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The Moral Low Ground
January/February 2011

Get Real: The US drama "Mad Men" isn't worthy or inauthentic, like its British counterparts 

A defining notion of modern morality is that the line between good and evil runs within, rather than between, people. If criminals commit terrible crimes, the sophisticated response is to say that they were the victims of circumstances — poverty, Western provocation, child abuse, etc. We cannot condemn because we cannot predict how badly we would have behaved in the same circumstances. I know that moral courage means the ability to resist when others would give in. But there's no use arguing. Right-thinking people realised that George W. Bush was dangerous when, without embarrassment, he denounced the "Axis of Evil". What a simpleton he was.

When they turn to fiction, however, the same people enter a cartoon world, where goodies and baddies might as well wear white and black hats. In British TV, novels and theatre, the voice of the Sunday school teacher drowns all others. I am not just talking about soap opera and pulp fiction, which one expects to heed Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest: "The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means." Serious writers are equally predictable.

Let William Boyd stand for them all. His last novel Ordinary Thunderstorms is a thriller that has few thrills because plot and character trundle down iron tracks. The hero stumbles on a crime scene seconds after an assassin has murdered a scientist working for a drug conglomerate. He does not take the screamingly obvious step of calling the police because the typical modern hero in serious drama is a rather useless and silly man who has little of the heroic about him. Instead, he hides out in London as a tramp and spends most of the novel cowering. 

The dead scientist's drug company is up to no good, of course. You need only see a company boss, politician or police chief enter the stage to know to set your watch and count the minutes until the author reveals that he is a villain. In this instance, Big Pharma has tested one of its experimental treatments on children and, you may not be surprised to hear, its drugs have killed rather than cured them. Because Big Pharma's board includes a decadent aristocrat, the company has a high profile. The supreme corporate chief lurks behind the façade of aristocratic good manners. He orders the assassin to kill the scientist, who uncovered the drug's failure, and tells him to silence the hero. 

The murderer is a white working-class soldier, who has committed unspeakable atrocities in every conflict from the Falklands onwards. We are so used to this stereotype that we forget how new it is. From Kipling, Owen and Sassoon onwards, middle- and upper-class writers respected the infantry while reserving their scorn for the brass, who "speed glum heroes up the line to death". The modern dislike of common soldiers in contemporary fiction began when the abolition of National Service stopped the classes mixing in the services. Ever since, and with growing vehemence, writers have treated the white working class as racist, sexist brutes — the one group in a multicultural society they can attack without fear of complaint. Not all the criticisms of Jimmy McGovern's portrayal in the BBC series Accused of a lance-corporal urging soldiers to bully a frightened private soldier to his death were self-interested whines from the Ministry of Defence. In however inchoate a manner, the protesters had identified an ugly strain in British cultural life.

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December 29th, 2010
11:12 PM
'The drama, like so much British writing, would be full of morality but empty of conviction.' Those of us who lived in the former communist state can easily recognize propaganda when we see it. In those days even the school children were aware of it and were mocking it mercilessly. Those who promulgate propaganda in Britain better take notice: they will not succeed.

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