder if the list were hastily cobbled together solely as a promotional tool for the following night's launch of Channel Four's new digital channel More4, trailers for which graced every ad break over the show's three hours. More4 is, I think at this early stage, A Good Thing: any channel that grants Curb Your Enthusiasm and The West Wing the respect those programmes deserve is fine with me.


But its launch has been marked by technical problems. Subscribers to Sky Broadcasting's digital system - the UK's foremost digital viewing system - complain that, having been promised access to this new channel by advance More4 publicity, the More4 signal as they receive it has been scrambled.


In yet another supreme example of corporations abdicating responsibility, Channel Four have blamed Sky. Sky - surprise, surprise - say it's all Channel Four's fault. The subscribers, caught in the middle, have been left to watch not the shiny new channel they were first promised, but a large and very familiar, buck-shaped object passing back and forth over their heads.


Finally, a few more signs of the forthcoming apocalypse, as seen from the UK this week. The potentially fatal, human-killing strain of bird flu first identified in Asia has now reached Europe (or, at least, Turkey).


Aardman Animation, the folks behind Wallace and Gromit, have their archives - years of painstaking work - wiped out in a fire.


A tornado hit our second city, Birmingham, for the second time in only a matter of months.  (We're not talking Twister, exactly - some bricks came down off somebody's roof, and a patio chair got tipped over - but, still, this is crazy weather for the usually placid Midlands.)


And, if avian flu or freak wind or fire doesn't get you, an STD almost certainly will.


Meanwhile, Margaret Thatcher lives to celebrate her 80th birthday.



Mike McCahill

October 13, 2005



Copyright 2005 – Mike McCahill

Email the author at mikemccahill@fastmail.fm






Editor's Note: British spelling and punctuation retained here.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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