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Beware false prophets

By Clive Whittingham 29-07-2015

BBC3 in the UK is in the midst of a protracted move to online-only – a further round of consultation is underway following approval from the BBC Trust. When it gets there, one can only hope the three seasons of Monkey Dust it has steadfastly refused to repeat since its 2003 debut are made available once more.

Monkey Dust is the best original show BBC3 has commissioned in its 12 years on air. Bar none. Comprising satirical animated scenes, separate but interlinked, and based in a “nightmarish nocturnal world,” it has proved uncannily prophetic.

Perhaps that’s why it’s become something of a dirty little secret – never to be repeated. The show’s suicide bomber characters from West Bromwich, for instance, would probably be seen as being in bad taste now following the July 7 2005 bombings in London and other such incidents.

One returning character was the TV commissioner, a Zen-like figure who floated above a beanbag and reported to a loudmouth director general. The commissioner solved his channel’s primetime headache by greenlighting a fictional show called People on the Toilet – “with a 24-hour bowl cam, so we can see them poo.” From that grew “Elaine, from TV’s People on the Toilet,” who would turn up drunk to film premieres, the state opening of parliament, the Olympic opening ceremony and whatnot.

Squeezing out 19 kids, running a dance school and having blazing rows with the parents, growing big beards and living in swamps, spending your dole money on flat-screen TVs – none of these activities are any more worthy of TV stardom than taking a dump and yet, as Monkey Dust predicted, television has made stars of people for little more than this over the past decade. What was once satire is now being pitched and picked up with a straight face.

‘We want big characters,’ says every unscripted commissioning executive in the business. But, increasingly, once those characters have been found, they haven’t merely been observed in a traditional documentary or reportage style. They’ve instead been placed at the centre of a fictitious world, involved in situations cooked up by producers, edited to be brasher or louder or funnier in the suite afterwards, and taken completely out of context using ‘Frankenbites.’ They’ve been exploited, basically, for entertainment.

Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson (second from right) came under fire for homophobic comments

Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson (second from right)
came under fire for homophobic comments

This has become a problem for two reasons. Firstly, because once you make a star of Maureen from Driving School, she’s held to the same standards as all the other celebs out there – the footballers, soap stars, movie actors and so on. TLC has been burned by this twice recently, with 19 Kids and Counting and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo both axed amid damaging child molestation allegations against people who took part in the shows.

A&E also found that if you make multi-millionaire, bankable stars out of the guys on Duck Dynasty, media types occasionally ask their opinions on certain topics – and, as it turns out, their thoughts on some subjects, particularly homosexuality, are offensive to a lot of people.

This wouldn’t have come up had they simply been the subjects of observational docs, but they weren’t – they were made into stars and judged accordingly.

Secondly, the audience is now wise to all this and tired of it. The culture of celebrity, and more specifically making a celebrity out of any gobby mum shoving her obnoxious child into beauty pageants, is switching people off the factual genre.

Commissioning editors now talk about ‘authentic’ almost as much as they do ‘big characters’ and it’s because it has been shown, by Vice Media to best effect, that there is enough amazing stuff going on in the world not to have to concoct and create it.

Discovery is bidding farewell to its “faux factual” content under new president Rich Ross, Netflix is pumping millions into blue-chip wildlife programmes, and commissioners are talking about letting things play out in a rough-and-ready style, without the heavy hand of the producer on the tiller. It feels like factual is getting, well, factual again.

An exciting time for the purists, and a less morally repugnant one for the industry. Rejoice.

today's correspondent

Clive Whittingham Senior reporter
CliveWhittingham PERSP 2

Clive Whittingham is a senior reporter at C21 Media and also edits C21's Factual Weekly e-newsletter.

Prior to joining the company in 2011, Clive was a journalist at the Northants Evening Telegraph and before that the Derbyshire Times. He has also worked for The Observer online and London Evening Standard.