Never underestimate the significance of ‘significant’

This is a line from ‘Yes, Prime Minister’, where the difference between the phrase ‘no increase in taxes’ is compared with ‘no significant increase in taxes’. The point being made is that the simple inclusion of the word significant changes a very specific and attackable statement into something which is utterly defensible, bearing in mind that there is no definition in this case of the word significant.

I was reminded of this line when I watched the mess that is channel 4’s ’10 o clock show’ last night. The one person that stands out from this car-crash is David Mitchell, the only person that seems comfortable with his role in the show, and consequently is able to flourish. David Mitchell was particularly excellent on the 10 o’clock show last night. I was rather critical of him in a previous post for the fact that he’s become quite so ubiquitous, and particularly for his move from edgy ground-breaking comedy ‘Peep-show’ into hackneyed panel gameshows like ‘would I lie to you?’. It seems that I had misjudged him though, and that this was in fact only a phase, and a necessary part of his metamorphosis into credible broadsheet columnist and political satirist. They say that all great comedy characters are rooted in the actor’s own personality (think Hancock and David Brent), and it’s clear that there’s a fair amount of David Mitchell in Mark Corrigan, his character from ‘Peep-show’. He seems far more comfortable in his suit on the ’10 o clock show’, floppy side-parting and all, riling politicians, bloggers and activists alike. He’s really very quick-witted, acerbic enough without being rude, and the fact that he scarecely bothered concealing his contempt for Sally Bercow gave him a few more plus points. His own monologue to camera was the best bit of last night’s show, and he raised three important points, namely:

1. How political choice is often dumbed down for the public into a simple choice between A (something that sounds good) and B (something that sounds bad).

2. The use of dramatic language to persuade the public of choice A.

3. The fact that the public themselves seem happy with this arrangement, and would rather be spoon-fed choices that are decided by others than to think things through for themselves.

To take point 1, and for those fans of ‘critical thinking’, this is a classic way to strengthen your argument. Offer only two choices, and make sure that one is un-chooseable. For the global warming argument, it’s like offering only the choices of ‘do something’ or ‘do nothing’. Doing nothing clearly leaves us open to the possibility of global destruction, so therefore we must do something, whilst we are left no options withint the ‘do something’ umbrella, and have de facto agreed with whatever the person presenting the choices has already discovered.

The use of dramatic language is a personal irritation, and though I love expressive language, I’d rather the Orwellian option of ‘plus good’ and ‘double plus good’ rather than the plaintives that get bandied around by politicians. Does something need to be done? Stick the word ‘desperately’ in front of the word need, and suddenly the public are on your side. This doesn’t just appply to politics of course, it even permeates as low down as the fast food chain. Beef, tomato and lettuce in a bun? Sounds rank. Tender beef, juicy tomato, crisp lettuce in a fresh bun. Yum.

But it’s not the fact that adjectives are used to sell products or to convince people of political ideology, it’s the fact that we are perceived as being thick enough that these adjectives are all that’s needed for us to be convinced. Sadly point 3 is true in most cases, and until we start to look beyond the simple soundbites and catchy phrases, we will continue to be treated this way. We can’t continue to be fed politics in such straightforward bite-sized chunks, but we need someone to filter the information so that we don’t end up in a catch-22 situation where there’s so much information to digest that we can’t process it to find out what’s relevant. To be able to analyse and evaluate information is the most important skill of the C21; sadly too many papers offer more ‘comment’ than actual ‘fact’, and it seems that many people like to have the thinking done for them, either by the columnists or the politicians. It’s just a case of working out who you think is most trustworthy, and then allowing them to tell you what to think. Despressing.

The ’10 o clock show’ is actually quite thought provoking. Sadly (Mitchell-aside), most of the thoughts it provokes are angry ones. I wonder why it’s ok for Charlie Brooker to lambast Top Gear for its lazy racism about Mexicans but for his own show to poke fun at the Japanese for having funny sounding names. I wonder why they really felt that Lauren Laverne (one-time indie pop-pixie and 6 music DJ) was the ideal person to present a political show, but then seem afraid to let her do anything other than pre-recorded monologues. I wonder why when you’re trying to demonstrate a show’s political credibility by scheduling it at the same time as bbc QT, the guests are of the quality of Sally Bercow and Harry Cole.


A Word of Advice for David Mitchell

Fame’s a fickle thing. Many people manage to stay famous their entire working life; some by re-inventing themselves (Bowie), others merely by the fact that we can’t really forget about them, no matter how hard we try (Princess Diana, and yes, I know she’s dead, though I also suspect that most Mail readers think about her many times daily).

Fame comes late for some people; what did Richard Wilson or Thora Hird do before they were 60? Others find that fame comes to them early, and then leaves them just as quick; note the cautionary tale of Macauley Culkin, or Corey Haim (or was it Feldman?). There seems to be a real problem with over-exposure, and never was this more true than in the 1980s. The 80s spawned the Hollywood brat-pack, who churned out film after film in the latter part of the decade; then the decade ended, and the curtain came down on the career of Ringwald, McCarthy, Nelson and the twin Coreys. Incidentally, lest you think that this happened only in America, and only to glamorous people, the very same fate befel the ‘never-sure-why-you-were’ popular Tony Slattery. His brylcreemed side-parting and lavicious grin were rarely far from our screens, and then…nothing: he’d been whisked away as we heralded in a new decade.

Of course much of this instant fame followed by an similarly instant fall from grace is more about our inability to stick with something and our low boredom threshold than it’s to do with any lack of talent on the part of the performer. We also don’t like to see people at the top for too long (Kevin Costner), and we get bored of the same old face beaming out at us for too long. Some folk do have an uncrushable longevity about them (Forsythe – unfathomable, or Monkhouse – a legend), but most people come and go as we build them up just to sweep them back under the carpet.

And this is what I see immimently about to happen to David Mitchell. Maybe I’ve just been unlucky, but he does seem to be everywhere. What started out as a comedy actor playing a lead role in a funny original sit-com has now become: flogging said sit-com long since it went over the hill, writing an Observer Column, appearing on almost any panel show going and hosting a raft of 10pm-ish moderately watchable nothingish comedy gameshows that seem perfect for the ‘it’s not time to go to bed but I have nothing else to do’ slot. He was undoubtedly funny in peep show (series 1-5), but that was largely because he was playing himself, and we identified with him; his vulnerability and insecurities were there for us all to see, and they were funny whilst at the same time making us feel better about ourselves. Now though he’s gained confidence, and he’s starting to take the piss out of other people. Surely this shouldn’t be allowed; and we’re giving him just the platform from which to do it, with his column, new-found presenting skills and occasional one-liners on mock the week.

Can it last? History is against DM, and my advice is not to over-expose. Get back to playing yourself in sit-coms, written by other people, and we promise to laugh, and mostly with you. Otherwise, you’ll end up like Slattery. I wiki’d Tony S just now, to see what he’s been up to in the last 5 years. Here’s the sum total:

In January 2010, he appeared with Phyllida Law on Ready Steady Cook.

The future’s not bright.