Do you remember the ‘Hullabalooza’ episode of The Simpsons? Despite setting a dangerous precedent for the celebrity cameos that would come to erode the franchise’s integrity, it is an undeniably strong episode. Central to it is the sending up of Generation X culture, with its incongruous juxtaposition of rhetorical vigour and apathy. It is the latter aspect which allows for a context in which a freakshow, such as the one Homer joins, can comfortably exist.Without apathy the nature of a freakshow would pose too many questions, and leave the audience feeling distinctly uncomfortable. It was the raising of questions that led to BAFTA declining to show Richard Butchins’ documentary The Last American Freakshow (More4) at a ‘disability film festival’ in 2008, suggesting Lars and the Real Girl as an alternative. The event was subsequently cancelled as a result of this dispute. Butchins’ film documents a freakshow as they travel from Oregon to Texas, performing along the way. He remains for the most part fairly impartial, letting the ‘freaks’ and the able-bodied organisers do most of the talking. It proves to be uncomfortable and challenging viewing. Butchins does however bookend the piece by suggesting that it seems intrinsically exploitative to represent the disabled as freaks. I imagine this will reflect the gut reaction of many contemporary viewers. This is accentuated by the fact that many of the freaks come across as distinctly, for want of a better word, normal. Whether it is empowering as some of the show’s members, particularly the organisers, suggest or simply exploitative is left to the audience to decide. The green dreadlocks and confusing beards of these organisers suggest membership, or at least an affinity with the aforementioned lettered generation. The freakshow does seem to exist in an apathetic bubble, which is further fuelled by the heavy drinking of many of its members. This apathy makes coming to any conclusions more difficult. Any moralistic judgement runs the risk of being redolent of Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells. The most affecting moment of the film comes from Butchins doing his best Louis Theroux impression by questioning one of the freaks who is in obvious distress. The freak in question is Ken, described by the show as a modern day Elephant Man. As happens so often in Theroux’s programmes, this proves insightful, and it seems Ken is treated as something of a freak amongst freaks. He is one of the most overtly disabled of the crew, and therefore we are led to the larger question of how we view and treat the disabled in modern society, and how far we’ve actually come in this regard. Overall The Last Freakshow is a thought provoking and worthy piece of DIY film.
At the opposite end of the thought provoking scale is Cranford (BBC 1), which returns for a short seasonal run. I always thought the name of fictional town sounded like a high fibre breakfast cereal, and it proves to be about as exciting. Pacing, so often the scourge of period drama, is not the problem here. Gaskell’s work on which this is based is episodic in nature, so the events move fairly briskly. The problem is it’s hard to care. Even when characters are dying, everything feels somehow mundane. The principle characters seem to fall into two categories; smiling humble old ladies and angry proud old ladies, and many of the plot details offer us little more than an illustration of this. Some cross-generational friction is thrown in, and an attempt at some period feminism, both of which come across as laboured. The period setting itself almost seems redundant, and the story could easily be moved backwards or forwards in time. Not in a good way – this is triviality, rather than universality. Even Judy Dench comes across as slightly irritating, and that’s never a good sign.
Further from the middle of the road is Games Britannia (BBC 4), a study by historian Benjamin Woolley tracing the history of gaming in Britain, from medieval games based on the gospels to today’s computer games. Within two minutes Woolley has said the word ‘epic’ twice. The camera is manic, it zooms right into Woolley’s face, the screen splits in two, the music pulsates and swells, something somewhere is exploding and men in suits are walking away from it slowly. It comes across like a slick action movie. Except it’s not. It’s a man talking to experts about the history of games. Experts that look like they smell like cats. The aesthetic of the programme is at odds with the academic content. It’s clear that the subject is close to Woolley’s heart, and he argues the case for the importance of games with vigour, sometimes laying it on a bit thick. Why it cuts to scenes of young urban men talking about gaming seemingly at random remains unclear, particularly when the subject at hand is historical games. Woolley’s earnestness wins the day in the end, and the fact that his subject proves to be surprisingly interesting. He successfully manages to show how changes in gaming habits echo changes in attitudes and mentality. He even manages to document the rise of the middle class this way. The restrictions placed on gamimg in Britain as a result of this rise interestingly seem to foreshadow prohibition across the Atlantic which occurred for the same reason. In conclusion, Games Britannia is a diverting programme that would certainly benefit from being placed closer to the august end of the BBC 4 scale.
The Last American Freakshow – 4oD until 14/01/10
Cranford – BBC iPlayer until 03/01/10 (2 parts)
Games Britannia – BBC iPlayer until 28/12/09 (3 parts)