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Monday, 10 March 2014

A criminal act?

Concern has been expressed in some quarters because the government has floated the idea that not paying the BBC licence fee could become a 'civil', as opposed to a 'criminal', offence. In 2012, 180,000 people in the UK were prosecuted for not paying the £145.50 fee; that accounted for an incredible one in ten of all criminal prosecutions that year. In the period between January 2011 and March 2013, 107 folk were actually jailed for non-payment.

For many folk, the subject of the licence fee invariably provokes a knee-jerk reaction. The BBC is either the greatest thing in the civilised world or it’s a festering hive occupied by metropolitan leftie propagandists. I’m somewhere in the middle ground on that topic, but I do think it’s obvious now that we need to have a debate about how the state broadcaster is funded. The imposition of what is, in effect, a broadcasting poll tax is, in the 21st century media landscape, utterly iniquitous.

The recent decision to relegate BBC 3 to an online-only channel got some folk worked up, but the argument dissolved into a tit-for-tat exchange about the perceived quality (or lack of quality) of its output. That’s not the most important aspect of the debate, but it has to be said that some of the trashier elements of BBC 3’s output are so spectacularly adrift of the Reithian desire to educate, inform and entertain that one could almost suspect that the corporation was being sabotaged from within.

Some time ago, I stumbled across a programme that was so stunningly awful, I thought it might have been a parody. It was a sitcom (with not much emphasis on the 'com') called Coming of Age. I’m going to tell you about it, but I’ll warn you now that readers of a nervous disposition might want to look away.

The show was described as “a frank look into the outrageous world of a group of sixth form students living in Abingdon as they enjoy a final romp with adolescence”. The 'plot’, such as it was, focused on a young man being talked into giving his girlfriend one 'up the botty' (which was, indeed, the name of the episode). His girlfriend persuaded him that the thrill of sampling the forbidden fruit of anal intercourse would be enhanced by performing the act in his mum’s bedroom. Hilarious consequences ensued as the girl lost control of her sphincter during the ‘up the botty’ activities and defecated on his mum's bed. Those crazy kids explained the mess by blaming it on the family dog, which was the cue for some grotesque canned laughter. Undeterred by events, the couple determined to have another go. During their second attempt (I hope you’re keeping up with the subtleties of the plot), the girlfriend suffered the same unfortunate accident. This time, they blamed the mess on the young man's invalid and senile grandfather. Cue that canned laughter track, again.
The narrative arc was completed once the 'up the botty' girl, having promised her boyfriend that everything would be just fine on their third attempt because she hadn't eaten for two days, defecated a third time during another rigorous bout of anal intercourse. Honest, I'm not making any of this up. I was watching this show in the same way that rubber-neckers watch car crash victims being treated at the side of the road by paramedics.

It was so staggeringly awful that I suspected one of four things was going on:

a) I was dreaming, or
b) My late night cup of cocoa had been laced with hallucinogenic drugs, or
c) The makers of the show had some kind of scam going on, similar to the plot of the Mel Brooks film 'The Producers', wherein two theatrical producers plan to get rich by selling shares in a Broadway flop, or
d) A parallel universe existed, in which someone could meet with a TV executive and present an 'idea' and a 'script' like that and the TV executive would think: "Yes, this seems like a good idea and really quite funny. Those jokes about anal intercourse really do push the boundaries a bit, like most ground-breaking art usually does. Yes, let’s make sure this gets on the telly.”

I suspect that (d) is the correct answer and, if anyone knows anyone who works in that parallel universe, please pass their contact details on to me, because I have a pile of very old rope that I'm keen to sell for hard cash.

Bawdy humour and vulgarity, in context, doesn't trouble me at all. The most troublesome thing about Coming of Age was the fact that people on the public dime had been paid to write, produce and perform material that was so entirely bereft of comedic talent, wit or charm. I don’t know if it represents a nadir for the BBC comedy department, but –to paraphrase Damon Runyon- it will do until one comes along.

But on second thoughts, maybe I’ve been a bit harsh. Maybe the writers were more subtle than I have given them credit for.

When you think about it, those 107 folk who were jailed for not paying the licence fee and the other 179,893 who were prosecuted would perhaps have viewed that ‘up the botty’ episode as a metaphor for their relationship with the state broadcaster.

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