Whatever one’s opinion of the Showtime/Fox TV series Homeland – I personally have been hooked since Season One, but am not an uncritical fan – you have to wonder what went wrong with the spellcheck for episode one of season five, which I watched last night. How, I asked, or rather spluttered, as such things reduce me to a splenetic geeky wreck (I blame my father – whose fetish for ‘correct grammar’ and so forth left an indelible impact – or emotional scar – on all three of his children) can no one have noticed that the title contained a spelling error? SEPERATION ANXIETY is the title of episode one, according to Amazon Prime, and as any fule kno, seperate (for separate) is the second most commonly made spelling mistake on the internet (after ‘loose’ for ‘lose’). In fact my autospell thingy has just corrected my spelling of ‘seperate’ (twice now) as if to prove the point, if it needed proving.
Mrs Blanco is used to these outbursts, and once I’d calmed down we watched the damn thing – although the 50 minute episode took the best part of two and a half hours, over two sessions, as the broadband width is so measly here in the village that watching anything online involves a Zen-like acceptance of things as they are, even if this includes staring at a still of a gurning Claire Danes for ten minutes while the Circle of Death does its turning and the buffering buffers. A charming Peruvian technician has come out from Spanish Movistar (can anyone ‘come out’ from Movistar, I wonder?) on at least three occasions, but he claims, apologetically, that nothing that can be done, that the state of our wi-fi is irremediable, since we are, and I quote, at ’the end of the line’, i.e. a dead-end, the last village before France. I’m not convinced. Even with my (very) limited knowledge of technology, does broadband width depend of whether you are at the beginning, the middle or the end of the line? Does it just Peter Out, like the failing legs of a long distance runner?
Weirdly, in reviews and online summaries of the episode the spelling has been corrected, but not on the title credits or on amazon video.
In the old days the notion of noblesse oblige demanded that the privileged and powerful act responsibly toward their underlings. In theory, at least. In practice things were not quite so sweet. Watching Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, I am reminded of these finer sentiments by the character of Christopher Tietjens, played with a superbly quivering lower lip by the actor Benedict Cumberbatch. A landowner or other employer, says Tietjens (more or less), must treat his staff fairly, and if he doesn’t – if he abuses them or cheats them – he should be sent to prison. It strikes me as a wonderfully anachronistic point of view, and in the story – which at this point is just prior to World War One – Tietjens admits as such. He knows he is an anachronism, but that doesn’t stop him believing what he believes.
How we have moved on. The triumph of capital in the face of worldwide wage slavery, of base greed over pride in one’s work, of mass-produced baubles over craftsmanship, the love of filthy lucre over all other considerations, finally exploded in an orgy of fervor in the Thatcher-Reagan years, and has never looked back, even after the so-called financial crisis of 2008. Well, it took a short break, but many of its worst practitioners simply saw the crisis as an opportunity, and nothing of any significance has changed. The poor have got poorer and the same politicians and gangsters are in place, the same pigs spoiling for the best spot at the trough.
However flawed the society mourned by Christopher Tietjens in Madox Ford’s great novel, and the recent TV series, it sustained the quaint notion that power comes with a responsibility towards others. The grab-it-all, get-rich-quick free-for-all that got properly underway in that awful decade, the 1980s, shows no sign of abating. You do well, therefore everyone else can go to hell. Watching TV’s Made in Chelsea the other night alerts me to the likelihood that none of these young millionaires seems to have any concerns other than his or her own self-promotion or self-interest. None display any concern about the plight of people less privileged or less lucky than themselves, or even to mix with such types, unless they are servants. I guess they have been brought up that way. Or perhaps it just makes better television if they are displayed, almost unvaryingly, to be selfish, preening fuckwits. Who knows. Who, indeed, cares.
All of which I am thinking, abstractly, while reading in bed, when I come across a passage in an essay (on another theme entirely) by Phillip Lopate: “The least we can do . . . is to register the expectation that people in a stronger position be kind and not cruel to those in a weaker one, knowing all the while that we will probably be disappointed.” I guess that is the least, the very least, we can do.
Blanco was a big fan of The Wire, David Simon’s epic account of life among the drug dealers of West Baltimore, with its startling portrayal of a city going under the cosh as the forces of unrestrained capitalism are let loose on the poorest and the most vulnerable sections of society. Series 4, on education, has to be the most astonishing and powerful thing I’ve ever seen on television. The part taken by British or Irish actors is not insignificant either: Dominic West, Idris Elba and Aiden Gillen all have major roles in the show.
The other night I watched the first episode of David Simon’s latest offering, Treme, which we have had hanging around the house for months, but have not got round to viewing. It begins, like The Wire, in a wholly unintelligible manner (subtitles help, but not too much). Simon claims he does difficulty on purpose, so as not to appeal to the lowest common denominator: “Fuck the average viewer” is the precise phrase he expressed on a BBC2 Culture Show interview.
Anyhow, a few minutes into episode 1, a scene takes place between Creighton Bernette, a real-life activist played by John Goodman, and a TV journalist, who is supposed to be British, but whose enunciation leads me to think he is an American actor doing a bad British accent. Plummy, stuck-up, arrogant: the type that American audiences love to hate. There is a batch of them in Madmen also: the Bad Brits, the Redcoats, the Enemy. All of them sound like superannuated aristos on a whisky binge. They are coarse, creepy and cruel. I don’t get it. If this is the common perception of US TV producers, then this is the cultural stereotype that the American public most wants to see, and they clearly don’t like us much. So much for the ‘special relationship’. It also seems incredibly outdated, a bit like a British equivalent of grossly overweight and ignorant Americans wearing check trousers, chewing gum and driving enormous, gas-guzzling chevvies.
But the weirdest moment of all in The Wire is when old-Etonian Dominic West is required to do a ‘British’ accent (as if there were such a thing) in series 2 , because he goes to work undercover in an illegal brothel. It is hilarious, because West, rather than doing the accent naturally, enacts an American doing a Brit. Extraordinary. Here is the moment when the idea, as usual the brainchild of the cop played by Clark Peters (himself a British resident for many years) comes about: