Books: The Metropolitan Critic — A Poor Report on Violence |
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A Poor Report on Violence

The BBC’s report Violence on Television takes me back to Australia at about the time of the Korean War, when I was wearing short trousers — a certain sign of a non-combatant — and regularly attending the Saturday matinees at the Rockdale Odeon, a picture palace situated only a few miles from where Captain Cook landed but for whose decor he was plainly not responsible. For five shillings of the old-style money you could get a trolley bus there and back, a ticket to the upper deck (which looked like the Titanic going down — there were about a million kids climbing all over each other), two Hoadley’s Violet Crumble Bars (fibreglass dipped in brake fluid), one Polly Waffle (gutta-percha dipped in brake fluid and sprinkled with iron filings), one packet of Fantails and a tutti-frutti in a tub. At the trifling cost of forgoing the trolley-bus rides and legging it for an hour each way you could top off this feast with a packet of Smith’s crisps — crunched up small to last longer — and a box of Jaffas, red sugar-coated chocolate spheres of the size and tensile resilience of ball-bearings that would bounce on a pile carpet and when properly launched through the dark would ricochet off a juvenile cranium with the noise of a Mills bomb’s returning baseplug. It took three or four days of steady comic-swapping to build up a bank of five bob, but it was worth the effort to be properly equipped for the orgy.

You got in there with all this food stashed all over you, the lights went down and it was on: one feature, four episodes from four different serials and sixteen cartoons. The features were of the oriental kind in which Mari Blanchard wore chiffon and George Macready played the Grand Vizier — nobody except the little kids paid them any heed and the Jaffas went past your head in lethal short bursts of Bren-fire. The serials were for laughs and nobody was fooled: we enjoyed the exigencies of their tiny budgets without ever realizing that Susan Sontag would one day show up and spoil it all. But in a whole afternoon of full mouths and worthless footage there was one thing that was adorable on its own terms — the Tom and Jerry cartoons. They stood out from the ruck a mile. They left the Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies for dead, and when that MGM logo went up on the screen there was a roar from the auditorium that stripped the calsomine off the plaster caryatids holding up the roof.

These were the great days of Tom and Jerry: the early crudities were far in the past, the later carelessness was far in the future, Fred Quimby was firmly in charge of production and Hanna and Barbera were personally supervising the most dynamic animation the art form was ever to achieve: they controlled not just the extremes but the in-betweens, the clean-ups and even the inking in every sequence. The results were sensational. Tom took off after Jerry with a noise like an F-l00 cutting in its after-burner and he really flew: there was none of that awful slow lope with the speed faked by blurring the background. When Jerry opened the refrigerator door in Tom’s face he hit it with an impact that looked as solid as it sounded. In the famous tennis match everything was funny because nothing was skimped. When Jerry hit the steel tennis ball it distorted his racket and headed down the court with a deeply satisfying ‘boing’, and when Tom held up his racket in front of a hugely confident smile the ball went through both racket and smile like an 88 mm shell, Tom cracking all over like a Ming dynasty glaze and falling to bits with tinkling perfection.

It was violence (waffles were coming in world-wide at that time and Jerry made one out of Tom’s tail) but it wasn’t sheer violence: other cartoons were just as violent, but they weren’t as funny. Still, Tom and Jerry were violent all right, and I doted on them every week, as did all the other kids in my gang. But here’s the rub. With our trolley-bus fare blued on sweets, we trekked home for miles along Rocky Point Road, our heat-resistant bare feet crushing the spongy bubbles in the asphalt. And at least once and often twice in every one of those weary voyages we were chased and usually duffed up by a pack of under-privileged ragamuffins who couldn’t afford to go to the pictures and who were fifty times as violent as we were. These kids were brilliant autodidacts, whereas I, who studied the stuff formally every Saturday, failed miserably. I’d be bending over copping a Chinese burn and feebly wondering why people were like that. Twenty years later I’m still wondering.

The report falls into two parts: ‘An analysis of the amount and nature of the portrayals of violence in British television programmes, November 1970 to May 1971’ (research conducted by Irene S. Shaw) and ‘Studies of the functions served for viewers by selected programmes containing violent sequences’ (research conducted by David S. Newell). The two research workers have each grown an American-style middle initial but thankfully still fall short of the commensurate sociological self-confidence, and in the text it is engagingly admitted that not much has been discovered. B. P. Emmett, Head of BBC Audience Research, endorses their modesty in his foreword: talking about Part Two, he appears to be bending over backwards to avoid giving the impression that his team has got anywhere. ‘Though the two projects are in a sense complementary, it must be emphasized that no direct and easy relationship was expected between the amount of violence portrayed in a programme and the “effects” on viewers of exposure to the programmes —certainly not in the sense of finding people “imitating” what they had seen. Nor was there any real expectation of finding a “cathartic” effect — that is, an apparent purging of aggressive feelings through identification with the violent behaviour portrayed. The long-term effects, if any, of viewing programmes containing violent action also lay outside the scope of these studies.’

If, after this, the lay reader asks what Part Two did hope to find, let him turn to the relevant tables and conclusions, where he will discover that there is not much connection between the number of violent incidents in a programme and the viewers’ tendency to perceive it as violent. The researchers decided — correctly, if I understand the tables — that no connections could be made. If there is no connection, nothing can be made of it. But I think more could have been made of the lack of it. The viewers in Part Two were asked to judge the programmes according to all kinds of functions: Stupid/Intelligent, Happy/Sad Ending, etc. The monitors in Part One were asked to look at the programmes and count and classify the violent incidents. The inconclusive muddle of Part Two is quite harmless and might even do some good, since it can be drawn upon to stave off the attentions of careerist busybodies. But there is an empiricist complacency about Part One that looms dishearteningly behind its author’s (i.e. Irene S. Shaw’s) diffidence of intention. Certainly Mr. Emmett roundly overstates her case in his foreword when he suggests that her study ‘provides facts (or as many as could be digested) about the violent content of the programmes transmitted and would thus seem to be a prerequisite in the exploration of the hypotheses about moral development, about “desensitizing” and about the symbolic messages transmitted’. I’m afraid that facts are exactly what Part One of the report does not provide, for all its wealth of tabulated data — not, at any rate, the kind of facts with which Mr. Emmett might conceivably arm himself in order to explore hypotheses about moral development and desensitizing. The monitors were asked to separate two things — the context and the incident tout pur — and then, when they had totted up the incidents, to look at the count beside the context. It turned out that the overwhelming proportion of violent incidents were justified in context. But twenty shows turned out to be more violent than the monitors felt was justified, and three of these were Dastardly and Muttley, The Road Runner Show and Perils of Penelope Pitstop!

Now the whole point of these feeble products of the Hollywood animation mills is to bash their characters about: they have violent incidents every ten seconds. But does anyone suppose that the monitors, while applying to these uninspired extravaganzas their sets of empirical criteria, were moved to disgust or to any emotion at all except boredom? Of course not. They were responding on everybody’s behalf except their own — as people tend to do when they are asked to give objective judgments. Unless you have your pencil poised over your classified scale of violent incidents, these three cartoons seem like nothing except a rigmarole of bad drawings and silly voices. Science has lent them an interest they don’t possess.

It seems to me that the methods espoused in Part One of this report must yield trivial results all along the line. The monitors have achieved unanimity in their coding only because the codes are entirely schematic and all questions of aesthetics have been left out, as though they cropped up at the periphery. The whole thing is organized like the Hays Code, in which if a man and a woman lay down on a bed the man had to keep one foot on the floor or it was intercourse. Context and incident are an a priori synthesis, not to be picked apart in so confident a way. All that has been discovered is the comparative amount of violence on television from channel to channel and from time to time: the amount of violence, that is, when violence is what you’re looking for. But as Part Two demonstrates, this amount tends to retreat or even disappear when you are looking at the programme whole. The fallacy of the report lies in the supposition that Part One is hard facts while Part Two is tentative and sketchy. The reverse is nearer the truth, and Mr. Emmett should press for an expanded version of Part Two, so as to deduce a workable set of perceived violent situations which may replace the largely unworkable set concocted for Part One. None of this means that Part One is entirely useless as it stands: it’s just that what use it has is so open to abuse. It’s an encouragement to piecemeal thinking of the type gone in for by switchboard-jammers. For example, it’s quite possible to think of a programme whose hero inflicts pain on his opponents without warning and is finally tortured and killed by the bad guys, thereby infringing several of the categories set up in Part One. The first scene is Christ cleansing the Temple, the last his crucifixion.

The representation of violence, like the representation of anything else, is not susceptible to materialist analysis: it’s the spirit of the thing that matters, and the spirit of the thing can be estimated only by a critical sensibility. For example, the most violent thing I’ve seen on television in the last year has been Reginald Maudling’s serenity. It seems to me that television is on the whole too alienated, too uninvolving a medium to condition adult behaviour: there isn’t much on the box that’s powerful enough to suspend our uninvolvement, let alone our disbelief. Children’s behaviour is another matter, although judging from my own memories I’d say it’s what happens in real life that counts. When footage of actual atrocities crops up on the News, it’s a nice question whether people’s ability to accept it is not more disturbing than other people’s tendency to be revolted by it. In the fictional and documentary programmes it’s mainly a matter of taste and manners: I don’t know whether or not Big Breadwinner Hog was taken off because people complained at its being so violent, but I’m certain that it should have been taken off earlier for being so lousy. Bad artists think art is made out of effects. Good artists know better. It’s up to the Programme Controllers to pick their personnel. Problems of judgment can’t be passed to computers, although it’s sometimes tactically handy to pretend they can.

(Listener, 1972)


Once again I was rehearsing for Unreliable Memoirs, but the subsequent argufying has claims to seriousness that need justification now. The best I can say is that I never found good reason to change my mind about the influence of television, but that I comprehensively failed to foresee what might happen when technical developments would enable people to exercise their freedom of choice by becoming their own programme controllers. My only consolation is that nobody else guessed either. Mary Whitehouse was still wittering on about actors saying ‘bloody’ in BBC drama programmes when the first paedophile videos were being smuggled in from Amsterdam. As always, the censorious spirit was looking in the wrong place.