The Found Footage Festival, held annually in San Francisco, shows clips gathered from the corporate and creative dustbins of American culture. Inspired by the discovery in 1991 of a McDonald’s training video showing a preternaturally enthusiastic McDonald’s trainer encouraging a goofily bright-eyed trainee to “make your McDonald’s the cleanest in town”, Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher built up a large collection of such treasures, and in 2004 decided to share them with others, for fun and profit.
Included are a cheerleaders’ training film where the moves (“the table”, “the spread-eagle”) are interpreted as proxies for sexual positions, and a clip called “Billy Bob Boogie”, a song number in which the participants wear false sets of decaying teeth and overalls, lampooning southern good ol’ boys and gals. In 2007, Pickett and Prueher made a film about Larry Pierce, an amateur musician doing “Dirty Country” – pornographic C&W songs aimed at the truck-driver market. The festival, in America’s coolest city, is for cool people who like to watch uncool fellow Americans make fools of themselves, and not-cool-enough fellow Americans lampooning uncool Americans, as in the Billy Bob skit. It’s a little unpleasant, although you see the joke (www.foundfootagefest.com).
The most popular footage was a video of “out-takes”, the product of one Jack Rebney, an imposing mid-50s salesman who in 1989 did a promotional film for Winnebago mobile homes. Rebney is shown constantly fluffing his lines (which he wrote), and becoming increasingly enraged, screaming “f**k” and “shit” monotonously. The video was multiplied across the country during the past two decades: come the internet, it went viral.
In Winnebago Man (BBC4 Monday), director Ben Steinbauer set off to find Rebney, previously thought dead. Now in his mid-70s he’s caretaker of a fishing resort, living in a cabin with a dog. Steinbauer coaxed him to attend the FF Festival; in the course of it, he revealed the man behind the lone rager. Rebney is neither genius nor freak: instead, he is a man of some humour, certainly volatile and obscene, but with a discriminating vocabulary and balanced shrewdness, in between some ranting – as about the evil of former vice-president Dick Cheney, a trope that went down well in San Francisco. The film was a quiet criticism of a culture that finds fun in comic Schadenfreude; it’s a critique, too, of television that is increasingly prone to frame “best moments” in programmes that ruthlessly cut out the tedious bits to home in on the joke, or the crash, or the goal. The film showed you that it’s in the tedious bits that some understanding lives; it asked what happens when these are edited out.
Editing was all in a three-parter on British Novelists (BBC4 Monday). From HG Wells before the first world war to Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie up to the 1990s (the programme’s end point), this was an exercise in compression and generalisation and “on the other hands” – such as the view that Virginia Woolf and her Bloomsbury circle wrote, as she put it, from among the ruins. Yet on the other hand PG Wodehouse happily, for himself and his readers, conjured up a prewar, comically class-layered universe whose not-so-bright young things were blithely and spiritedly unaware that they would be mown down in Flanders, or widowed in Kensington, while Evelyn Waugh, in the 1930s, both made comedy from the Bright Young Things and set the comedy among their social ruins.
As interesting as the tour through a century of fiction were the changing styles of interviewing. Malcolm Muggeridge’s quizzing of Robert Graves contained a scene worthy of Found Footage, in which the former congratulated the latter for having left homosexuality behind at public school – “I’m not a faggot any more!” – “I know you’re not, I give you full credit for that!” In 1981, at the Booker Prize dinner where Salman Rushdie was the victor with Midnight’s Children, a sinuous Selina Scott asked Angela Carter, whom she had not gathered was a judge, whether she had read the novel.
The series highlighted how lucky we are to have Amis, McEwan and Rushdie, whose sceptical intelligence cuts against the lofty and standard lefty assumptions of writers such as Margaret Drabble. It showed how whiny the Scots novelist James Kelman can be, when claiming that he had to rescue language from the grip of toffs and that no writer before him had done other than portray the working class as dysfunctional; and it demonstrated, indeed, how far from the experience of the working class was most of the misery invoked in postwar fiction, while the raising of the material conditions of 80 per cent of Britons was giving men and especially women a better life. But it was absorbing, for those who see TV as what it still can be – an education.
The (Very) Last of the Summer Wine (BBC1 Sunday) ended after 37 years, and showed why: its famed gentle subtlety had degenerated into a series of situations in which lady muttons-dressed-as-lambs pursue old goats who have lost their goatishness. The Bill (ITV Tuesday) also ended, after 27 years: its viewership had declined from 15m to about 3m, in part because of greater choice, in part perhaps because it, too, relied too much on formulaic situations, of which the “explosive” last episode was – if well done – one.
More columns at www.ft.com/lloyd