Not having satellite television I've missed a tranch of British and American culture since I've been out of the UK: The Office, The Sopranos, Sex in the City, Friends, Big Brother, Desperate Housewives, The X-Factor, et al. As a result I have no idea who half the people featured in British newspapers and magazines are or what they have done, if anything. It's like pop music and computers and maths; you miss one step in the evolution or equation and from then on everything is a mystery.
Last time I was in Britain I stumbled upon a programme on 'Daytime TV' that I found very disturbing. It centred on a confrontation between a young girl with a baby daughter, her boyfriend who may or may not have been the father of the child and the boyfriend's two sisters who did not like their brother's girlfriend for various reasons. It was a staged catfight: there were tears, insults, shouting, and an almost breathy anticipation of physical violence. The participants were young and, frankly, not very bright. If they were guilty of anything it was surely the fecklessness and foolishness of youth and a misguided wish to have their 15 minutes of fame at any price. It was truly horrible; pure bear-baiting or as I imagine a public flogging might be.
The highlight of the TV programme, if you could call it a 'high', was the outcome of a DNA test. This was dangled in front of the audience like a piece of bread before a starving man. "Coming right up after the break, the DNA results. We'll find out if X really is the father of x". Television producers say those who appear on the show are volunteers and are helped to overcome their problems as if the production company was an offshoot of social services or some benevolent society. What rubbish. It is entertainment. And it appears people are indeed entertained watching troubled fellow being flaunt how foolish and feckless they can be. There are no heads rolling or lifeless bodies dangling from a rope, but it's still pretty gory and bloodthirsty.
I don't think this programme concept has crossed the Channel yet, but sadly it surely will. When the first Big Brother reality show aired in Holland and then in Britain, the French went all superior and said such low-life "trash" television could never happen in France. It did. Of course it did - it was called Loft Story. It was a huge success.
In 1846, Charles Dickens witnessed a hanging. Afterwards he wrote: "No sorrow, no salutary terror, no abhorrence, no seriousness; nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, levity, drunkenness, and flaunting vice in fifty other shapes. I should have deemed it impossible that I could have ever felt any large assemblage of my fellow-creatures to be so odious. I hoped, for an instant, that there was some sense of Death and Eternity in the cry of 'Hats off!' when the miserable wretch appeared; but I found, next moment, that they only raised it as they would at a Play...to see the stage the better, in the final scene."
A journalist who witnessed the recording of another of these reality daytime television programmes recently suggests, 162 years on, audiences are scarcely more compassionate towards fellow human beings. Plus ça change, as they say in the land of cultural superiority.