It's time the media stopped swamping us with juvenile junk, says David Thomas. Then we might pay some attention
We all love a repentant sinner, so perhaps we should thank the Lord that Danny Cohen, head of BBC1, has finally noticed that a few people in this country – 22.4m of us, in fact – are over the age of 50.
And since this generation is rather more likely to be sitting in front of the TV of an evening than the young, who either consume TV online or are off doing all the disgusting things that young people like to do, that means the average age of a BBC1 viewer is also 50. And so, Cohen told an audience at last month’s Edinburgh International Television Festival, “It would be good to reflect that back to people.”
Well, that’s really very decent of you, Danny. And it’s quite a transformation, for Danny Cohen is very much your classic TV executive. He is 37 years old and has spent his entire career chasing after the elusive youth audience by which TV programme makers, film studios and advertising agencies are obsessed to the point of derangement.
His commissions, first at youth-oriented E4 and then at, er, youth-oriented BBC3 have included some groundbreaking (albeit juvenile) drama, such as Skins and The Inbetweeners, and some rather less impressive material including Freaky Eaters and Snog, Marry, Avoid. You’ve got to wonder whether Danny Cohen can possibly have the first idea what the over-50s actually want.
One could say the same about Hollywood movie-makers. They have become trapped by the myth that only young people go to the pictures. As a consequence, the quality of mainstream films is heading towards an all-time low as one computer effects-laden comic strip spin-off follows another. That, of course, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, since no one with an IQ larger than his or her shoe-size would want to watch such rubbish. So grown-ups stay away. And the execs say, “Told you so.”
Of course, this all begs the question: what do the over-50s want? And I have to admit that is as tough a question to answer as the one that defeated Freud: what do women want? And as for women over 50…
But let me speak as a man of 52. I confess that I am beset by a profound contradiction. On the one hand, I want to be seen as a chap who can still keep up with the times. I’ve got fashionable young bands and singers on my iPhone. My Facebook page is busier than Clapham Junction station. My waist size is the same as it was at 30. I haven’t lost my interest in fashion and design. I’m not ready to be a fogey just yet, and I’m not sure I ever will be.
On the other hand, I’ve lived long enough to develop a proper, mature grouchiness about the faddish idiocies of modern politics. I am profoundly uninterested in the kind of trash Danny Cohen used to produce, let alone the absolute vacuity of reality TV such as Big Brother, or any of the micro-celebrities who inhabit that universe.
The cynicism and swearing that too often passes for TV humour strikes me as lazy, juvenile, mean-spirited and, above all, unfunny. (Brilliantly observed, potty-mouthed meanness, as in The Thick of It, is quite another matter.) I find 90 per cent of all club, dance and rap music unlistenable and my idea of attending Glastonbury is to sit on my sofa with a nice glass of wine and a working loo close at hand and watch it on TV.
So how can the Danny Cohens of this world keep me happy? The simple answer is: trust my intelligence. I am of a generation that had a proper education. I’ve been around. I’ve lived through good times and bad. They aren’t great at the moment, but I’m still a mile better off than the average 20-something.
So do me a favour and don’t dumb down your programmes or talk down to me. You may know more about some things than I do, but trust me, I know more about a lot of things than you.
Everyone will have their own checklist, but if you want to know where I’m coming from, Danny boy, go and listen to Blood on the Tracks and Exile on Main Street. Read some Flashman and Elmore Leonard. Go and watch a bit of the West Wing or the new Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Then let’s talk about what you’ve got for me.