Round the National Gallery, at the top of Trafalgar Square, the recently established garden beds have come up nicely, a discreet fringe of green around the imposing facades. Still, I'm not crazy about them. Bordering a classical building with vegetation is a basic error of architectural decorum; it looks odd, and lessens the building's impact. Doubtless the gallery trustees thought the same, but the beds aren't for show: they're a solution to a problem. For the last decade or so, the number of people taking a leak against the gallery walls had become so great that the urine was starting to damage the stone.
It's a good metaphor: as a snapshot of the UK today it's got everything, from national decline to the rise of an insouciant yobbishness - a style known as "chav", which sees itself, when it thinks of it at all, as the true carrier of Britishness, egged on by the "anti-elitism" of the red-top tabloids that rely on chav for both material and readership. Chav is shaved heads and shell suits (trackies), it's knock-off Burberry scarves atop shirtless torsos, it's ten seconds of a hardcore-porn soundtrack as your mobile's ringtone, it's Easyjet stag nights in Prague that start at a brewery bar and end at a megabrothel. It's plonking your foot on the pub table and showing with pride your new "Peckham Rolex" (electronic ankle bracelet).
That, at least, is the way it sometimes feels in the crowded high street, where shouting seems to have become the first language and all the red-cordial-fuelled fat kids are caroming off the shelves in Tesco's. But if there's one place where the British culture war - the proxy struggle between old middle-class mores and a new order uninterested in what has gone before - is being fought, it's in British television. For chav, or the world that makes it, is recognisable in Little Britain's Vicki Pollard (Yeah but no but ...), Frank Gallagher in Shameless and even, by a circuitous route, ye olde village porn store in The League of Gentlemen.
While high-end American product like The Sopranos has comprehensively outclassed British TV drama, British comedy has gone from strength to strength, largely by taking over the territory hitherto explored by the latter: frustration, humiliation, squalor, grotesquery. It makes even the most compelling American product look anodyne, and it has put earlier, gentler, more traditionally humorous shows such as Harry Enfield and The Fast Show in the shade.
Where did it come from? Why the sudden turn? British comedy had already changed once, in the early 1980s, when an overwhelming concern with the hypocrisies of political and social life - as presented by shows as various as That Was The Week That Was, Monty Python and Fawlty Towers - was supplanted by a more committed and sustained attack on the mores of everyday life. The "alternative comedy" of Alexei Sayle, Ben Elton and co. was heavily politically committed, but it was most interested in bringing the punk ethos across from music to stand-up, hitherto the preserve of Northern purveyors of mother-in-law jokes.
Punk itself had been more music hall than politics, a revolutionary political movement unable to take itself seriously, and alternative comedy suffered from the same lack of belief that real change could occur. Its two lasting contributions, The Young Ones and the self-contained episodes of The Comic Strip (‘Five Go Mad in Dorset' and the like), were a reckoning not only with the accumulated stock of middle-class British culture, but also with the pretensions and delusions of the British Left in the '80s.
This energy was all but spent by the late '80s, and the product of the subsequent decade - French & Saunders, Absolutely Fabulous, The Vicar of Dibley - while of high quality, was simply sketch or character comedy within a conventional frame. Indeed, much '80s British comedy now looks like a communiqué from centuries rather than decades ago, from a time when Left-Right politics had sufficient meaning to give people a source of identity. By the late '90s, the alternative comics had been shunted off into bad novels, bad films and bad plays, and a new generation of comedians was taking the TV field. What separates them - including the new shows they have made of a more conventional form, such as Nighty Night - from their predecessors is a deep horror at what Britain has become.
The comedians themselves will usually deny this, as comedians do, insisting that it's just comedy; but the sense that one has somehow stumbled into a nightmare is across the spectrum, from the cheap minstrelry of Little Britain to something infinitely better, such as The Office. Whether it's the murderous parochialism of The League of Gentlemen's village of Royston Vasey, or the resolute resentment of a character like Little Britain's Carol Beer (Computer says "No" ...), or the desperate struggle of David Brent to build a sense of self on shaky foundations (being the failing manager of a paper-supply company's branch office), each show is an exercise in Caliban-like self-scrutiny, another instalment in Britain's sustained reflection on post-imperial decline.
Until the '90s, such reflection was mediated by different political stories: Thatcher's notion of a return to "Victorian values"; the Left's remnant dream of socialism. By the time that New Labour came along, it was clear that Thatcher's revolution had created not abstemious parishioners, but instead a nation of moneyed-up, lager-swilling, eccy-necking ravers, who had taken seriously her notion that there was "no such thing as society" and carried it into every aspect of their lives. The Left had simply collapsed, and in its place was New Labour's creepy communitarianism (what The League of Gentlemen is really about), in which bullying notions of cracking down on "anti-social behaviour" have become a substitute for changing society.
It could be said that most of this new breed of shows - the acuity of their observations notwithstanding - have a snobbish dimension to them: they are overwhelmingly made by upper-middle-class, private-school-educated professionals, who look out and see not a working class liberating itself from notions of deference and limited expectations, but rather a mob, usurping control of the levers of culture.
There's a satirical dimension in dealing with the lives of people who have been sidelined by the shiny new world of hyperconsumerism, but it's a fine line at best. Would Lou Todd, Little Britain's purportedly wheelchair-bound skiver, be as funny if he were well-dressed, rather than perpetually clad in a dirty grey singlet, like the blokes you see hanging round the town centre, waiting to cash their benefit cheque at the pub? The character is a release valve for liberal opinion: They're all like that. They're all skiving.
Australian audiences never get to see many of the shows made by working-class comics - such as Peter Kay's Phoenix Nights, about a (genuinely) wheelchair-bound man running a decaying worker's club in the dead-end town of Bolton - which tend to mix observation of grotesquery with a measure of empathy. Shameless, the story of a sprawling welfare family on a Manchester estate, is both comedy and drama and, while more realist than the others, exceeds them in exploring a world where all personal and value boundaries have collapsed. It is both a critical portrayal of moral chaos and a fond evocation of writer-producer Paul Abbott's childhood.
The rule-proving exception to this is The Office, which has superficial resemblances to its contemporaries but comes out of quite a different tradition, that of the acutely observed social realism of British "kitchen-sink" drama, where understatement is the dominant mode. If Little Britain's high-cultural antecedent is Martin Amis's nightmarish fantasia London Fields, then The Office owes a lot to Amis senior, the petty humiliations of class and provinciality recorded in Lucky Jim and Take A Girl Like You, and to the plays of Simon Gray, such as Quartermaine's Terms.
Where it goes beyond these is in the creation of the character of David Brent, a figure who has more in common with some of the greater characters of twentieth-century literature, from Joseph K to Willy Loman to Tommy Wilhelm, the hapless failed actor in Saul Bellow's Seize the Day. For Brent, as for all of these characters, life is a struggle simply to be, to not dissolve or fade into the air, and Ricky Gervais's performance captures that fundamental anxiety as a moment-to-moment dilemma: Brent is staying one joke ahead of a flash of self-knowledge that he dimly realises will be self-annihilating, and that will make it impossible to go on (yet he goes on). His account of himself and his "mission" is a multi-layered exposition of the folly and delusion of every management tome which tries to dress up the deadening and deforming routine of office life as an occasion for fun and creativity, with Brent's delusional drivelling about being a boss and a friend set against the backdrop of endlessly drizzling phones in the otherwise silent open-plan workspace.
The Office does for clerical life what Simone Weil's observations of factory life did in the 1930s: it records in detail the degree to which such work limits and deforms those subjected to it. Weil's observation was that the most crushing impact of factory work was a sense of humiliation at being little more than a human machine; in The Office, the dominant sense is one of airless unreality, held back either by a flight into rigidity - Gareth, the cadaverous, mushroom-haired, army-reserve-loving virgin - or by Brent's delusional, quasi-messianic sense that he is a rock star descended to a managerial position at Wernham Hogg to save his employees from despair.
Brent's speech is a continuous construction of the man he wants to be, a desperate improvisation. He is most often voicing other people and enacting little two-part dialogues:
I don't like people who come here: "Ooh, we did it this way, we did it that way." I just wanna go do it this way. If you like. If you don't ... Team playing - I call it team individuality, it's a new, it's like a management style. Again - guilty, unorthodox, sue me.
It is a portrait of someone struggling in extremis with the demands of mass society but, unlike Little Britain, it's no freak-show.
The practically universal effect of The Office on viewers - that of laughter mixed with cringing embarrassment, the absolute need at times to look away - is a measure of the extent to which it relies on both a sense of commonality and on compassion. This goes beyond the recognition-humour we get from something like Seinfeld, which details the minefield of social and sexual etiquette in a world whose rules are in flux. Instead, The Office taps into the horror, the sense of the abyss that is open beneath Brent's feet: a sense made more explicit in the follow-up series, Extras, in which the profession of film extra becomes a more general metaphor for the widespread feeling of being "pushed to the side of your own life" by the growing cultural power of celebrity.
The Office, I don't doubt, will live for ever. As for the shelf life of Little Britain and the rest, I'm not so sure. Both of these productions have a sort of truth, the former observing the slow and little-changing routines of drab everyday lives, while the latter plays to a culture which has gone beyond celebrating punkish individualism: it canonises the personality-disordered, and gives free rein to the unreasoning aggressiveness that is the default setting of much of everyday urban life in Britain. Though it would be wrong to diminish the universal aspect of The Office - which, like Death of a Salesman, could probably play in Beijing - all of these TV shows are symptomatic of a country that doesn't much like what it has become, yet can't see anything else to be. The past, where it appears, is in shreds, the future is absent, and the piss is eating away the foundations.
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