Sunday, November 7, 2010

Screen Burned

After more than a decade of writing “Screen Burn,” his generally searing review of British television programming, Charlie Brooker announced recently that he was giving up the column, which appeared Saturdays in the Guardian. While I am a devotee of Charlie’s eccentric Monday columns in that same newspaper, I have seldom read any of the “Screen Burn” articles—firstly, because for most of the decade I didn’t know they existed and secondly, because when I found out about them, I really didn’t see any profit in reading about shows that I probably would never see or want to see.

Alas, in reading Charlie’s farewell “Screen Burn,” (available at I discovered what I had missed. For example, these descriptions of celebrities (hilarious, whether you’ve heard of them before or not):

“Not that I'm saying [Jeremy] Kyle himself is an agent of Satan, you understand. I'm just saying you could easily cast him as one. Especially if you wanted to save money on special effects”;

Nigel Lythgoe was "Eric Idle watching a dog drown";

Alan Sugar reminded Charlie of "a water buffalo straining to shit in a lake";

Ann Widdecombe had "a face like a haunted cave in Poland";

Cilla Black was "starting to resemble the result of an unholy union between Ronald McDonald and a blow-dried guinea pig";

Anthony Maxell was "a man so profoundly thick you could sell him a pair of his own socks for £500, even if he was already wearing them," while his girlfriend Saskia “had a face that could advertise war.”
While not all the persons savaged above by Charlie are content-free celebrities--as discussed in my previous blog entry, “Do You Know Me?”--(Sugar, for instance, made a name for himself as a successful businessman, and Widdecombe is a Conservative Member of Parliament), all of them fall into the category of “television star”—that is, famous (or most famous in some cases) for being on television.


As it turned out, after several years of writing such harsh judgments, Charlie began to run into some of his targets, with an unexpected result:
Once or twice I found myself in conversation with someone I'd been awful about in print, and discovered to my horror that the ruder I'd been, the warmer and more pleasant they appeared to be in the flesh.
Indeed, Charlie found that the above-mentioned Saskia was “lovely.”

Charlie’s discovery about the contrast between the public mask and the private face of the celebrities he met is revelatory, in that it is the opposite of what a satirist deals with (that is, a good mask covering the true evil or foolish face). Apparently, our modern celebrities, in order to promote themselves, feel the need to put on public displays of crassness, insipidity, dimwittedness, and so forth, while underneath it all, they’re nice (at least some of them). Which, perhaps, renders the modern celebrity unsatirizable, because the is is better than the seems.

Or maybe not. Aren’t those privately sweet and nice people deserving of Brookerian invective for lusting so much after fame that they will corrupt their public personae?

And what does that tell us about our modern world, which offers stardom and celebrityship to those who willingly degrade themselves in order to offer us vapidity, crudity, and nastiness?

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