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The rise of Cruel Britannia The British rediscovered their nasty side under Blair

Do their faces look bovvered? (Photo by Ian Tuttle/Comic Relief/Getty Images)

Do their faces look bovvered? (Photo by Ian Tuttle/Comic Relief/Getty Images)


April 29, 2022   7 mins

In a properly ordered universe, there would have been a general election in the autumn of 1994. Certainly the country was ready for change. After 15 years in power, the Conservatives were exhausted, divided and lacking the will to govern. Labour, led since July by the youthful Tony Blair, had a 30-point lead in the polls.

There was a new mood in Britain, evident in the buoyant state of popular culture. It was the year of Parklife and Definitely Maybe; of Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Madness of King George and Shallow Grave; the year when Antony Gormley won the Turner Prize, and when the National Lottery and Loaded magazine were launched; when Harry Enfield’s TV show moved from BBC Two to BBC One, while Paul Merton became the first alternative comedian with a residency at the London Palladium.

Cool Britannia (though the term was not yet being used) was already having it large, and over the next couple of years, Blair clung to its Union Jack coattails. “I am part of the rock and roll generation,” he explained, rather too earnestly, as he made his triumphal tour of awards ceremonies.

By the time he got into power in May 1997, though, it was all pretty much over and done with. The frothy, showy optimism of Cool Britannia was not to be the cultural tone of the New Labour years. It seemed appropriate that Radiohead’s OK Computer was released that month, a much darker, more unsettling vision of modern life than Britpop had offered. More significant yet — though few could have guessed it — Swedish television was airing the first episode of a series called Expedition Robinson.

This was a show developed by British company Planet 24. They’d earlier given us The Big Breakfast and The Word, but this was a very different proposition. This was a game show in which a group of strangers were put on a remote Malaysian island, given tasks to complete, and asked to vote on which of the other contestants should be eliminated from the competition. In its English-language versions, the franchise was to be called Survivor, but the Swedish incarnation was the first to reach the screen, and can therefore claim to be the foundation stone of what would become known as reality TV. And that was the cultural trend that would dominate the Blair years.

The point of reality TV was not that it recorded normal life — as had docusoaps such as Airport or Driving School — but that it invented an environment and dropped people into it, poking them with sticks to see how they’d respond and encouraging them to gang up on each other. “It’s life as a game show,” enthused Granada Television’s controller of entertainment.

In this world, normality was not rewarded, the trick was to distort one’s own reality into attention-winning caricature. This was particularly so after the arrival of Big Brother in 2000, which allowed viewers to play Caesar, deciding who should survive and who be banished. The star of the first series of Big Brother was “Nasty” Nick Bateman; his exposure as a devious manipulator of his housemates gave Channel 4 its best ratings since it premiered Four Weddings and a Funeral.

The influence of reality TV spread rapidly. Unable to compete with the prize money on offer in ITV’s quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, the BBC came up with The Weakest Link in 2000. The sums won were mundane, and instead the selling point was a ruthlessness new to British quizzes; the contestants voted each other off, while the aggressive presenter Anne Robinson abused them for their stupidity, their clothes, their lifestyle choices. It was a “theatre of cruelty”, said Magnus Magnusson, the recently retired host of Mastermind, who came from a kinder era of television. The show’s catchphrase was Robinson’s dismissive “You are the weakest link. Goodbye.” What she really meant, said Magnusson, was: “Goodbye! You’re getting bugger all! Fuck off!”

The press called Robinson “the rudest woman in Britain”, and reported that she was the second-highest paid TV presenter in the country. (Only David Starkey, himself never knowingly polite, was said to earn more.) She insisted that the contestants willingly entered into the bantering spirit of the game. “I’ve never had a complaint from them, only the critics,” she protested. But that rather missed the point of the criticism: that the style of the show was inherently antisocial. “The inference is that it’s incredibly funny to belittle people,” wrote veteran Daily Mail columnist Lynda Lee-Potter. “In fact, it’s the hallmark of the bully and the sadist, and it ruins lives.”

In the same way, it didn’t matter much whether David Cameron minded being asked by Jonathan Ross about his teenage years: “Did you or did you not have a wank thinking about Thatcher?” What mattered was the decline of decency in light entertainment, and in the treatment of politicians.

There was a certain nastiness, a cold cruelty, that was becoming evident in culture. The new stars of comedy were those such as Jimmy Carr and Frankie Boyle, causing tabloid outrage with bad-taste jokes. Or there was sketch show Little Britain, with its blackface and its fat-suits, its skits on vomiting, incontinence and gerontophilia. The most recognisable creation here was Vicky Pollard, the chav schoolgirl who gets pregnant and swaps her baby for a Westlife CD. Similarly the character who made the most impact in The Catherine Tate Show was another chav schoolgirl, Lauren Cooper, with her catchphrase “Am I bovvered?” Mocking the working class seemed funnier now than it had back in the days of Cool Britannia, when Pulp had sung Common People.

“Bovvered” was named the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year in 2006, and the following year Tony Blair played opposite Lauren in a Comic Relief sketch, giving a pitch-perfect performance. “He is one of the finest comic actors of his generation,” gushed Tate, which was overstating the case, but certainly no leading politician had ever engaged so convincingly with popular culture. Nonetheless, it didn’t feel entirely comfortable, coming from a Labour prime minister. It was only a short step from Vicky Pollard and Lauren Cooper to the real-life ridiculing of working-class participants on The Jeremy Kyle Show, Fat Families and Benefits Street. (Frankie Boyle suggested the Jeremy Kyle audience was recruited “by firing tranquilliser darts into Primark”.)

If television was becoming harsher and more coarse, that development was perhaps being driven by the emergence of a rival medium, the first serious challenge TV had faced since its rise to cultural dominance half-a-century earlier. The internet, even in its early, pre-social media days (MySpace and LinkedIn launched in 2003), was already a noisy, demanding presence. Unregulated and chaotic, it could ignore all standards of decency and taste — not just the restrictions imposed on television, but the values at the very core of society.

Far more extreme pornography was easily accessible online then than it is now. Amongst the ugliest was “crush fetishism”, a genre of sadistic videos that showed women in high heels trampling to death small animals, from worms and fish to hamsters and kittens. This came to wider public attention in 2002 when one of the leading practitioners, Tracey Seward, aka Stiletto, was given a life sentence at Manchester Crown Court for murdering her (human) partner.

More generally, animals didn’t come well out of reality TV. The RSPCA objected to a pig being slaughtered on Shipwrecked, to the neglect of chickens in the Big Brother house, and to Rebecca Loos masturbating a pig on The Farm. (“It was horrible,” complained one viewer of this latter episode. “I could barely watch.”) It also stopped the airing of a British version of American show Man vs Beast.

Partly the concern was about dignity — that of the viewers as well as of the animals — but there was also a suggestion that there had been a rise in incidents of domestic animals being abused and tortured. RSPCA head, and former Lib Dem MP, Jackie Ballard said: “People are becoming de-sensitised after seeing stars eat live insects and kill chickens on shows like I’m a Celebrity.”

And beyond even that, there was a fear that, as the case of Tracey Seward had shown, those who abuse animals will not necessarily stop at animals. There was to be a good deal of horrified outrage when a man killed himself in 2019 after appearing on The Jeremy Kyle Show, and the series was immediately cancelled. But it’s also worth remembering that the first person to be voted off Expedition Robinson, way back in May 1997, didn’t live to see the broadcast. He had already committed suicide.

There was, in short, a dark undercurrent to the culture of the time. By the time Jade Goody died at the age of just 27 in 2009, she had been canonised by the media, and the Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury were among those paying tribute, but it was hard to forget the crowds outside the Big Brother house in 2002, with banners saying “Jade, go to Hell” and “Slaughter the Pig”. “Don’t feel sorry for her,” urged the Sun’s showbiz editor. Or, as Germaine Greer was reported to have said in the Newsnight green room: “That fat slag deserves all she gets.” The Two Minutes Hate predated social media.

When he became Prime Minister in 1990, John Major had promised to build “a country at ease with itself”, and Tony Blair — as so often — followed in his path. But the casual cruelty, the mob mentality evident in the reality TV era implied that we were maybe drifting in the opposite direction. The raucous, disruptive tone was all a far cry from the world of mainstream politics, increasingly populated by nice, shiny interchangeable young men in bland suits. And when politics and popular culture drift out of alignment, it tends to indicate a coming fracture.

“More people have voted in recent Big Brother polls than voted in the European elections,” observed Charles Kennedy, and while that wasn’t actually true (more votes, yes, but not more voters), it was shocking that in the 2004 elections to the European Parliament the incumbent government could attract the support of just 8.5% of the electorate. Voters were becoming disengaged. On the other hand, so reality TV seemed to indicate, if people felt that their verdict would actually count for something, they were more willing to participate.

So it proved come the 2016 referendum, when turnout returned to the level of general elections in the Eighties. The era of reality TV was passed now, gone the way of Cool Britannia, but the cruelty remained, directed increasingly at those shiny, young men: David Cameron, the “heir to Blair”, was voted out of the house and found himself a washed-up has-been before his 50th birthday. Big Brother contestants were given a clear warning by producers at the outset: “We tell them they will become the most hated people in Britain, they will never get a job, they will never be taken seriously again and won’t make any money out of it.” Apart from that last bit, the same was now true of politicians.


Alwyn W. Turner is a cultural and political historian.

AlwynTurner

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Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

Am I the only one who thinks Frankie Boyle was himself part of the problem?

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago

Maybe – but having a few comedians who make their living “on the edge” by generic insults seems more acceptable than the act of being directly rude and disrespectful to an individual on live TV.
The Primark scenario above seems a good example.
(Boyle did start going way over the boundaries after a few years though)

Last edited 2 years ago by Ian Barton
Rob Britton
Rob Britton
2 years ago

If there was extreme cruelty back in the nineties then the pendulum has now completely swung the other way to extreme “decency” – which is even nastier!

Katy Hibbert
Katy Hibbert
2 years ago
Reply to  Rob Britton

Never trust anyone who says “be kind”. They’re a Fascist leftard, like Jacinda “Fangs” Ardern.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Katy Hibbert

I have always thought so

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Katy Hibbert

100% correct.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Hmm, you normally make more interesting points than just agreeing with the name calling of your opponents. And however annoying (and worse) people on the identitarian Left are, the word ‘fascist’ ceases to have any meaning at all if everyone calls their political opponents by the same name. No, her politics are not fascist and she was freely elected.

The term ‘leftard’ came into use only a few years ago, so it is difficult to see how anyone could ‘always have thought so’.

As Douglas Murray says in a different context, we seem not even to be able to recall the ‘cultural’ day before yesterday. Which was my main take away from the article; in a few years, what was accepted in popular culture has completely changed.

Terry M
Terry M
2 years ago
Reply to  Katy Hibbert

It’s not ‘be kind’, it’s ‘BE KIND !!! OR ELSE !!! ‘

Katy Hibbert
Katy Hibbert
2 years ago

it was shocking that in the 2004 elections to the European Parliament the incumbent government could attract the support of just 8.5% of the electorate. 

That’s because the European so-called “Parliament” was nothing of the kind – just a talking-shop of stuffed shirts rubber-stamping the will of the Franco-German racket. I’m no fan of “reality” TV, but voting in the Big Brother contest made more sense.

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago

You can argue that societies go through the convulsions of a fin-de-siĂšcle every few generations, when materialism, rationalism, positivism, bourgeois society, and liberal democracy are overtaken by emotionalism, irrationalism, subjectivism, vitalism, pessimism, and the desire for all encompassing solutions.
Blair perhaps picked up on the early symptoms of this social change and surfed it as long as he could. He was ‘a man of his time’.
The backwash of this wave of change is with us today.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 years ago

This series really is a bit of a pile on! The subtitle of this article: “The British rediscovered their nasty side under Blair” isn’t fair. Think of punk rock music – it was pretty nasty long before Blair. I think we need to look earlier and deeper to find the roots of the mocking, negative, nihilistic & nasty vein that has become so prominent in popular culture. Was it such a big leap from Alf Garnett to Sid Vicious?

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

Not so much a big leap as a significant one. Alf Garnett at least believed in something, however flawed. The punks were nihilists, and nihilism is a universal acid, like Dawkins variety atheism — it destroys everything it touches, including itself.

Katy Hibbert
Katy Hibbert
2 years ago

Some of the music was good though.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

Dostoyevsky’s chief talent is his ability to anatomise nihilist twattishness, in my opinion.

Adam 0
Adam 0
2 years ago

I’ve been saying almost exactly this for years! When I was a kid, we all grew up watching the massively popular “Tarrant on TV”. Chris Tarrant would serve up a selection of funny or bizarre clips from game shows and adverts around the world.
In a pre-internet era, the format invited viewers to disapprove of how sexually liberated the immoral Europeans were and laugh at the naff and tasteless TV from South America. However, by far the most popular clips came from cruel and bizarre Japanese gameshows.
They always involved painful and prolonged humiliation of those taking part. This was so far removed from British culture and TV at the time, it completely shocked viewers. My how we laughed at those uncivilised foreigners! Can you believe the things they put on TV…? The shared sense of moral superiority was palpable.
Fast forward a decade or so and just look where we ended up! Desperate Z list celebs being forced to eat Kangaroo s*****m on National TV. Debasing themselves for the tenuous chance of a career relaunch. TV suddenly went from uplifting, something that entertained and educated. To something cruel, immoral and debasing. It most certainly has not ended. Here we remain, suck in a world of shows like Naked Attraction and Love Island.
As Plato taught, a proper up-bringing is impossible in the absence of a morally adequate cultural environment. Why are we surprised that social media so quickly degenerated into a poisonous cess pit of cyber bullying and revenge porn?
As for Tony Blair, whilst he may not be directly responsible for any of the above. He certainly helped poison the well. The deregulation of gambling, 24-hour drinking, an explosion of high interest credit, loose monetary policy and unlimited migration, leading directly to ballooning house prices. Its notable that manufacturing in the UK declined faster under New Labour, than Margret Thatcher and John Major combined. If one were deliberately intent on creating a violent, demoralised, impoverished underclass. It’s hard to think of a more effective policy prescription.

Lewis Clark
Lewis Clark
2 years ago

I agree with Alwyn that the atmosphere in this country seemed to change as we moved from the nonsense nineties to the nasty noughties.

This was the time that was supposed to be the prime of my life (being in my early twenties, and being a freshly minted graduated). But there is no way in hell that I’d want to return to that era.

I sensed this myself, not only in the time of popular culture, but through the evidence I saw through my own eyes in our town centres. My perception is that, more and more, they became places where useful things for the community were disappearing (mundane things, like grocery shops and post offices) were being replaced with things like strip clubs and betting shops – places where sleaze, exploitation and dodgy behaviour are encouraged. There also seemed to be an explosion in mass drunkenness and violence late at night in our towns (but this has always existed in the UK, to be fair (cf. Hogarth’s Gin Lane).

How much of this can be traced directly back to the actions of the Blair government is debatable. But some things that they did could well have contributed to this. Like the de-regulation of the gambling industry – which itself is a close second to the Iraq War as the most morally reprehensible thing that Blair and Co got involved in.

And of course, there was their policy of cheap credit, ‘hands off’ financial regulation and costing up to the super rich. This went much wider than New Labour and the UK, of course, but it finished up with the financial crisis.

I now look back at the noughties like it was watching a diamante encrusted Humvee, crashing and exploding in a giant fireball in slow motion.

Except somehow, only the innocent bystanders were killed and the people at the wheel somehow escaped unharmed.

Betsy Arehart
Betsy Arehart
1 year ago
Reply to  Lewis Clark

Nasty Noughties— very good!

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago

Whilst not a fan of Mr Blair’s legacy, I do think that it is unfair to blame him for all this; the nastiness in popular entertainment began decades before Mr Blair, just look at some of the films that came out in the 70s. I realise that when one looks at the films etc. from the 70s they seem quite tame, this probably because many of us, if not most, have become so coursened over the last 40 or 50 years that we are no longer shocked by what was shocking then. I don’t think that this is a great leap forward in tolerance, I think that it’s deeply saddening; which makes me seem like a censorious pearl-clutcher, I know, but I wish that I had never been exposed to such nastiness. Of course, one might say that no-one forced me to watch, but one doesn’t want to be a “disgusted, of Tumbridge Wells” when in one’s teens and twenties, although I don’t care now, and I will confess to having walked out of a couple of films in the 1970s.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

Not the “Life of Brian “ I trust?

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Absolutely not. By the way you made some comment here about the loss of the comments’ archive, and this comment seems to have disappeared – spooky?

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

Yes I noticed that, and your reply as well. Perhaps even veiled criticism is now verboten?

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago

Those who have been through combat where they have seen friends blown apart, men scream with pain and their bodies rot in front of them: survived death camps,torture chambers, Japanese POW camps, want cleanliness, order and beauty in their lives.
A Grandfather volunteered for the RFC in WW1 after he had been gassed in the trenches. He told me of the risks, when their aeroplanes were outgunned by the Germans. Iasked him why he volunteered. He replied ” A bath. I wanted to die clean “.
A reason who so many people are coarse and crude is because they consider it is being tough and have street cred. The days when middle and upper class men had been taught to box ( especially bare knuckle pre 1860s) and played rugby, so could look after themselves if attacked, are long gone. Arthur Bryant in his history books states how boys and men from all classes were taught to box bare knuckle which included throws, fight with cudgels and sword pre 1860s. Boxing, rope climbing and gymnastics were the mainstay of boys PT classes up to 1939 in all schools. If one is secure in the knowledge that one can give a good account of onself in a fight, a boy or man does to have to be cride or coarse on order to fit in with those who are vulgar.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago

“By the time he got into power in May 1997, though, it was all pretty much over and done with” – that’s not my memory. It lasted a year or two longer than that, albeit increasingly faded and “naff”. In reality the anticlimax of 2000 was the big change, and the year itself was the year that was a premonition and preparation for everything that came later, from reality TV, to terrorists plotting, to US electoral madness and the start of obvious, clear financial speculation and of course Putin’s arrival to power.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Jimmy Snuka
Jimmy Snuka
2 years ago

Pretty easy to flip this and say Britain became nicer as things like racism and hooliganism declined in the 90s.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago
Reply to  Jimmy Snuka

Historiclly Britain has always had a low murder rate compared to other countries, Prof S Pinker has shown some data on this . The countryside has generally been fairly free of murder. The growth of the squalid slums from about 1800 to 1860 caused massive problems. Bradford, perhaps had the worst slum: population went from 6000 1800 to 120,000 in 1850.From 1860s to 1960s murder rate declined and the squalid conditions of Britain greatly improved. By 1960 one could avoid violence largely by avoiding the docks and rough parts of town. Crowd violence in football crowds increased from late 1960s but there was none in those attending rugby league matches or ruby union matches in South Wales.
Glasgow was infamous for razor gangs where cut throat razors were used to scar victims but there were few murders: compare with London and those who have died from being stabbed by knives.
The murder of mostly black poorly educated males from the underclass, largely in their teens and twenties which is gang related by those of a similar background, is largely ignored by middle and upper middle class writers. For example has Unherd commissioned any writers with streecred to investigate these murders? What we have today is a situation where proximity to commissioning editors appears to determine newsworthyness not seriousnes of a problem. Does Britain produce any budding writers such as Orwell who are prepared to live in rough areas and report on the conditions ?

Amos Sullivan
Amos Sullivan
2 years ago

Britian is dying from its embrace of liberalism. They are nothing now but a petrie dish of sick twisted deviates.

SIMON WOLF
SIMON WOLF
2 years ago

The nastiness started with Spitting Image in the 1980’s

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  SIMON WOLF

Or even earlier in the early 60’s with ‘That was the Week that Was’.

Michael Webb
Michael Webb
2 years ago

Expedition Robinson was preceeded by a South African TV series called The Survivors back in 1980 which by nearly 2 decades is, was and always will be the first reality TV series. I state this not to in any way extole the virtues of reality TV – almost certainly the lowest form of “entertainment”, but to set the record straight.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
2 years ago

No one who had gone to football matches in the 70s and 80s would have been shocked by what was mentioned in this article: the racism, the sexism, the mocking of Northerners for their poverty.

Nick Nahlous
Nick Nahlous
2 years ago

I thought the article was going to be about the covert operation in Kosovo, the Iraq War and destruction of Libya.