A place in the sun.

A place in the sun.

Day time television has always looked like a punishment for the unemployed. It is as if this diet of crude pap is put on during the day because it might push those out of work back into the labour market just to avoid the constant reruns of failed programmes. Or perhaps this dross is ladled out because the channel heads don’t care about this audience, thinking they are old or disabled, and knowing they don’t have enough disposable income to warrant expensive advertising. Hence the cheapest programmes are gather together and broadcast to fill airspace.

Unfortunately when I break my working day I stop for a cup of tea and a biscuit and to relax sometimes make the mistake of turning on the TV. I tend to avoid the news channels during the day, as they steal to much of my time, and hence make the mistake of watching the mainstream channels. This has lead me to see the interminable repeats of house renovation programmes, countless Judges remonstrating about the morals the modern world, and far too many tales of neighbours or landlords from hell. But the worst of these, by far, are the repeats of “A Place in the Sun” and related second home shows.

I feel these are the worst because they tend to draw me in. They show wonderful locations and interesting houses which capture my attention, before I know it I have spent half an hour watching a couple buying a second home. But why is this so terrible ?

If you have been fortunate to have avoided these programmes I will explain the format. An elderly, often just retired, couple with a large amount of money decide that they would like a holiday home. They try and appear nonchalant and unassuming while the presenters show them a number of properties which will really suit “you guys“. Usually they see four houses in their chosen location and the presenter try and whip up enthusiasm to purchase within the couples’ usual budget of £250,000.

This is the issue. I am watching a programme in which a rich person is thinking how they will spend a quarter of a million pounds. If the programme followed a man trying to decide between the Lamborghini, Aston Martin or Ferrari we would know instinctively this is the rich buying toys but we tend not to notice it when it is a second home. However, this is buying a home to occasionally live in for fun, perhaps 2 to 4 weeks of the year – this is a toy, not a house.

Had they been buying expensive cars the situation might not have been quite so bad. If you spend £330,000 pounds on a Ferrari Dino GT it does say a lot about you. It says you have more money than sense, little awareness about the plight of the poor, an ignorance of the inequality in our society, and probably also a small set of genitals.

When people buy there holiday home they are also going to have to double a lot of running costs. In days when we are meant to worry about climate change buying something that requires either a long-haul flight or long-distance drive to use seem very unwise. These houses are normally bought in areas much poorer than the area the purchaser comes from, thus they parade their wealth amongst people much less well off than them. This is extreme conspicuous consumption; consumption made all the more conspicuous by being broadcast on television.

Despite the buyers wish to immerse themselves in the culture of the new area they will never be anything other than wealthy tourists. If they want to experience the culture then they could learn the language and take a job working as a cleaner in the town. In many of these areas the second home market is the very thing that is destroying the local culture and turning what were fishing towns, or farming villages, into ghost towns. This market prices houses out of reach for the locals, there is no real need for schools or factories when the population is largely elderly, and off-season these towns are deserted with a large section of the houses empty and shuttered.

Now I am aware that this is ‘their money’ and the people on this show have the right to do with it as they wish. But all of us, as members of our communities, have a responsibility to think of how others may see our actions. If I was to spend a large sum (on the show often 10 times the median family disposable income) purely for my own pleasure I think I would be rather shamefaced. I think the reason the couples on the show look so unassuming and diffident is because they know this. They know it is unbecoming to display your wealth and that there are many ways to gain pleasure from your position of privilege that are not as self-centred or ecologically damaging. I feel a little sorry for them, but I feel angrier at myself for having watched this drivel.

However, this and similar programmes do show the degree to which our society is unjust and unequal and it is a sense of moral injustice that underpins many revolutionary changes. The French were horrified when it was suggested that Marie-Antoinette said “ let them eat cake” on hearing of the peasants starving, the excesses of the Russian royal family helped prompt the Soviet revolution and, more recently, the decadence of the Shah in Iran lit the fuse that exploded the Islamic Revolution lead by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. So, looking on the bright side, perhaps these shows with their bouncy presenters and wealthy participants revealing their wealth and ignorance to the populace might help build the sense of moral injustice we need to force a change. Hopefully.

Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair

“The only cure for vanity is laughter, and the only fault that is laughable is vanity.”

Henri Bergson

My wife was very keen to watch ITV’s new autumn drama “Vanity Fair”. We had seen the trailers and these had piqued her interest and indeed it did look like a well made adaptation with high production values. However, I didn’t share her enthusiasm as I knew little about the book, other than its title and author, and it looked like another boring period drama and unlikely to be to my taste (I remembered the boredom of the Downton Abbey and later Poldark years). However, I also knew it was very unlikely that I was going to win control of the television remote control on those nights and therefore needed a coping strategy.

It then occurred to me – I have never read any William Makepeace Thackery!  I have seen the book many times but its size and weight have always been off-putting.  Casual glances inside the covers, and the illustrations inside, tended to confirm my suspicions that it was too dated and I’d be unlikely to enjoy it. But these trailers made me think, why is this book still successful after so many years?  I could understand its success when it was published in serial form but why are people still reading it ? I decided that rather than wait for the television version I’d try reading the book. If nothing else came of it I could be a smug know-it-all when we watched the program later on.

I am glad I took this course of action. Not just that I read the book but also that I read the book before I saw the adaptation. The adaptation does not do the book justice. The book is a genuinely funny and biting satire. It excoriates the wealthy, the titled, the self-seeking and reveals their failing through their greed, lust, infidelity, duplicitousness,  and vanity. It is a story, as Thackeray says, without a hero – no-one is safe from criticism and ridicule. Much of the writing is dated and the allegories and symbolism, as is much of the humour, relies on a knowledge of both the history of the period (Napoleonic Wars) and classic mythology. I have to confess I was glad I was reading this on the kindle as at a press of a button I could find out details on historical or mythical characters such as the god Hymen (The god of marriage as I was surprised to learn). However, despite this his humour is still wicked enough to cause one to laugh out loud (to the annoyance of my wife as was reading this in bed at night)

The television adaptation does help in that it removes some of the hurdles of the text being antiquated but I fear that it also changes the book such that it looses its heart. Some of the changes I can fully understand. Thackeray was not an abolitionist and he held quite clear racist views. These are clearly shown through the characters of Mr Sambo (‘Sam’ on the television) and Miss Schwarz (who is invisible in the TV drama). I can understand why the racist jokes were omitted but fear that this might suggest that well regarded writers in the past were not tainted with unpleasant opinions. In this book it is important to keep in mind that, although all the characters are sinners, not all men are equal in the eyes of the author. On a similar vein the TV drama seems less able to portray Becky in the harsh light of the text. She is portrayed as a feisty go-getter and we rather skim over her picaresque period of decline, her manipulativeness, her abuse and neglect of her son and her possible role in two deaths.  Thackeray was able to display the shocking immorality of his puppets, it seems that this harder to do in our modern age.

I wonder if this problem of the adaptation is also why the humour fails today, When written its audience would have been well aware of the literary allusions employed by the author. Indeed it is likely most of them would have read about Vanity Fair in ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’. They would have shared a  Christian moral code and would have been very well aware when the characters in this tale transgressed, no matter what sugary words they employed in excuse. The gaps between apparent moral society and the real actions and intentions of the cast would be very clear and I am not sure that this is the case with a modern audience.

There was “no hero” in the tale I read, but the adaption possibly created a heroine to dull the edge of this literary weapon. This did blunt the whole enterprise and the television drama did, as I feared, largely end up as a period drama – lots of good costumes and a fair bit of romantic intrigue. Certainly not the funny biting satire that I had enjoyed reading. Though I did manage to become the smug know-it-all that I had hoped.

5star