Because my wife is French, the televisual backdrop to our New Year’s Eve gatherings is usually the traditional three-hour-long family variety fest presented by Patrick Sébastien on France 2. It is great fun – a succession of acrobats, dancers, singers, knife throwers, magicians and performing dogs interspersed by chat round a table with a succession of studio guests culminating in the welcoming in of the New Year to a catchy sing-along dance-along rendition of the can-can by all present. There is an artist on hand to sketch the performances, and the audience, young and old alike, is immaculately turned out – men in a variety of dinner jackets, women elegantly dressed, sat round tables bedecked with wine glasses. The audience are noticeably engrossed in the performances and it is amusing to watch their alternate expressions of amazement and horror as the acrobats land the right way up on the seesaw or the blindfolded knife thrower narrowly misses his glamorous assistant. There was even a raffle. The other year, Petula Clark was one of the guests, and French cinematic legend Jean-Paul Belmondo made a walk-on appearance at the end to tumultuous applause.
Switch over momentarily to British terrestrial television and the contrast is striking. The choice is between the master of PC smut Graham Norton, his twenty-something guests (admittedly there was a comedian dressed up to look old, who, if that wasn’t funny enough, talked hilariously about ‘shitting her pants’) interspersed with the latest pop groups, the audience consisting of alternately bald and bearded men in loose-hanging button-down shirts and fat women in old T-shirts and leggings; and the master of cool Jools Holland introducing a succession of edgy rappers and soul artists, a few people bopping manically near the front and the rest of his hip audience laced with ageing rockers standing round looking bored out of their minds. The evening was rounded off, as usual, by a tasteless cacophony of fireworks around the ‘Coca-Cola’ London Eye to the incessant beat of anodyne pop music.
Nothing wrong with being alternative, edgy, hip hop cool, or indeed owned by foreigners. Except that there was nothing for the rest of us – the normal, the conventional, the mainstream, the family-minded. We might as well not exist.
I seem to remember that popular entertainment around Christmas used to consist of shows that everybody could watch, and that almost everyone did. The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show was invariably the highlight. Then it was Only Fools and Horses. Val Doonican did not appeal to me too much as a teenager, but he was beloved by millions including my mother – and why should rebellious adolescents call the tune?
Sherelle Jacobs put her finger on the problem in a recent article in the Telegraph. The ‘cleverly disturbing’ dramas of modern British television, the stand-up comedy routines of ‘unshaven thirty-somethings who tap into the smugness and self-loathing of the liberal class’, speak of a culture that reflects the appetite of a metropolitan minority, a privileged elite which is determined to repudiate the easy-going popular culture of our shared past. Meanwhile, our culture, what’s left of it, is relegated to specialist channels, where classic films, however innocuous, are preceded by warnings of ‘offensive’ or ‘inappropriate’ language’, or YouTube, where we can still find the sitcoms we used to laugh at. Funnily enough, the more ‘inappropriate’ the language and ‘stereotypical’ the characters, the louder we laughed.
Times change but when our shared past is banished from public view, one wonders what there is left to hold the nation together. A shared love of diversity and ‘the other’? Despite the ravages of mass immigration, a succession of incompetent presidents, and the postmodern post-structuralist anti-establishment musings of Parisian Left bank intellectuals, the French people have never forgotten who they are.
Why have we forgotten who we are?