The 2nd of November, like each of its 364 essential cousins of calendar, is almost inevitably twinned with an historic anniversary snoozing somewhere in the catacombs of history. TV Producers and feature writers will today lazily shake awake the anniversary of the first section of the M1 being opened back in 1959. I think they have roused the wrong recollection.
On the same day fifty years ago, American intellectual and writer Charles Van Doren completed a visible fall from grace by confessing to a US Congressional hearing that the producers of a popular TV quiz “Twenty One” had supplied him in advance with the correct answers to questions he would be asked as a contestant on their show.
Hitherto his confession, Van Doren had been on something of a gold run on the show, trousering $129,000 in prize money and receiving great publicity, including an appearance on the front cover of TIME magazine. When whispers of cheating first reached the wind, Doren countered: "It's silly and distressing to think that people don't have more faith in quiz shows." Old Chas was promptly dropped by NBC and resigned his professorship of Colombia University.
Yesterday, on the 1st November, in the present day in England, I watched a popular show people have lots of faith in: X Factor. I had never watched the programme before. In fact at first glance, I would rather slowly push used hypodermic needles sourced from a hazardous waste basket in my local Whitechapel pharmacy under my finger nails than endure its dignity stripping processes and weekly lionisation of participant/panel mediocrity. But I watched.
Only one of the contestants - a 17 year old girl called Rachel – had any semblance of a singing voice, or could perform a song tolerably within her range. A blonde, wisp nutted, slightly boss eyed teenager who (like all of the male candidates) appeared to be permanently on the verge of tears was an embarrassment even to contemporary standards of popular entertainment.
The later appearance of a demented push-me-pull- you of blonde twins fooled me into believing that this was perhaps a preliminary round where viewers must compassionately tolerate every fame desperate torsion of limited gene pool family that rocks up, grins maniacally, drop its trousers, points to your chest and at the point when you look down, naughtily jabs your chin with their finger. It wasn’t. The push-me-pull-you of hair cliffs are tipped for victory.
The ultimate decision to eliminate “Rachel” fell to Simon Cowell, who at the point when asked to cast the judgement and having praised her abundantly the night before, stated that “you clearly sang better” than young tiny tears (her opponent in the sing off), but was way too mindful of a merchandise devouring /ticket buying public, and a market dominated by teenaged girls struck down with the emotional and sensory myopia of adolescence. So the best person didn’t win. The machine did. “Fix”, they (I) screamed!
Why does any of it matter? Because - much like British politics in 2009 - the letter and spirit of a national competition lacks credibility. Any public interface that generates vast interest and democratic participation needs conductors – in the political arena leaders – who need to support what is right, what has merit, not what those who shout loudest demand, or other, more mercantile self-interests.
The political equivalent is the mode of engagement of David Cameron, itself based entirely on the triangulation of New Labour. Premised on endless focus groups indicating what people want and clandestine meetings with corporate CEO’s/media magnates to ascertain their shopping lists, it is superimposed with the assistance of the latter into policy, and then onto the public.
To paraphrase the novelist Sebastian Faulks in his novel “Engleby”, it is akin to asking everyone pre-season which team is most likely to win the premier league – regardless of how dirty their tactics or dependent on gigantic spending sprees they are – and supporting that team, even when their tactics go beyond the pale, because they WILL win.
I find it spineless, and self-serving, and whilst it is extremely unlikely from such an omnipotent position, perhaps in time Cowell and his retailing monster-ship (and most certainly Cameron and his oily coterie) will learn, as Blair did and Brown will, that when you discredit a basic process of trust and allow the passage of outlying interests, you yourself become discredited. Or as silly old Charles Van Doren put it: “I have deceived my friends, and I had millions of them.”