Superficially, Phineas T Barnum and Peter Bazalgette have much in common. Both made their name and fortune from freak shows. Barnum’s travelling circus included such attractions as the Man with the Ostrich Stomach and the Bearded Woman. Bazalgette’s Big Brother gave us Jade the Woman with No Brain and Nadia the Transsexual with Fashion Sense.
There, however, the similarity between the two men ends. Barnum was an honest-to-goodness showman with no pretensions and a cruelly realistic view of his market. To him is attributed the truism that “there’s a sucker born every minute”.
Bazalgette, on the other hand, takes himself and his achievements seriously and wants us to do the same. He is, in a word that Barnum would have understood, a humbug.
He dismisses his critics with an offhand ad hominem argument that reeks of disingenuousness. Thus, in a letter to The Guardian he asks: “Why are so many old men angry about television?” Unlike younger viewers who enjoyed today’s television, he adds, older viewers should switch their sets off. This is not the first time he has labelled his detractors as “grumpy old men” and wondered what it is that makes them complain.
Well, as luck would have it, I find myself equipped, both by nature and temperament, to answer his question.
First, though, in the interests of fairness, let us concede that there are mitigating circumstances to be taken into account. For a start, Mr Bazalgette says that he owes his success to Esther Rantzen. “Everything I did was learned at Esther’s knee,” he says. “It’s all about informing and entertaining.”
Putting to one side the information quotient in Big Brother, it has to be conceded that to follow the example of one who has for years cloaked an immense self-regard in the finery of selfless public service is to risk a certain confusion of purpose.
Secondly, thanks to Michael Grade, John Birt, Greg Dyke and others, television has relentlessly chased audiences heedless of the spiralling downward quality of programming. Bazalgette could not have got away with his meretricious offerings had he not been encouraged by the people running TV.
Thirdly, he, no less than his audience. exhibits all the frailties of human nature. While they are prurient rubberneckers he is vain, greedy and prone to self-deception.
But enough of excuses. Why do grumpy old men despise Big Brother and other “reality shows”? Let us count the reasons.
Because it is unedifying and worse to satisfy for personal gain, as Bazalgette undoubtedly does with much aplomb, the base desires of other people. It is canting hypocrisy to affect innocently to be meeting a demand, as if that alone is justification for serving up demeaning, voyeuristic rubbish.
Because, as an educated man (Dulwich College and Cambridge), he knows the difference between good and bad, but pretends not to.
Because the people who take part in Big Brother are manipulated, exploited, and shamelessly put on display, just as Barnum’s freaks once were. Because TV, for all its failings, is capable of giving its audiences so much better.
And why is it that old men in particular object? Because they have seen better television and remember it. Because they are, by and large, better educated than the poor, ill-served semi-literate blighters leaving school today. They have wider terms of reference than football, alcopops, and trash TV, a bigger vocabulary than is comprised in “strong language”, and a sense of humour that extends beyond bodily functions. Because they learn a bit as they get older, not least about human nature. Because, like a jury, they can sniff out a fraud.
Of course, Bazalgette has heard these complaints before and has a glib response for each.
You would, he says, never walk into a bookshop and complain about the range of high- and low-brow books, which is to make a false comparison between books, which involve some discernment and mental effort however slight, and the most powerful, intrusive and essentially passive mass medium yet devised, a medium whose influence and power reach straight into the hearts of people’s homes. A better comparison would be with mass-circulation newspapers, and people do indeed complain about trashy tabloid journalism.
He is especially irked by the suggestion that, as an educated member of the middle class who can enjoy the best that culture offers, he is passing off sub-standard tat to the masses.
What the critics don’t understand, he says, is that it is “much more difficult making popular TV”.
As if difficulty was of itself meritorious. No doubt Torquemada found it challenging to create new and exquisite forms of torture. Reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards is difficult to do well, as is eating spaghetti under water. But none of these has any merit. And neither does Bazalgette’s posturing as a public benefactor.
Most insulting of all is his airy assertion that older people should switch off their sets. First, it’s not a solution: I’ve never watched a moment of Big Brother, but I still know far more about it than I care to; some things, like the Black Death, are encircling, pernicious and inescapable. Secondly, it ill becomes one who wishes to be taken seriously to tell older viewers to sod off. He may be assured, though, that the feeling of pained animosity is mutual.