Mock the Nation

Is the BBC trying to appeal to the same audience that watches internet porn?

Modern Life Screen TV

The free availability of hard-core pornography on the internet is changing relationships between men and women in ways we have barely begun to talk about, but it is also changing television. What should executives do with the knowledge that sections of their ever-fragmenting audience are watching images they could not have found in the greasiest Soho basements 20 years ago? Once they would have ignored them, but now that television’s power is waning, it must run after every viewer it can find. It cannot give them porn — not yet, anyway — but with Mock the Week it can reassure the onanistic that they’re good lads, really, just having a harmless laugh.

BBC 2 describes the show as satire, but it is not satirical in the usual sense of the word. The chairman, Dara Ó Briain, a buttery-faced man with a smugly malicious manner, presides over panellists without a political idea in their little heads. The viewer can never say, for instance, that Frankie Boyle, the show’s star, hates the thought of a Conservative government and is determined to find the barb that will pierce David Cameron’s defences, or that any of his team-mates are determined to punish Gordon Brown for what he has done to Britain. They do not want to scratch, let alone wound, those with real power over our lives, which is probably why the BBC gives them free rein.

The best way to picture Mock the Week is to imagine six men, with a low-grade but undoubted comic talent, late at night in a pub. Drink has dissolved their inhibitions and each is determined to push the others aside and prove he is top dog. The blatancy of their competitiveness sets them apart from other TV comics. Status anxiety torments performers in all panel games. But you never see Ian Hislop look resentful when Paul Merton comes up with a good joke on Have I Got News for You, or rush out his gags so he can be sure that he can get them on air. No veneer of conviviality hides the contestants’ jealousy on Mock the Week. They don’t laugh at each other’s jokes. They visibly struggle for money and fame as they interrupt each other and race to snatch the microphone in the middle of the studio. As tense and mirthless as saloon-bar fighters in the moment before the first punch is thrown, they will do anything to establish their superiority. 

Boyle is the show’s strutting cock. A gaunt, aggressive, slit-eyed Scotsman with a neurotic determination to be heard first and always, he seems to have grasped that the critics will hail him as “edgy” if he courts the porn market. 

Here he is in action. The show has a round called: “If this is the answer, what’s the question?” Ó Briain announces that the answer is “40 years” so the question is…”Is it ‘For how long would I follow Beyoncé up an impossibly long ladder?'” says Boyle without a flicker of a smile. “Is it what is the youngest my balls have looked?” says a fellow panellist, getting the hang of the show.   “Is it how long it takes me to knock one out to Loose Women?” says Boyle, back as snarling top dog again. (In case you have not seen it, Loose Women is a daytime show with middle-aged presenters.) “Depends who’s on the panel, I fear, that average can swing quite a lot,” smirks Ó Briain. “Oooh yeah, the week you were on was fantastic,” a panellist tells Ó Briain. 

Even by the standards of Mock the Week, the joke is feeble, barely a joke at all, but the potentially bathetic moment is saved by Lucy Porter, one of the few comediennes to appear on Mock the Week. “I’m doing it next week and what I really don’t want to be thinking is, ‘Oh what’s Frankie Boyle doing right now?'” she says.

When the testosterone is flowing, the worst thing a woman can do is try to be one of the boys. “Well it’s a safe bet Lucy,” Boyle snaps. “To be honest, even if I’m not watching it’s just that time of day.”  

The audience cheers. Boyle knows that the BBC’s managers will not complain about a male guest telling a woman that he will be masturbating next time she is on television. The Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis established her superiors’ indifference when she confronted the BBC’s director-general with a Boyle line last year. O’ Briain had asked the panel to come up with “things the Queen would never say during her Christmas speech,” and Boyle replied, “I’m now so old my pussy is haunted.”  

Mark Thompson would not condemn him, waffling to Maitlis that he could “only judge in the context of the programme”. If he watched the whole programme, perhaps he would realise that Mock the Week feeds on resentment. Pornography has many consequences, but the clearest is to increase male resentment of women who, apparently, are giving sex freely to everyone except those numb, hollow-eyed masturbators staring at them on their screens.

The show has also worked out that there is market in appealing to resentment of the elderly, which is growing as the population ages and the costs of looking after them become ever steeper. It targets them with an affectionless frequency that I have never seen before.

Here is Boyle again, responding to a question about the BBC’s decision to replace the 66-year-old Arlene Phillips as a presenter on Strictly Come Dancing with a younger model. “What’s the big fuss about her getting sacked, eh? It’s show business, Arlene, not ugly business… It’s not like she’s completely disappearing from TV. Straight after this, she’s going to be on live autopsy with Gunther von Hagens, and then she’s back on our screens at Christmas being chased by the Ghostbusters.”

Several observers have said that search engines are leading men to discover perversions they never knew they had. A generation before they could have got through their lives without ever having the opportunities that the computer age provides to learn they had a compulsive interest in high heels or bestiality.

Similarly, Mock the Week tells me something about the British I would rather not know. It commands an audience of about three million. As I watched, it occurred to me that Britain may well have three million people who would happily go along with the mob if we ever had a government that incited violence against the vulnerable.