News Dramas Mea Culpa

Scandal upon Scandal : political, personal, showbiz, crime

I’ve already established that I hate big Grand Narrative Political News Dramas in the post News Dramas, but I wasn’t entirely being honest. I hate the big political news dramas because while they’re current they never end. They keep rolling on disturbing the peace like a game of musical chairs where you get executed or accused of a crime against humanity when the music stops. Wars, uprisings, riots, raids – all of these things are not good for the things I love : home, sleep, socialising and animals.

But there’s another containable type of News Drama that I love even when I think I’m appalled by it. The domestic kind. Crime, showbiz, scandal – labyrinthine intersections of personality, shocking events, lifestyle, career, family and friends – especially the ones with shifting sympathies, comedy elements, or outlandishly uncertain outcomes.

In a way they’re more shameful because the participants aren’t just statistics or mascots, their lives are subject to a huge amount of scrutiny. It’s almost as if we’re trying to fortune tell by sorting through their entrails like an ancient tribe.

When I was very small (about 10) I thought a person’s private life was the most boring thing about them. I remember furiously wading through a book about John Keats tutting at every mention of his girlfriend Fanny Brawne thinking ‘tell me how he wrote those damn poems because I haven’t a clue’. I had zero interest in his romances. I didn’t turn into a shocking gossip-hound till I was well into my teens and I realised I was going to have to develop some sort of adult lifestyle and/or career. I was bewildered. Is life a Disney movie or a slasher? What’s normal? What’s terrifying? What steps should I take? I began to scan all available materials from newspapers to biographies to conversations overheard on the bus for ideas.

Fanny Brawne in Jane Campion's film Bright Star

None of the ideas made any consistent sense no matter how hard I tried to shoehorn them into a pattern. Humans are weird and I was interested in everything. If only I’d stuck with Karl Marx or Jesus Christ and filtered every thought through their ideology – but I had to pick five million Beatles biographies, Hollywood Babylon and the Brothers Grimm. I made my head like a Disney Slasher movie – full of wildly optimistic relentless dread.

The Beatles biographies were unsettling in that every book has a slightly or hugely different version of the same basic story. People who featured heavily in one book would be entirely missing in another. John Lennon can veer from being a nice guy slave to Yoko Ono to a closet gay murderer, Paul McCartney can veer from a nice guy who did his best for the band, to a bad-tempered authoritarian stingy wife-beater. You don’t need Jacques Derrida to become a post-modernist just try reading Albert Goldman, Norman Stone, Hunter Davies, Ray Connolly and all the rest. Or read Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon with the vicious pictures of old, dead, ugly stars and then watch their sugar-sweet Golden Age films. Or read the children’s version of the Brothers Grimm and the adult version. Someone is lying to us and no one knows who.

The Beatles : How evil were they??? etc...

My tiny brain having been busted I turned into a callous fishwife.

‘Ooh, did you hear that one about the murder/suicide/kidnapping/love rat/feud??? I mean I don’t approve, tell me more… it’s only in the media, isn’t it?’

I think I got the showbiz dramas confused with reality t.v. and thought the stars had more or less volunteered for the exposure. Everything from The Primrose Set (Kate Moss, Jude Law, Sadie Frost, Nicole Kidman, THE NANNY!) to 2005 the classic year of celebrity meltdowns (Tom Cruise jumped on a couch, Mel Gibson’s racist rant, Michael Jackson dangling baby Blanket from a window) – all hilarious grist to the mill, no real agony included. And some celebs have volunteered – Katie Price, Jade Goody (in life and in death), Kerry Katona, Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian – none of these women would have a public profile without personal dramas. The line between what they set-up and what’s set-up to trap them is highly blurred. When is it ok to treat it as a soap opera – ‘that’s what I do dahling’ – and when is it gross intrusion? And are they helpless pawns or true professionals? Or true professionals that break down under the stress? Or helpless pawns that get savvy?

The true crime stories are darker – the girl from a nice area killed by a nice-seeming professional with a secret violent porn addiction who blamed it on the eccentric landlord; the parents who left a child in an unlocked holiday apartment who had absolute faith that massive publicity would lead to more than random gypsies being accused of kidnapping on the grounds of being too brown; small boys murdering other small boys and being reformed or not reformed by pandering or hounding; and many many child abuse scandals that are half the rolling political news dramas I don’t like, and half the domestic ones I love – or I would love if it wasn’t child abuse.

The juggernaut that is the Misery Memoir Genre is not my favourite thing.

The political side is a witch-hunt. Many left-wingers and right-wingers finally finding a type of sex they both despise – one because it’s an abuse of power and can bring down the powerful, the other because it’s corrupting, ungodly and plain not right.  On the personal side, we’ve all been vulnerable children, and most of us will be parents. Something like it might be why we’re unhappy with our present lot in life, or it might be something we have to protect our loved ones from. It’s also – and this is a massive taboo – slightly pornographic. In your imagination it would be quite easy to replace the child with a gothic heroine, and the abuser with a gothic villain. For my taste it’s all a little like grooming a new Rose West.

Not my thing : pic nicked from a great article by Alison Flood in The Guardian.

Which isn’t to say everyone is as equivocal as I am.

My mother has a deeply sincere melodramatic attachment to news characters. She adores the Royal Family and was shattered when Princess Diana died ( I still find it hard to believe that Britons cried in the streets, approved of Earl Spencer starting a family feud in a eulogy and clapped a coffin); she idolised Pope John Paul II for his lost love, his bravery in the war and his kissing of international runways; she talks about all old stars as if they live up the road : Joan Collins, Elvis Presley, Dirk Bogarde… In many ways she’s talking about her own life and hopes through people famous enough to have a beginning, a middle, an end and a moral in a way that our own sloppy, obscure, meandering lives never can.

Which is why – guilty as I feel – it’ll always be my guilty pleasure. No matter how much the victim squirms and flails in the spotlight. At least until I find my right true path, one I can stick to. 

Lindsay Lohan, all scandal & precious little career.
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