Month: May 2011

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Give me Alan Sugar over Gok Wan any day…

Melody Hossaini, the apparent lovechild of Galileo Galilei and David Brent, kicks off this year’s Apprentice with a profound statement on the nature of human endeavour.  “Don’t tell me the sky’s the limit, when there are footprints on the moon”, she advises us.  Probably a tip she picked up from the Dalai Lama, by whom she was ‘personally taught’ along with ’12 other Nobel peace prize winners.’

Hooray!  The Apprentice is back, and this series looks to be just as glorious as the previous ones.  There’s £250k on offer from the big man, and twelve weeks of human tragedy, drama and all-out absurdity to savour, with a business lesson given away free with each episode and perhaps unusually for this type of show, it’s the candidates that spout the motivational rubbish and not the so-called ‘expert.’

“Self help through the magic of television” is pretty standard on fare on our screens.   I’ve worked in this genre for many years and I do believe there are many truly helpful and insightful programmes of this type.  Television experts can often offer a unique perspective on a problem and the directness of the medium means it can often achieve results when other methods fail.   But there is one particular strain of TV self improvement that leaves me cold.  The Empowering Programmes.

Any mention of empowerment in the pre-titles of a television show is a surefire clue that something demeaning is about to take place.  It’s a word that nobody ever uses unless they are about to do, or more commonly, persuade someone else to do, something undignified or unwise. The verbal equivalent of an Andrex advert, rebranding wiping your bum into a litter of cute puppies.  And there is one TV expert who has no equal in the Dark Arts of Empowerment.   Gok Wan.

How to Look Good Naked, Wan’s flagship show, is, in many ways, like the most memorable Apprentice episodes, the Kosher Chicken or the Pantsman ones, in which the candidates take it upon themselves to do something which can only be described as a Very Bad Idea. The ensuing hilarity is best watched in the ‘turned away from the screen, hands covering eyes’ position shouting “oh God! No!”  repeatedly, until ‘Lord Sugar’ steps in and puts an end to the cringefest by telling the candidates that their idea was “blahdy stupid.”

In HTLGN, the contributors also run headlong into acts of dizzying foolishness, but in their case, rather than Gok’s rescuing them from their unfolding indignity, he’s the one pushing them into it in the first place.

For anyone unfamiliar with the format, the basic shtick is as follows.  A woman (invariably a woman and more of that later) is living a life of drudgery or tragedy, often involving some combination of a bad marriage and disfiguring surgery.  Loathing her life and her body, she calls in Gok, who turns up in the self-righteous manner of a fourth emergency service.  After a bit of shilly-shallying with emotional journeys and suchlike, Gok somehow manages to convince the woman that the best way to solve her 40 odd years of complex psychological issues is to remove her clothes and march through a shopping centre, naked.

Astonishingly, not only does the woman actually agree to this loony plan, but also, in what can only be some variant of Stockholm Syndrome,  more often than not, falls in love with Gok  for suggesting it.

Given that ‘Naked in a Shopping Centre’ is a scenario that for most of us is drawn directly from Page 1 of the Bad Dream Book, in between “Naked in School Assembly” and “All my Teeth Have Fallen Out”, it does beg the question as to how on earth Gok repeatedly manages to carry out this triumph of persuasion over human reason.

The first step is always a naked therapy session. The woman strips down to her bra and knickers, then stands under powerful fluorescent lighting in front of a 360 degree mirror.  “What do you think about what you see?” asks Gok.   At this point, confronted with the sight of her drooping boobs or flabby stomach reflected back at her in triplicate high definition, the woman usually breaks down in tears.  She hates her body, her marriage, her life.  Gok composes his face in a mask of powerful empathy, then grabs at her breasts and bottom and tells her, usually inaccurately, that she looks fabulous.

He then gets some giant naked pictures of her printed up, and touts them around town, cornering teenage boys and strong-arming them into trotting out a few unrealistic compliments.   By this point, the woman is well on the way to emotional recovery, repeatedly telling the camera how empowering she finds the whole experience of being patronised by a bunch of teenagers.   Then the Saviour of Modern Womanhood buys her a pair of magic knickers, teaches her to knot a jaunty scarf around her neck and having healed her thus, he pats her on the bottom and sends her off to Romford Shopping Centre to parade naked in front of a crowd of roaring admirers.  While he watches, fully clothed, from the sidelines.

I know that I am alone in finding this whole pantomime deeply unpleasant.  Most people seem to view Gok as a feminist hero and women queue up to appear on his shows.   But to me, Gok’s shopping-centre shenanigans are not much better than the swimsuit section of a 1950s small town beauty pageant, and his faux-empathy and patronising tone are a lot worse.  At least the pageant girls retained a little dignity.

It is no accident that Gok’s victims (or ‘Gokettes’ as he nauseatingly refers to them) are all women.   Women, unlike men, are still judged primarily on how they look, and in particular, how they look naked.  And instead of doing anything to challenge this assumption, to suggest that there might be any other criteria for confidence or self worth, Gok reinforces it.

He puts women’s bodies up for public appraisal and judges their worth on the result.   The only difference is that he widens the net a little to include more body shapes, and stacks the deck to make sure that no one says anything nasty. I’m all for body confidence, but asking people to judge your naked body on the street is not empowering, it’s demeaning.

Lord Sugar’s tough-talking boardrooms are about as far as you can get from Wan’s kissy-kissy therapy love-ins.  But ultimately I believe that Sugar pays his candidates more genuine respect.  Despite his gruffness, or perhaps because of it, Sugar is never insincere and he doesn’t patronise.   And crucially, he doesn’t ask his apprentices to do anything he hasn’t, or wouldn’t do himself.  It’s “I got my start in life selling beetroots out of my van, now I want you to go and sell beetroots.”   If the candidates then choose to then go and do something silly, that is not Sugar’s fault.

I can guarantee that you will never hear Gok Wan saying: “I launched my career parading through Essex wearing nothing but a  garland of feathers on my penis.” And the reason for that?  Because doing so is a blahdy stupid idea.

It does matter that we can’t speak freely about the Royals.

The Royal Wedding, watched by an estimated 2 billion people worldwide, was a viewing sensation rivaled in popularity and majesty only by YouTube triumph ‘Charlie bit my Finger’

And of course, despite sustained grumping on the subject, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole shindig. The ludicrous hats and morally questionable Heads of State.  The cute choirboys (fetchingly offset by a heavily-perspiring Ken Clarke) and Tara Palmer Tomkinson’s smurf costume.    Nestling somewhere between loopiness and solemnity, there is little on earth so gloriously fanciful as the British monarchy let loose on a wedding.

Like most of the rest of the country, I welled up as Michael Middleton walked Kate down the aisle, and got goose bumps as she and William trooped out of the Abbey as husband and wife.  But there was one thing about the whole spectacle that I found distinctly sinister.

The week before the big day, I heard Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Lynne Owens interviewed on Radio 4.  She said (and I paraphrase) that the police would be dealing very robustly with protesters at the Royal Wedding and that arrests would be made.  The Met had already denied permission to a couple of groups to stage protests outside the Abbey.  And Owens wasn’t just citing security concerns, but also etiquette ones.  She went on to say that even peaceful protest was not ‘appropriate’ on the day of the wedding.  The people had the other 364 days of the year to exercise their freedom of speech and that potential dissenters should steer clear of Kate and Will’s special day or risk being dealt with harshly.

So why is that a problem?  Surely anyone who is enough of a meanie to want to disrupt our glorious moment of national celebration should be arrested forthwith and forced to live out the rest of their days with Brian Haw in his shanty town in Parliament Square?  Well- maybe.  No one likes a spoilsport.  But here’s why it matters.

In this country, culturally it feels as though we live in a democracy, and can take for granted all the rights and freedoms that go along with that, in this case the right to freedom of speech.   But in actual fact we don’t and we can’t.

With no written constitution we have no democratic rights at all. Furthermore, our monarch still technically has some pretty sweeping powers.   In fact she has the right to do any of the following:  appoint anyone she chooses as the prime minister; dissolve parliament at any time; dismiss the government of the day for any reason or none; and veto any piece of legislation passed by parliament.  So that potentially covers most areas of public policy.

So in theory, the only thing preventing the Royal Family turning British law into its own personal plaything, is a gentlemen’s agreement that goes something like this:  The royals can enjoy their toothpaste-squeezers and casual racism in peace, as long as they accept that their role is purely symbolic, that the Queen doesn’t ever use any of her supposed powers and that they stay out of anything that actually matters.  And for the most part, the system works well.  In fact, it’s hard to believe that what looks on paper like a constitutional car crash has given rise to such a fair, liberal and moderate society.  But that only works if everyone plays by the rules.

We have no idea to what extent the monarchy was behind the decision to ban protest on the day of the wedding.  Whether the Queen sat on her throne issuing proclamations to stop the filthy commoners spoiling her grandson’s day, or whether it happened in a tedious series of meetings between Palace PR flunkeys and the Met.  Or whether it was simply a case of the police pre-empting what they thought the Royal Family would want.  In a way it doesn’t matter.  The point is that the wishes of the monarchy were allowed to take precedence over the democratic freedoms of the people.  And that is a slippery slope.

Because unlike in America or France, the freedoms of democracy are not guaranteed to us, we need to guard them extra closely.  Which means ensuring that we can protest when we want to and not when the police or the Crown tell us we can. Not just when it won’t spoil the view, but when it is most politically apt.

It’s a minor point, but it’s the little things that can be the most insidious, because nobody notices they are happening. Freedoms get eroded gradually, without our realising they have gone.

Because ultimately it’s not democracy that will be the loser here.  Given a genuine choice between democracy and the monarchy, even pretty ardent Royalists would probably choose the former.   If the Royals stray too far from the basic social contract and truly start to trample on our democratic rights, it could be their undoing. Which would mean no more golden carriages.  No more bugles.  No more bunting.   And I for one, think that would be a shame.