Ruthie Henshall, the comely songstress, terpsichorean artiste and one-time intimate of Prince Edward Windsor, now the Earl of Wessex, confesses in a newspaper interview that her chief recreation at the end of her busy days is “mindless television”.
Ha!, I hear you say, with a cynicism that by this time of the week understandably affects those who toil in marketing, is there any other kind of television? Well, yes there is, it just takes some finding, and in any case does not perform the therapeutic function to which Ms Henshall alludes. Mindless television is the purest kind because, like a good single malt whisky, it numbs the senses, settles the stomach and eases the brain gently into neutral.
It is quite wrong to describe those who take their ease in front of the television screen as couch potatoes. They more closely resemble, both in appearance and in some regrettable instances smell, basking seals whose whiskers cease to twitch and whose eyelids become heavy under the influence of Anne Robinson or Jonathan Ross. In the old days, when television shut down for the night, we had the epilogue, the shrinking dot on the screen, and, should both those fail, a kind of piercing noise to alert us to the fact that the tide had gone out and we were alone, stranded on the fretful foreshore between consciousness and unconsciousness.
But now, thanks to round-the-clock mindless television, we are able to numb our brains at any time of our choosing and awaken from the experience strangely heartened and refreshed. For however irksome our days and however heavy the burdens we may bear, we know that nothing in real life can ever be quite as dreadful as television.
Or so I believed, until I read that watching Big Brother damages the health. Psychologists who tested viewers discovered “alarming side-effects including increased levels of anxiety, depression and hostility”.
This is dreadful news for those of us who have always defended junk television on the ground advanced by the BBC, namely that in an egalitarian democracy the broadcasters have a duty to cater for every type of audience, and that includes mindless viewers, of whom there are a great many.
Until the advent of Big Brother, the definition of precisely what constituted mindlessness was elusive and open to debate. However, when Peter Bazalgette gave us Big Brother, the need for conjecture ceased: here was something that by universal and instant assent was agreed to be the pith and essence, the chef d’Ãâuvre, then ne plus ultra of mindlessness, the standard by which everything that followed, no matter how crass, asinine or insulting, would be judged and found inferior.
In our innocence we believed that in the same way that teeming and restless minds needed nourishment, blank minds needed blank material in order to preserve the essential blankness. There were social benefits, too. In the same way that schools, prisons and football matches periodically removed from circulation some of the most hostile and unpleasant people who dwell in our midst, Big Brother tied to their television screens the kind of viewers with whom one would not wish to associate.
Now our illusions are shattered. Far from soothing the breasts of the savage beasts who watch it, Big Brother is inflaming them. Who would have believed such harm could come from such a simple idea? Big Brother sieves the muddy waters of our civilisation for human flotsam and jetsam, picks out the choicest specimens and lays them out, squirming and writhing, for our curious observation.
No harm in that, surely? Just as the proper study of mankind is man, the proper study of idiots is idiocy, and nowhere in Britain will you find a greater concentration of idiots than in the Big Brother House. (I refer to those who produce the programme.) Now we know that harm is being done. Dr Cynthia McVey, who for her sins, which must be considerable, specialises in television research, says the participants in reality television programmes have the support of psychologists and psychiatrists (support from which I for one would flee in terror) but “the people who watch are just left on their own”.
There, then, is the kernel of a solution. People who view reality television should each have allocated to them a trained psychologist and psychiatrist. This would have the incidental benefit of removing two more classes of undesirable citizen from society at large.
I should have liked to conclude on an optimistic note were it not for another story I spotted saying that scientists in the Caribbean are creating monkeys with human brains, a development which the report describes as a “moral nightmare”. More of a nightmare than Big Brother’s experiment on human beings with the brains of monkeys?