The Moral Low Ground

American TV dramas are often realistic and authentic, unlike their British counterparts

Nick Cohen

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.

Ordinary Thunderstorms completes its compendium of cliché by showing corrupt senior officers in the Metropolitan Police helping the assassin to track down the hero. The only character the reader can admire is a lowly woman police officer, as again is traditional.

I am not saying that Boyd is a poor writer who has written a worthless novel — his depiction of life in London without money is finely done. He is worth thinking about because he is a good novelist who, like so many others, has fallen for the tick-box approach of contemporary fiction: good men are inadequate wimps; corporations, evil; police and politicians, corrupt; the upper class, degenerate; soldiers, psychopaths; and women — God bless them — our only hope. 

Many viewers and readers are happy with cartoon characters and want serious fiction to confirm their prejudices. The exhaustion of others explains why intelligent British viewers watch American dramas, such as Mad Men. They at least do not tell the viewer what they must think, like a preacher denouncing sin. 

I should qualify my praise by saying that in nearly all respects Mad Men is a highbrow version of Dallas. Jon Hamm, an actor with matinée idol looks, plays Don Draper, an advertising executive who leads his firm through the social upheavals of the Fifties and Sixties. The women he seduces are, without exception, beautiful. Its success seems no mystery. 

But there is more to it than sex appeal. Some critics argue that it allows modern viewers to sneer at the past. The audience revels in the superiority of its politically-correct morality as it watches powerful men judge women by their looks and tut-tuts as it sees Sterling Cooper’s executives confine blacks to the roles of shoeshine boys and waiters. I could reply that men who look at a woman’s breasts before any other part of her body did not die out in the 1970s, but to get into a political debate is to miss the point.

For all its superficial glamour, Mad Men is convincing as a drama. Even when viewers know that one rarely finds so many well-groomed people in one office, the fates the writers assign to the characters feel real.

In the series, which has just finished on BBC4, Peggy Olson, one of the few women to have broken into New York copywriting, has an affair with a young leftist. He denounces Sterling Cooper for making ads for a southern company that will not hire black workers. Olson raises the colour bar at a corporate meeting and her colleagues treat her concerns with incredulity. There’s nothing an advertising agency can do about a client’s employment practices, they tell her. This is America in the mid-1960s and business is business. 

Olson accepts what they say, and the plot moves on. The scene is dramatically authentic. Viewers believe it, but anticipate the moment a few years on when Cooper will not be able to ignore prejudice any longer.

If a British writer had the same material, Olson would have delivered a passionate denunciation of racism in perfectly-crafted sentences. She would have resigned rather than accept her colleagues’ decision and rushed to the arms of her lover. Draper would have proved that he was not just indifferent to racism but evil through and through, by going on to rape a woman or beat a defenceless man or deliver an obscene speech.

The drama, like so much British writing, would be full of morality but empty of conviction.

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