Amongst the post-election lamentations of lachrymose leftists circulating on social media, I came across a rant masquerading as a blog post by a fellow student. Seizing upon the mass media, that mainstay of Marxist maxims, in this instance television, as a narcotizing agent of the numbskull populus, they decried the level of political discourse that shuffles through our screens as having led us into our current political morass.
With the embers of the 2015 BAFTAs cooling, and Auntie’s charter renewal, or lack of, imminent, it feels timely to take a step back and briefly reflect on the state of political television.
In the run-up to the general election BBC1 was graced with an adaptation of J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. The show’s cast list read more like that of a glossy ITV Agatha Christie adaptation and received a scheduling time to match.
Consequently I didn’t anticipate the show’s overt political subtext. Wittily and wryly it tackled the debilitating effects of austerity on semi-rural communities whilst empathetically portraying working-class characters that were complex, nuanced, and not defined facilely by their oppression. (See also Jack Thorne’s Glue, nominated at the BAFTAs and broadcast at the end of last year on E4, for a comparative ‘yoof’ version).
If The Casual Vacancy was television-as-politics, the duo behind the satirical smorgasbord The Revolution Will Be Televised, Heydon Prowse and Jolyon Rubinstein, offered two specials of their television-about-politics, An Idiot’s Guide to Politics and Revolution Presents: Democracy Dealers. Whilst some might dismiss it as a derivative, ‘Morris and Iannucci lite’ for the coveted 16-24 BBC3 audience, the shows remain informative without being didactic and could yet play a vital role in stimulating discussion, alongside chortling, amongst those alienated by hegemonic political discourse.
In her BAFTA acceptance speech Jessica Hynes drew attention to the cuts that will surely fall on arts funding and education at the hands of the incoming Tory government, prompting some commentators to detect the rumblings of resistance within the arts.
Responding to just such an environment, the 1980s and 1990s saw the proliferation of unashamedly political work by playwrights like Dennis Potter (currently the subject of a retrospective at the BFI) and Alan Bleasdale, with state-of-the-nation shows such as The Singing Detective and Boys from the Blackstuff respectively. Meanwhile in 1996 Peter Flannery’s Our Friends in the North provided one of the most compelling exegeses of the decline of the British Left in the late twentieth century.
The Blair years seemed to reap few politically progressive rewards on the small screen. In Little Britain, The Catherine Tate Show and Shameless, despite their subversive edges, working class subjects instead became characters of ridicule rather than deserving of empathy, a tradition that persists with Benefits Street.
And yet, more television-as-politics can be identified in the 2010s – think Top Boy, Southcliffe, and Youngers. It’s still with us.
At the end of the day, to misquote Marshall McLuhan, it’s the message not the medium. Public sector broadcasting, designedly utilitarian, should seek to cater to the needs of its audience, including those which are political. Politically progressive television is out there. You just have wade through the swamp to find it.