The TV dance show thing is interesting, to say the least. In the first place, what's with the 'Strictly'? Obviously a reference to a crap 90's film called 'Strictly Ballroom' - but who cares? And now the whole silly TV phenomenon is known by practically everyone as "Strictly". It's silly because it manages to turn a very skilled and challenging activity - dancing - into a freak show cum peep show cum comedy show cum camp bitchfest.
Who watches? Every single age group, it seems. My 96 year old aunt thinks it's 'lovely'. For her it represents continuity and a link to the past. She has fond memories of years spent tuning in to the BBC to watch "Come Dancing" - a staple of my own family's viewing back in the monochrome years - when we had only one TV in the house, which we all huddled round in the winter, next to the coal fire. Impossible to escape to the bedroom in those days - too damned cold.
Aunt also has fond memories of our national treasure, the sainted Brucie, hosting popular 'family' shows such as 'Sunday Night at the London Palladium', with his stupid catch phrases and his dancing and his comedic schtick. How wonderful that Brucie is still with us, still doing his stuff. Not.
At the other end of the age spectrum there are teens and sub-teens who get off on the gorgeousness of the professional women dancers, the chance to check out the legs of popular celebs, and the attractiveness of certain of the male dancers. A family show indeed. There are saddoes all down the age range who love to letch at the participants, laugh at the bitchiness or nastiness of the judges, revel in the 'competition' aspect, and groan at Brucie.
And then there are the freaks. Thank you John Sergeant, Anne Widdicombe and others for providing such great entertainment. At least it's not the X Factor. At least they're not serious - they don't really believe they're amazingly talented and possess star quality. They aren't there to demonstrate their prowess as dancers. They do it simply to show that they can. Media whores will appear on anything - just as long as they're on the telly. Being famous and being a celebrity are serious occupations, it seems.
Thank goodness there are a few worthwhile 'reality' shows on TV. Gok Wan, Jamie Oliver and Gareth Malone have done some very interesting and worthwhile things. Jonathan Freedland wrote about them this week:
The success of The Choir's military wives suggests we're losing our taste for malice TV
No pantomime villain judges. And no losers. In the age of austerity we want shows that lift us up, not put us down
We've been told endlessly how shallow and materialistic, trivial and celebrity-obsessed, our society has become. It's another source of gloom, along with everything else life has thrown at us this year: earthquakes, war and scandal – all under a darkening sky of economic crisis. But this is the season when we try to focus on . . . causes for optimism, among them some small signs that our culture does not only elevate consumerism, cheap fame and a lust for riches, but other values too. And those signs can be found in the unlikeliest places, including the heart of crassness itself – reality television.
The military wives whose record is selling so fast are themselves a product of reality TV, the BBC series The Choir. The programme could not be more different from The X Factor. It is slow and gentle in style, but that's not the key difference to be celebrated.
Choirmaster Gareth Malone transforms a few dozen women on a Devon military base into a group able to sing together in beautiful harmony.
The months of rehearsal together turned them into something else. They started meeting at each other's houses, having informal rehearsals. They became bound together by the shared pressure to perform, whether at the local town or, eventually, at the homecoming ceremony for their returning men. "We feel like sisters now, helping each other out," reported one.
Unlike The X Factor or its imitators, The Choir is not a competition: the only prize is a sense of camaraderie and communal connectedness, a prize everybody wins.
The choirmaster never tells anyone they cannot sing. The result is not just a sense of solidarity that was previously missing but a boost to individual self-esteem. One woman after another tells their young instructor that they have found a confidence through singing that they had lacked before – that at last they had done something in which they could take pride.
In an earlier programme, Malone . . . took a gaggle of young men, who previously thought they could do nothing with aplomb except drink, and turned them into a tenor section. There, as on the military base, he took what were fractured groups and turned them into a community – and gave them a voice.
Malone's earnest belief in music and its power to transform, his patience with volunteers who have never sung a note, and their clear, expressed gratitude to him for changing their lives, is impossible to fake.
In among the rough of reality TV and the like, it's good to know there are diamonds like Malone – but he's not the only one. Gok Wan with his how-to-dress shows is in a similar business, taking women who have lost all self-belief and pushing them to see themselves in a new, more generous light. There are no withering one-liners, no pantomime villain judges, no losers – and no prize but an injection of confidence.
The pioneer of this sub-genre of reality TV, aimed at lifting up rather than putting down, may well have been Jamie Oliver. The Jamie's Kitchen series in 2002 followed the chef as he trained 15 disadvantaged young people, with the lure of a job in his new restaurant. He followed it with similar ventures, persuading both school drop-outs and school dinner ladies that they could raise their sights.
It would be cheery to see a trend here, with Malone's chart victory over Cowell presaging an era in which nice prevails over nasty, when the joy of collective solidarity edges out the cult of the narcissistic individual. Such a trend might even be a function of the age of austerity: after all, when there's so much real pain all around, who wants to see fake malice on TV?
But even if it reveals no such wider phenomenon, the military wives – freed at last to express through music the pain and yearning they had long held within – and their success, along with the man who made it possible, are something to celebrate. And in these straitened times, we need all the causes for celebration we can find.
The problem with all of this is that it's putting sticking plaster on people who are already injured and damaged. How did they get that way in the first place? Why do so many people in our society have such low self esteem? Why have they never before taken part in activities that promote solidarity and collaboration? Why do they have such low expectations, low skill levels, low self-confidence? Why have they never sung, danced, played an instrument in a band, cooked well, dressed with confidence, etc? How did they become so inhibited, so overweight, so withdrawn, so apathetic, so unhappy? Why is our society so bad at raising people who are self-actualised, who fulfil their potential?
The people who take part in Malone's programmes invariably thank him for 'changing their lives'. The point is - why do their lives need changing? Why does our society produce so many people whose lives are unfulfilled, unproductive and uncreative? What's wrong with our ways of bringing up children that produces such people? What's wrong with our system of education?
Check out the previous blog, and Mehdi Hasan's column. Start thinking about how we might educate our young people so that they grow up with a personal voice, the habit of creativity, and the habit of reading for pleasure and learning for its own sake. Start thinking about our need to have a national conversation about personal intelligence, emotional intelligence, social intelligence, physical intelligence, instinctual intelligence and spiritual intelligence. Start thinking about our worship of test and exam results and 'the intellect' - and the impact of such worship on underachievement in every other aspect of our lives and our learning.