Some Stuff I Saw Recently on British Television

Recent circumstances have conspired to allow for an unexpected and prolonged review of British television.  The following addresses some of the current highlights now screening in the UK.  British citizens might want to skip this post as they may well find it highly a). boring in its obviousness or b). offensive in its ignorance of local custom.

Many in America only know British TV through the feeble gatekeepers that are BBC-America, a network that seems to subsist entirely on Top Gear, Dr. Who, and the Graham Norton Show.  Others only know the Edwardian porn that ends up on PBS.  A few more Anglophiles may know such workhorses as EastEnders and Coronation Street (both still going strong--on one of these two, a tram or a pram either just crashed or blew up or something, so if you haven't tuned in for awhile you might want to check and see what's up). 

These are all fine programs, but they have little to do with the truly gobsmacking schlock that British TV produces so effortlessly.  There is a lot of crap on American TV, obviously, but none of the U.S. shows have the same feel for the medium as do the British series.  Yes, various branches of the BBC, ITV, and other venues put much time and attention into high quality drama, but they also generate hours of chatty and delightfully disposable television, series that are more about amiably killing a little time than demanding riveted attention or cultish adoration.  It's a bit of relief, quite frankly.  

Keep in mind that what the British allow Americans to see on Tv is like what the Columbians allow Americans to snort in cocaine--a fine product cut many times over by horse tranquilizers and talcum powder.  In fact, there are some programs on British television that might very well kill the unsuspecting American viewer, especially if s/he is expecting something along the lines of Downton Abbey.

I saw this on Channel 4. Now you've seen it too.
Case in point--Channel 4's Embarrassing Bodies: Live from the Clinic.  Here distressed citizens can Skype their embarrassing bits live on national television so that two physicians (at least they claim to be physicians) can give them a quick diagnosis and a possible program of treatment.  "How bad can that be?" wonder those who have had the FCC sheltering their sensibilities for 80 years.  "It's just people asking about nose jobs or diet regimens, right?"  I have just two words to disabuse you of that notion: anal fistula.  Yes, on British television, it is absolutely okay to broadcast--live and in HD--an oozing, weeping, bloody anal fistula. This "embarrassment" is such a crowd-pleaser in fact, that I saw two such fistulas in back-to-back episodes.  

You might be asking why any sane person would unveil a bloody anal fistula on television.  That's the genius of Embarrassing Bodies--it walks the narrow line dividing "freak show" and "public health campaign."  In other words, it's educational!  And as the show repeatedly reminds the viewer, "There's no shame, we're all the same."  It's an admirable sentiment.  Still, it's a bit startling to see a 17-year-old girl reveal the infected ingrown hairs on her labia, only to have one of the physicians comment, "Well I can see you've begun your menses, so we'll leave it there, shall we?" Twenty years ago, an aficionado of teen menses porn had to know a guy who knew a guy who knew about a one-armed man in a certain alley in Kyoto where such a sight might be arranged for a few thousand dollars.  Now it's on the TV!

Other segments are more traditionally educational though no less naughty, as when the lady doctor on the show did a taped segment interviewing some teenage lads about the hazards of coitus interruptus (that hazard would be a baby, btw).  To make her point, the physician invited one of the boys to retire to another room for a quick wank, instructing him to spray his ejaculate (as best he could) in equal spurts across three specimen cups.  Why?  She wanted to demonstrate to the boys that the first spurt not only contains the most sperm, but also the most aggressive and determined of the ovum-busters.  Lesson learned for the lads--pulling out is not a plan. 

Slightly less astounding but no less entertaining is a panel show called Celebrity Juice.  This has been on since 2008, apparently, but this was the first I had seen of it.  Celebrity Juice is a particularly raunchy example of a staple in British television--the panel/chat/gameshow.  This format is on every channel in the U.K, and consists of a loquacious host with a colorful personality asking questions or assigning tasks to a couple of panel teams sitting on either side.  In the USA, NBC has recently attempted this genre in the wrist-slashingly awful Hollywood Game Night, a program that mistakenly thinks viewers actually want to see celebrities playing stupid parlor games  (as if anyone wants to watch Lisa Kudrow or Tom Arnold pantomiming the titles of Tom Cruise movies).   

The British chat-panels center more on a seemingly endless roster of minor celebrities who are famous primarily for appearing on television, either as a "presenter" or as a regular panelist on one of these programs.  Imagine a world of Carson Dalys and Ryan Secrests moving from program to program every night of the week.  Actually, that's not a fair comparison.  To be on the British chat-panels, one has to be quick-witted and amusing--most of the contestants are people who make a living by improvising on TV/Radio everyday.  As most Americans know, however, the talents of Daly and Secrest remain completely unknown--perhaps dormant, but maybe even wholly non-existent. 

Recent hilarity on "Celebrity Juice"
Celebrity Juice is hosted by a character named "Keith Lemon" (the alter ego of a comedian named Leigh Francis). He is assisted by two ITV presenters, Fearne Cotton and Holly Willoughby, who lead two teams of guest celebs through an obstacle course of low comedy and bawdy pranks.  Highlights that I witnessed included two women flicking each other in the forehead until one of them forced the other to spill a plate of baked beans balanced on the head; a contestant invited to sniff and identify stains on a bed sheet (strawberry jam, some variety of shit, and bull semen, if you care); a blindfolded man told that he was sticking his big toe in Holly Willoughby's vagina when in fact he was inserting it inside a whole fryer chicken; a host of Britain's Got Talent invited to "motorboat" the enormous breasts of an elderly woman; another guest made to lick marmalade from the naval of an elderly man; two women with pens in their mouths attempting to draw penises on one another's foreheads; and host Lemon asking a seemingly well-known brother and sister singing duo if they had ever shagged.  Throughout these contests, Lemon frequently inserts his two big catch-phrases:  "Bang Tidy!" and "Potato!"  

Not everything on British TV is this delightfully crude, of course.  I spent a perfectly tranquil twenty minutes with BBC1 watching a barn owl harvest voles from a meadow while the host, standing nearby with his binoculars, whispered over-and-over again, "marvelous ...marvelous... what a privilege."  And there are many formats currently in vogue on both sides of the Atlantic--houses to be flipped; deadbeat dads to be DNA-tested; amateur gourmets meals to be cooked. 

Perhaps the most striking difference between British and U.S. TV at the moment is that the U.K. still treats television as television.  "On-Demand" and streaming formats are the future in the U.K. as well, obviously, but the actual channels--BBC, ITV, Channel Four, etc--still do their best to engage in some form of cohesive address (no doubt with all the political difficulties attending any illusion of consensus broadcasting).  As a nation state, the United Kingdom may well be as fictional as the United States at this point, but it still maintains some of the broadcast protocols of currency and orality that give the programming a temporal order rapidly evaporating in the USA.  Much of the evening fare in the U.K. has a casual, conversational feel to it that favors dipping-in over DVR-ing.  There are the big "quality" series, shot on film in limited episode runs, but these feel like presentations that emerge from the larger live address of the network itself.  In other words, whereas shows in the USA now simply appear in their designated slots (often for the purpose of recording), British television still has a sense of presenting its program to the viewer (hence the uniquely British occupation of being a "presenter").  

In the USA, for example, the McFarland empire of Family Guy and American Dad has colonized four or five different channels (Fox, Cartoon network, syndication, TBS).  The programs unfurl rather unceremoniously--they just happen to be what's on at the moment.  These series are also currently running late-night on BBC3.  But on the Beeb, there is still enough devotion to the art of broadcasting that someone, somewhere, actually goes to the trouble of writing original continuity to introduce each and every episode (along with such real American stinkers like Two and a Half-Men, 2 Broke Girls, and The Big Bang Theory).  In other words, an announcer takes a few seconds to preview whatever hijinx Sheldon, Peter, or Charlie are about to get into, as if the episode itself was actually unique, substantial, and a scheduled event of some kind rather than yet more interchangeable product coming down the boredom pipe.  

Sure, it's the same program in the U.K. as in the U.S., but at least in the U.K., someone is paid to appear enthusiastic about whatever is coming up next.  Given the collective depression of network identity in the U.S., it's a nice change of pace.  

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