September 27, 2013 7:12 pm

Another Saturday night at the Colosseum

‘After decades of decency in mainstream entertainment, we seem to have reverted to shows that promote casual cruelty’
illustration of a singer in Roman costume©Illustration Lucas Varela

For reasons I can only ascribe to blatant prejudice, I am struggling to sell my idea for a new TV series called Let’s Laugh at a Loser to Channel 4 and ITV. They also inexplicably rejected Mock a Fat Girl and Sell Out Your Friends. It’s a blow because a cursory glance at The X Factor and other family shows currently adorning the weekend schedules suggests these were sure-fire winners.

Cruelty has a long history in entertainment. We all recall that hit series, Christians and Lions. Remember the early rounds in which the judges meet the would-be contenders? “So, Maximus Decimus, what’s the dream?” “Well, Simonicus, I want to kill slaves in the Colosseum and be played by Russell Crowe in the movie.”

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Robert Shrimsley

We may have lost carnival freakshows but we still have Channel 4’s Bodyshock series, with its lofty claims to moving stories of “extremes of the human body”. This sensitivity is on display on its website with episodes such as Turtle Boy and The Man with the 10-Stone Testicles.

But after decades of decency in our view of mainstream entertainment, we seem to have reverted to shows that promote selfishness and casual cruelty. One talent show staple sees a judge urging a member of a pop group to ditch their less talented mates. It is an invidious choice for the teen talent: unimaginable fame and untold riches if they say sayonara to their friends.

Blessed as I am with a singing voice as sonorous as an Ed Miliband stump speech, I have never had to choose between pop stardom and betraying my friends. But last weekend as The X Factor featured yet another teen in a dead-end job being egged on to make the “cut-throat” choice, I was struck by the wanton amorality of a show purportedly aimed at families. From “greater love hath no man … ” to “come on, love, ditch these losers” – that’s 2,000 years of progress.

There is a way to handle such situations which, instead, appeals to the less gifted friends to stand aside for their more talented pal. This would convey positive messages about friendship but, instead, the country’s premier family show teaches youngsters it is all right to abandon your buddies for a whiff of fame. The X Factor and its ilk are also renowned for featuring auditions of the cosmically talentless. Remember the bloke with the picture of a cat or that old guy with a comb-over? How we laughed as they whinnied their way through some barely recognisable ditty and as a snide judge crushed their upstart pretensions.

There is some harmless fun in watching people make fools of themselves – no one, after all, forces them to do so – but what skill is there in the brutal put-down of some wretched, ignored underachiever grabbing their one chance to make themselves heard? What’s wrong with a polite “no thanks”? What decency is there in picking some bloke with only a picture of his cat for company and making a feature of an audition so bathed in pathos that even the sadistic judges felt forced to ease his humiliation?

Ironically, shows such as The X Factor actually thrive on positive emotions, on the desire to see people do well. Viewers sympathise with those who have had unfortunate lives, to the extent that contestants now compete for the most depressing backstory, in a grim pastiche of the Monty Python “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch.

Yet every talent show has at least one “nasty” judge who mocks contenders with the pithy bons mots usually deployed by movie action heroes as they kill an opponent. Watching Gary Barlow belittle a no-hoper felt akin to one of those embarrassing moments at work when a bullying executive unloads on a hapless junior and everyone in the room just looks at the floor.

Is it too fanciful to trace a line from this casual cruelty to the increasing spite of online trolling? We are, after all, creating a generation that sees viciousness as pantomime.

For all the goodwill of the viewers in later stages, the experience of these shows is of rich, successful, privileged people toying with the ill-educated and the beaten-down as they take their place in the arena for a shot at a better life. Not so far from the Colosseum after all.

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robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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