Talking Nonce Sense: In Praise of Paedogeddon

You would think an episode of television that set a new record for most complaints to broadcasting authorities in British history – smashing the record previously set by The Last Temptation of Christ – would have been followed by a similarly voluminous body of critical writing. But nearly twenty years after Brass Eye’s 2001 special “Paedogeddon” aired on Channel 4 shortly after a rebroadcast of its first series, it is genuinely astonishing how little shows up in a web search, even on Google Scholar or in academic databases. Virtually all existing commentary on “Paedogeddon” was written within two years of its release, and the vast majority since has been retrospectives (usually pegged to a recent news item or anniversary) as much about the controversy surrounding it as the episode itself. Even though it’s easily one of the finest episodes of television ever made, the closest it’s come to ranking in a list of the best TV episodes, rather than just the most controversial, was when The Guardian bizarrely named it the 37th best TV show of the 21st century separately from the rest of the series. I know history isn’t meritocratic, and there’s no justice in what art gets remembered, let alone what art gets acclaimed. But “Paedogeddon” was a huge cultural event in the United Kingdom, as Sharon Lockyer and Feona Attwood recount in the only academic paper I can find written about it

“Complaints were made to the Metropolitan Police and there was ministerial intervention from Child Protection Minister Beverly Hughes (who did not see the mock-documentary), David Blunkett, then the Home Secretary, and Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell. The government alluded to the fact that it might strengthen the powers of the [Independent Television Commission] to censor offensive programs. Calls were made for Channel 4 to have its license to broadcast revoked and there were claims that Channel 4 could face prosecution under the Protection of Children Act for taking, making, and showing indecent photographs of children. The National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children regarded the program deeply offensive and other campaign groups condemned the program. Channel 4 executives and the show’s producers received death threats and bomb scares were reported at the Channel 4 studios. The program also received a wealth of British media reportage from both tabloid and quality newspapers.” 

The first – and ultimately only – series of Brass Eye had already been hugely controversial when it aired in 1997. A parody of British current affairs programs (its name comes from the BBC shows Brass Tacks and Public Eye) hosted by creator and head writer Chris Morris, it viciously satirised their sensationalist tone, their propensity for whipping up moral panics to keep viewers too scared to turn off, and the willingness of public figures to lend credibility to awareness campaigns about issues they knew nothing about. The producers duped several celebrities and politicians, including sitting MPs, into recording public service announcements for fake issues, most famously a drug called Cake that was described as causing a young girl to vomit up her own pelvis and a young boy to cry all the water out of his body. 

Tricking people into making erroneous or embarrassing statements on TV like this was actually illegal in the UK at the time, and the subsequent amendment to the broadcasting standards that permitted such deceptions in future for entertainment purposes is commonly known as the Brass Eye clause. It not only inspired, but literally opened the legal gates to, a legion of imitators and successors, most famously Sacha Baron Cohen, who spun off his interview segments as Ali G on The 11 O’Clock Show into Da Ali G Show and four spin-off movies. Neither Brass Eye nor its predecessor series The Day Today are the sole ancestors of the alternate reality talk shows, mockumentaries and satirical current affairs programs that have followed: Reeves and Mortimer certainly deserve a bit of credit, and loads of British comics of that era, including several writers on Brass Eye, have cited The Larry Sanders Show as a huge influence. But it’s hard to imagine a world where The Office, let alone The Eric Andre Show, exists without Brass Eye

The series as a whole has fared a lot better in the critical memory than “Paedogeddon” in particular, and I suspect that’s in part because writing about the series as a whole lets you avoid talking about “Paedogeddon” in too much detail. I can understand being hesitant to touch such a controversial episode, especially when its ostensible topic – child sexual abuse – is and will always be one of the most sensitive issues in the world. Brass Eye definitely had a moral viewpoint, but it was first and foremost a comedy program with a pretty dark sense of humour, one of the indisputable peaks of the boom in surrealism, black comedy and shock humour that stretched from the mid-nineties through to the mid-noughties and launched the careers of people like Tom Green, Frankie Boyle and Sarah Silverman. In “a time that has no patience for shock humour, that dismisses it as crass and offensive”, when there are multiple ongoing moral panics about paedophilia, including one that helped inspire a coup attempt in the United States, I get why people would be loath to discuss how much they love an episode of television whose most iconic joke is about a child getting trapped alone in a space shuttle with real child molester and serial killer Sidney Cooke. It’s not nice to be called a paedophile on Twitter because of your television opinions, like the time I said there was an incestuous subtext to the main romance in The Flash because the characters were adoptive siblings and several fans of that romance found my tweet and said I only thought that because I was a child molester. 

Besides, it’s not like it still has vocal detractors anymore either: it has managed, without critical intervention, to assume its rightful place in the pantheon of British comedy among comedians, fans and enthusiasts anyway, so it’s not like there’s any particularly urgent reason to write about it. I understand all that, I do. But it’s still ridiculous that an episode not only this excellent, but so dense and rich with material to analyse, has prompted less cultural commentary in twenty years than the first episode of the next show arbitrarily deemed “important” by enough critics will generate in the twenty minutes after it premieres. 

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Do I Look Like the Kind of Clown That Could Start a Movement?

It’s a pretty old story at this point, but it’s a good one: when Do the Right Thing premiered in 1989, a lot of film critics expressed concern that it would inspire black people to riot. The film follows a day in the life of the residents of a racially-mixed but largely black neighbourhood in Brooklyn that culminates in the murder of a black man, Radio Raheem, by the police. The police came because of a fight between Radio Raheem and the owner of the local pizzeria, Sal, so the onlookers who saw the murder blame him. One resident, Da Mayor, tries to persuade the crowd to walk away, but Sal’s employee, Mookie, played by director Spike Lee, throws a bin through the window. The crowd runs into the pizzeria and smashes up the furniture. One of Radio Raheem’s friends sets it on fire. It’s one of my favourite setpieces in the history of cinema and it terrified several white critics at the time

It should go without saying that none of those fears were borne out. No riots broke out at screenings of Do the Right Thing. And that’s why the story lingers. It’s a story about the racism of white critics, a nice shorthand explanation of how criticism itself is distorted when the field is dominated by people from a narrow set of backgrounds, whether the skew is racial, gendered or economic. But I think it’s worth recognising that when those critics wet themselves over the possibility of a film inspiring real riots, they weren’t only racist. They were also wrong. And not just wrong because riots didn’t occur, but wrong because riots were never going to occur. Sometimes people have rioted about films, like The Birth of a NationThe Rules of the Game or Padmaavat, a Bollywood epic from a couple of years ago that enraged Hindu nationalists and Rajput caste extremists who heard – incorrectly – that it portrayed sex between a Muslim king and a Rajput queen, among other things. But there is no evidence in the history of film that exposure to a movie’s content, as opposed to the mere fact of its existence, has ever inspired anyone to riot. In fact, everyone who has ever promoted panic about art causing violence of any kind has been wrong. They were wrong about Do the Right Thing. They were wrong about Doom and Grand Theft Auto and every other video game. They were wrong about comic books and “video nasties” and Eminem

They were wrong about Joker

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