Daytime TV: Frankly speaking

Gary Day wonders whether gratuitous cussing and killing are the keys to our evolutionary triumph

February 5, 2009

Asking Frank Skinner to consider whether there is too much swearing on TV is a bit like asking Lucifer if there are too many references to him in the Bible (Panorama, BBC One, Monday 8.30pm).

The answer is "no" in both cases. Without the F-word Frank simply wouldn't be funny. But I prefer him trying to make me laugh (don't give up, Frank) than pretending to care about standards in broadcasting. Unless, of course, it was yet another of his jokes I failed to get.

There's a great deal of obfuscation when it comes to obscenities on the box. "This programme contains strong language." Why not just say it's got swearing in it? Because that is off-putting, whereas the other formulation is a challenge.

Frank was disappointed to discover that 55 per cent of viewers thought there was too much bad language on TV. Bad language? I'd be happy with some language. A surprising sentence, a striking image, a play on words.

Especially after the daughter introduced me to Skins, a comedy drama about adolescents. The programme does to English what the teenage party does to your house. "It shows what being young is like, Dad," she explained. In future she is going out with an armed escort.

"Where would we be", asked Julian Bellamy, head of programming at Channel 4, "if we only made TV that never offended^^?" Where we are now, probably. Up to our ears in gratuitous crudity. Instead of making shows like Big Brother, why not create TV that excites, that inspires, that questions?

The assumption that "offence" is essential to cutting-edge programmes is lazy and self-serving. Art is not about how many insults or innuendoes you can cram into the schedule.

Armand Marie Leroi's macabre film What Darwin Didn't Know (BBC Four, Monday 9pm) showed that while some species of programme die out, others take their place. When Darwin arrived in the Galapagos Islands, the first thing he did was shoot some mockingbirds. And then he blew a few more birds out of the sky. And then he blasted many animals off their feet. Edison electrocuted an elephant called Topsy to demonstrate the dangers of alternating current. 6,000 volts, in case you are interested.

Is there too much death on television? There was a shot of a chameleon snapping up a cricket, of a pelican scooping up fish. Armand was filmed in a museum of bones and in a laboratory stuffed with the creatures preserved in formaldehyde. Most living things kill to eat. We kill to know. That and swearing is what makes us triumphant in the struggle for existence. And what have we learnt? That we are descended from a common ancestor, that we pass on our characteristics through genes, and that there may be limits to how far a species can evolve.

The gaps in Darwin's theory are also being closed. How does altruism fit into the struggle for survival? Armand took an axe to a termite hill to show that soldiers die for the queen because they share the same genes. And the fossil record is slowly being completed. We can now show the stages of how the whale evolved from a land- to a sea-dwelling animal.

Which brings us to the Asian-only fashion and beauty boutique in Cardiff (Hijabs and Hairdos, BBC One, Monday 10.35pm). Farrah Illahi is the owner. "In Britain you have more freedom than in an Islamic country, but the man is still boss in the house," she observed.

If she hadn't been a businesswoman, Farrah could have been a good athlete, but her family did not want men to stare at her in shorts. Husbands bring their wives to her shop and wait outside in the car.

Farrah's husband is more liberal. No dress code for his daughters. He too has his own business. Central heating. From the looks of the weather, his order books must have been full. He didn't know what the Welsh meant by integration. "That I should go down the pub?"

That's where most of the characters in Shameless (Channel 4, Tuesday 10pm) spend their time. Unlike the Illahi family, they have failed to adapt to market society. The show portrays an underclass teetering on the verge of extinction. The new series kicked off with a drunk ridiculing the rhetoric of politicians. Make Poverty History? They can't even sort out depriv-ation in Manchester, where the series is set.

A voiceover gave vent to Stella's anxieties. She is the new baby in the Gallagher household. I would rather die than grow up in such "fucking awful surroundings", she gurgled. "No swearing until you're six months," her dad shot back. "I'll stay if you can find one good person on this estate," she giggled.

And they found one. A man who stopped a suicide. It was none other than her fag-rolling, lager-drinking, drug-taking, ever-cursing dad. Whose name, funnily enough, is Frank.

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