Goodbye, South Bank Show!

Going since January 1978, The South Bank Show has finally been choked to death by the all-encroaching polystyrenisation of terrestrial TV. In the shopping mall that is weekend broadcasting, it came to resemble a beleaguered secondhand bookshop — quirky, cranky, unapologetically interesting — in the midst of a wasteland of junk food franchises. And now it’s gone.

And with its goes the second-best TV theme tune ever!  And that’s not faint praise. First place goes to the Alice-down-the-rusty-plughole theme to pre-eighties Doctor Who, which is religious music, as far as I’m concerned. (Third goes to Big Ron for Have I Got News For You.)

There were two criticisms people who didn’t like The South Bank Show had about it. One was that it was always about people you’d never heard of. It wasn’t, but when it was, then — duh, dat was duh point. The other was that it was pretentious. “Pretentious” in the sense of “It embarrasses me when people talk about things with any degree of curiosity or intelligence, so I’ll call them pretentious then run giggling for the exit.” So I don’t care about “pretentious” as a criticism either.

My favourite episode was the Clive Barker interview from 1994. I videoed it and watched it till the tape stretched, went snowy, and got tangled in my VCR. Then I transferred it to audio (having no way of getting it onto digital video at the time), and still listen to it on occasion when I need a dose of inspiration. (You can find it on YouTube, though the sound’s not in sync. I’d quite happily pay good money to have a proper DVD of it.) But The South Bank Show didn’t do much fantasy, nor horror. (There was a J G Ballard episode, and the inevitable show on The Lord of the Rings when the Peter Jackson film came out, but that was about it.) In fact, it hardly ever did the writers, musicians or artists I wanted to see on it. But I still watched it without fail. Even when I knew enough about whoever was on it to know I didn’t like them. I either ended up liking them, or spent a good hour arguing with the TV. Now that’s entertainment! Generally, though, it was just the air of books, art, films, or whatever creative pursuit it was — the atmosphere I like to breathe. I usually recorded it and watched it the following Monday evening, as a welcome corrective to the first weekday back at work. Now what am I going to do?

Well, it’s not the end of the world. Melvyn Bragg is still doing In Our Time on Radio 4 (which gets podcasted — thank you BBC!), and because it’s Radio 4, he can be as obscure and pretentious (or interesting and curious, as I prefer to put it) as he wants to be.

And Imagine… But, no, that’s no substitute. It ought to be, but it just isn’t. To my taste, Alan Yentob puts himself that little bit too much in the picture. Melvyn Bragg always began The South Bank Show with a quick, “Hello, tonight’s film is about so-and-so,” and then we were off. Alan Yentob has to make it a personal journey — his personal journey. We have to have interpolated shots of him wandering around with his hands in his baggy trouser pockets, looking thoughtful. The one Imagine episode I should have liked the most — on Haruki Murakami — was in fact about nothing but Alan Yentob, with no Murakami in it at all. And, yes, Melvyn Bragg did appear again to do the interviewing, but he always asked intelligent questions. Alan Yentob does the interviewing too, but, sorry, he just asks naff questions. Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe it was just the crap theme music which put me off from the start. (I mean, the show’s called Imagine. So why have the least imaginative theme music on TV? Even QI‘s plunky piece of nothing is a step above Imagine‘s. They’ve changed it for the latest series, but I can’t remember what the new music’s like, so it may be an improvement, but it’s still not Variations.)

But there’s BBC4, so that’s alright. It’s not like the demise of The South Bank Show is leaving TV a total cultural wasteland. (There’s the Culture Show, too. A bit magaziney, and it somehow always ends up covering the same subjects as Late Review, but at least it interviewed Alan Moore, which The South Bank Show never did.)

Still, The South Bank Show has always been my favourite, and I’ll miss it. And so, till Melvyn Bragg reincarnates into a younger looking boffin with a redheaded Scottish sidekick… Oh no, that’s the other programme. Oh well, goodbye, South Bank Show!


Mister B Gone by Clive Barker

cb_mrbgoneSeveral pages into Clive Barker’s latest book, Mister B Gone, I found myself thinking, “Ah, I get it — it’s for children!” But I couldn’t quite be sure. It didn’t actually say that it was for kids in any of the publisher’s blurb, but it seemed the only explanation for why Barker’s latest, which starts out with such a grand, attention-grabbing gambit (“Burn this book”!) so soon became… Well, I don’t want to say a disappointment — this is, after all, Clive Barker — but I was, as a reader, disappointed. After all, this is the author of Weaveworld and Imajica, the director of Hellraiser, the creator of Pinhead and the Cenobites — “demons to some, angels to others” — writing what he, of all writers, is surely best qualified to write, the autobiography of a demon, thus taking us to realms of higher (and lower) experience that no other writer can take us to. But what I got was this:

“He worked at the furnaces in Hell and when he got home from the night shift he would have such a temper me and my sister, Charyat, would hide from him. She was a year and two months younger than me, and for some reason if my father caught her he would beat and beat her and not be satisfied until she was sobbing and snotty and begging him to stop. So I started to watch for him. About the time he’d be heading home, I’d climb up the drainpipe onto the roof of our house and watch for him…” [p. 4]

There’s a test Ursula Le Guin suggests putting to fantasy — a “dirty trick”, she admits, but a useful one — in her essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie”. What you do is take a passage from a fantasy novel and swap all the fantasy-sounding names for Earthly-sounding ones. If the passage then sounds totally Earthly, then it wasn’t really fantasy to begin with. If you take “the furnaces in Hell” and “Charyat” in the above passage and swap them for, say, “the local steel mill” and “Charlene”, then what you have is most certainly not the autobiography of a demon. At least, not the one I was expecting from Clive Barker. So I thought he must be writing a book for children, and starting out with a passage that would enable a young teen to more easily identify with the demon Jakabok Botch, who soon takes to writing fantasy stories as a way of coping with the violence of his father and the rundown indifference of his housecleaning drudge of a mother — just as you’d expect in a book written for imaginative children who might themselves take to reading fantasy stories to cope with what life is starting to throw at them. But, as I continued reading, I got too many signs this wasn’t a book for children. Someone was described as having a testicle-sized brain. Well, maybe that would be great for a target audience of teenage boys, so maybe — but no, then we get increasing levels of violence, and sex, so this can’t be a book for children. What, then, is it?

In an interview at Dreamwatch Total Sci-Fi Barker explains his own intentions:

“There was another version of this book that I absolutely didn’t want to write, which was the one which was filled with over the top Grand Guignol scenes and very ripe, salty language — all that stuff. And I’d done that kind of demon before. I’d also done the elegant demon, in Pinhead. I wanted this to be a man with two tails, but the burn marks he receives erase so much of what would have made him demonic. But now his past is making him hopefully a much more accessible character. Because I think if you were to meet him you might feel the kind of pity you would feel for Quasimodo.”

That other version of the book, “filled with over the top Grand Guignol scenes and very ripe, salty language” — that was the book I wanted to read! If you’re going to have a main character as a demon, make him a demon, not just a man with two tails! Otherwise, you might just as well write a book about a man with two tails. At least, then, the reader would know what to expect. Letting the reader know what to expect is half the battle of telling a good story. (Fulfilling that promise is the other half.)

Anyway, I stuck with it. (This review does, by the way, have a happy ending.) The character of Jakabok niggled a little bit longer. One moment he was doing the sort of good-deed-disguised-as-evil you’d expect the hero of the children’s book version of Mister B Gone to be doing — playing nasty tricks on hypocritical priests who preach one thing then go and do the opposite — then, suddenly, we find him bathing in baby’s blood. Quite why he’s turned to doing such genuine, nasty evil is never explained. It’s as if Barker has one conception of the character and I, the reader, have another, and I’m spending the first half of this book trying to adjust mine to his.

Then, at last, at last, things pick up. Botch arrives in Mainz. We get a specific date — 1438 — and for the first time the book actually seems to be set somewhere and somewhen (prior to this, its vague medieval setting could be any age from storyland). A man named Gutenberg has created something that will change the world, and the air is filled with the forces of Heaven and Hell fighting out over who will control this new invention. (It is, of course, the printing press.) What brings Barker’s story alive is the appearance of angels. Suddenly, his demons aren’t just men with prosthetics — they are what the angels are not. We begin to feel vast cosmic forces at war; Botch’s story starts to make sense as a footnote-sized glimpse of a much larger story, one we — along with Botch — get the merest hint of. For this glimpse, Botch is punished (by being imprisoned in a book — the fact that the book you’re reading is not just the autobiography of a demon, but is the demon itself, is one of the more interesting, though occasionally over-laboured, aspects of this story); but not before he gets to understand one terrifying Secret about the war between Heaven and Hell which at last makes reading Mister B Gone worthwhile.

Barker has always written best when he’s contrasting the normal world with a fantastical world of revelations and transformations, recasting the old language of religion to suit a modern world sadly bereft of all that imaginative wonder. Mister B Gone is a book that only finds this Barkerian spark in its last third, after rather too much storyless rambling (not to mention tediously undramatic dialogue, so much of which consists of exchanges like: “Really?” “Really.” and “Today?” “Yes. Today”). But, when the angels appear, when the angels appear…