The reality TV show we call Britain. Bits of it even work


Kenneth Roy

On Sunday night, 12,000 people assembled gallantly under one snow-covered roof in Birmingham for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year awards ceremony. My first thought was to wonder how they all got there. In the front row sat David Beckham, about to receive a ‘lifetime achievement’ award at the great age of 35, with his glamorous wife and three little Becks. One supposes they are rich enough to have their own intergalactic space machine impervious to mere weather systems. Perhaps Cruz has a personal missile. But what about the remaining 11,995 people in the auditorium, the also-rans, who were not called Beckham and who had to depend on such inferior craft as private jets?
     All weekend, we had been assured that conditions were impossible, airports closed, roads a joke, trains experiencing power malfunctions at Peterborough. The police in their usual irritating way were advising us not to leave the house unless our journey was ‘essential’ – it’s now feeling like an arrestable offence to venture as far as the Co-op. Yet, somehow, 12,000 sports personalities had managed to find their way to Birmingham for the ‘biggest’ awards ceremony ever organised by the cash-strapped BBC. It was a three-presenter gig – Sue, Gary and someone nearly called John Humphries – and felt like a dress-rehearsal for the big one in late April, minus the prayers. Only Huw Edwards was missing. To say nothing of Dai Rees.
     I didn’t hang around, but discovered that the main award was won by a jockey, that the runner-up was Phil the Power (clearly not a train stuck at Peterborough, then), and that the highly commended was one of the remaining 61 snooker players who deny any wrongdoing. I am exaggerating. Slightly.

Better still, might he not be persuaded to become a Liberal Democrat working peer? ‘Nice to see you, Lord Steel of Aikwood, to see you nice….’

     The night before, despite the blizzards in London, there was another packed house for the final of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, transmitted live in two sizeable chunks separated, appropriately enough, by a drama set in a hospital. I watched the dance show from start to finish, mainly to try to work out what Billy Connolly’s missus, a Beverly Hills psychologist, was doing in it. I failed to conclude to my satisfaction the deeper meaning of her participation – it must rank as one of those aberrations too baffling to deconstruct when we have so much else to concern us in the preliminary stages of the new ice age.
     But again the full attendance was impressive as well as surprising; that, and the fact that Bruce Forsyth was still alive at the end of the night. Can’t they give the poor man the knighthood he covets before he snuffs it? Better still, might he not be persuaded to become a Liberal Democrat working peer? ‘Nice to see you, Lord Steel of Aikwood, to see you nice….’
     The judging panel was masterly in its construction: the hard-to-please guy who’s big on illegal lifts, the old geezer with the flu who remembers the first-ever ‘Come Dancing’ when Stan the bricklayer from Darlington and his wife Doris pulled off the winning tango, the young lovely in the red dress, the wildly camp continental bouncing from his chair with enthusiasm. Only Lembit Opik was missing. To say nothing of Dai Rees. But, on this occasion, the judging panel’s opinion counted for nothing. The decision was left to The Great British Public, which quickly eliminated Mrs Connolly (the judges’ choice) in favour of lither, younger movers.
     There was an eight-minute gap between the last dance and the announcement. During this brief interlude, scarcely time for a small dry white wine in the crush bar of a West End theatre, a woman once tipped as a future Conservative prime minister and a semi-retired magician – spot the difference – joined other rejects from ‘earlier in the series’ in a final gyration prior to the national tour. The woman was referred to with some affection as ‘Widders’. No doubt the Right Honourable Vincent Cable, secretary of state for business, following his guest appearance on the Christmas special, is destined to be remembered fondly as Cobblers.
     Such is the speed of our information society, this eight-minute gap was long enough to allow the votes of the viewing millions to be aggregated. Kara, formerly of EastEnders, and her Russian boyfriend were promptly crowned the winners. Neither Bruce nor his sidekick, a statuesque blonde from oop north, divulged the actual votes received before the telephone lines were declared, like everything else this month, ‘frozen’. Were I of a suspicious bent, which I am not, I would be demanding an Ofcom investigation. Instead I am content to accept that the information society worked another small miracle.
     It was, indeed, a weekend of miracles in the reality TV show we call Britain. Wherever you looked in one version of the show, every seat in the hall was occupied, every mode of transport delivering its occupants punctually to the correct destination, every vote counted, every episode starting and finishing bang on time, a Britain in which even Peterborough was fully operational. In the service of so little – a jockey here, Phil the Power there, Kara and her Russian, that sort of Ruritanian thing – Britain had achieved an enviable and apparently effortless efficiency. Was this the ‘real’ Britain?

I read, too, that the man behind reality Britain, the fantasy one that works, Simon Cowell, is to be decorated in the New Year’s honours – possibly with a knighthood.

     In another version of the same show, nothing seemed possible any more. Thousands of people were stranded in an airport that had not seen snow for several days. Some, the lucky ones, were given a blanket and a glass of water, reminding us how un-cooperative prisoners used to be treated. The scene inside the terminal building was so squalid that the television cameras were forbidden from entering and the inmates were reduced to sending the BBC footage from their mobile phones, samizdat-style. ‘The pictures they wouldn’t allow us to take’, intoned correspondents from the war zone.
     Inside the prison, the information society, so swift in totting up the votes on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, had broken down. The most frequently heard complaint was that there was ‘no information’. If you went on the phone to any of the airlines, you were advised to contact them on the website. If you contacted them on the website, you were told to phone. Then the line went dead. This is how it works, or doesn’t work, in the real reality Britain, where too much reality is impossible to bear.
     Meanwhile, Kara has introduced her new boyfriend to mum and dad. He’s been in the family kitchen, making them dinner. Or was it lunch? I think this is true. Well, I read it in the papers.
     I read, too, that the man behind reality Britain, the fantasy one that works, is to be decorated in the New Year’s honours – possibly with a knighthood. Arise, Sir Simon.
     In the face of this disappointment, Bruce Forsyth is understood to be keeping his chin up – a not inconsiderable one in his case.

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.