Let us ponder for a while upon the many moods of Channel 4. Firstly with The Churchills, a new series in which controversial historian David Starkey draws striking comparisons between Oor Winston and his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough.
THE CHURCHILLS - Thursday, Channel 4, 8pm
4 GOES MAD - days and times vary, Channel 4
HEAD CASE: HOW TO TREAT YOURSELF TO BETTER MENTAL HEATH - Friday, BBC2, 7pm
Although largely forgotten today, the latter was also a great war leader, who led Britain against the dictatorial tyranny of Louis XIV of France, much as his heir would do against Hitler. And it was, Starkey argues, Churchill’s immersion in his expansive biography of Marlborough, written over nearly ten years, that transformed him from a jobbing back-bencher into the almost Godlike statesman he became.
As much as I abhor Starkey’s attitudes, I can’t deny that he’s an engaging orator (mind you, they said the same about... nah, I won’t bother) whose visual essays rarely drag. He has a knack for spinning gripping historical yarns, the factual rigour of which I’ll leave for the experts to debate.
Yes, the usual accoutrements – the melodramatic score and crash-zooms, topped by Starkey’s hammy delivery as he wanders around stately homes like a bewildered tourist – are all present, but I find them amusing in their absurdity. And his enthusiasm, bordering on lust, for his subject is never in doubt.
But it says a lot about the sorry state of Channel 4 in 2012 that a risible buffoon presenting a history show counts as heavyweight programming, at least compared to the “dude, where’s my soul?” guff they mostly churn out.
Now, before I go on I should point out that, since preview copies weren’t available, I haven’t seen any of the programme in 4’s mental health awareness season, 4 GOES MAD, and it’s quite possible that some of them will be of merit. But let’s just consider that title, shall we? Jaw-droppingly insensitive, is it not? But then what should we expect from a channel that – to take a random example from many – titles its supposedly sensitive series about physical disfigurement, Beauty and The Beast: The Ugly Face of Prejudice?
4 wasn’t always this way, of course. Tell Young People today that it was once a fantastically varied channel that prided itself on its bravery, wit and originality, and they’d say, “Why are you telling me this? I’m not interested.” But the point still stands.
The existence of 4 Goes Mad is indicative of its sorry decline into cheap sensationalism, where even the most serious of subjects must be tarted up with comedians and entertainment formats. It would doubtless argue that, by employing such a glibly light-hearted title, they’re merely removing the stigma surrounding mental illness by treating it with a refreshing lack of austerity. But that’s not what it’s doing at all. It’s not being clever and ironic. It’s not being boldly provocative. It’s being what it always is – a corporation without a whiff of class that systematically belittles important issues while laughing at gypsies. I hate to evoke that tired old phrase, “dumbing down”, but 4 is so dumbed down now it makes a BBC 3 documentary about vajazzling look like The Ascent of Man.
On the one hand, it’s good that it’s drawing attention to this subject in a decent timeslot, but giving it that title is a particularly cruel, disingenuous case of having one’s cake and eating it. “Hey, look, we’re fulfilling our remit to present programmes of social value, but... imagine being mad! That would literally be bonkers!”
At the horrifying risk of echoing A A Gill’s tiresome “Tristram” conceit, I think of 4 as a single entity, specifically a clueless middle-class man in his thirties called Ben who frequently describes things as “genius” and who’s never met anyone who isn’t like him.
Ben is responsible for the crassly titled likes of Ruby Wax’s Mad Confessions (Monday, 10pm), in which the comedian encourages people to talk openly about their mental health problems, Jon Richardson: A Little Bit OCD (Tuesday, 10pm) in which the comedian investigates Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, World’s Maddest Job Interview (Wednesday and Thursday, 10pm) in which The Apprentice attack-dog Claude Littner has to guess whether applicants are mentally unbalanced or not, and Obsessive Compulsive Hoarder: The Big Clear Out (Thursday, 9pm) in which a man empties his home for his own safety.
Again, these may be perfectly legitimate programmes in themselves, but the overall demeanour of 4 stinks to high heaven. And yes, it does still occasionally produce excellent programmes, but the snide, superficial identity it’s carved for itself tends to overshadow its better work. And, admittedly, those insensitive titles aren’t usually the fault of the programme-makers themselves. That’s 4’s fault. That’s Ben’s fault.
Even the usually reliable BBC Scotland have been tainted by his influence. They’re showing a mental health awareness documentary this week too, but in a moment of, well, madness, they’ve named it HEAD CASE: how to TREAT YOURSELF TO BETTER MENTAL HEALTH. It’s a shame, because it’s a sensitive and valuable programme in which young people talk frankly about the mental health problems that afflict one in four UK residents. Relaying their experiences directly to camera, they provide ultimately hopeful accounts of depression, anxiety, anorexia, bi-polar disorder and addiction. But oh, that title.