In civility, thou seem’st so empty As You Like it

George Austin and sado-masochism

It worries me. I do it all the time, though I don’t like it. Is it becoming an addiction, an addiction indeed to sado-masochism? Surely not? After all, I know I can give it up whenever I want. But isn’t that what they all say? And never do? Still, let me take a deep breath and ‘share it’ (lovely with-it phrase, ‘share it’) with you.

Every day I sit and view a 57 year-old woman in black humiliate nine unfortunate men and women. Yes, I actually watch The Weakest Link. I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t seem to help myself. My wife insists that the Woman in Black is not as she seems and that it’s all done in fun. Certainly, when she has an American team, they do all laugh and take it in good part. But there the prizes even on a bad day can reach $40,000, far above anything the British winner can take home.

Lambs to the slaughter

Why do they offer themselves as a sacrifice? And when they know that all but one will go away with NOTHING, as Ms Robinson puts it? Even if the winner is lucky, the prize money rarely reaches as much as £3,000 and on a bad day it is down to £1,800. Perhaps it is for half an hour’s fame on television, though taking the so-called Walk of Shame is hardly something one would want to encourage one’s friends to watch.

Perhaps I’ve got it wrong and my wife is right, as she usually is. Maybe it really is all in fun and the contestants are told this in the pre-contest warm-up. Don’t answer back, she doesn’t mean it, it’s all in a good part, and so on.

Even so, I would never put myself forward as a contestant in that programme – or for that matter in 15 to 1 or Who Wants to be a Millionaire even though those two have genial hosts. I do confess, I would quite like to be the Phone-a-Friend on Millionaire, if only to express surprise when the voice on the line said, ‘This is Chris Tarrant.’ ‘Who?’ I would ask. ‘Chris Tarrant? Not the Chris Tarrant who used to live in Bushey next door to my Churchwarden.’ (Yes, it is, but I never met him.)

Friend in need

Now Chris Tarrant always appears to be on the contestants’ side, sometimes almost willing them not to give a final answer that will lose them a large amount of money and obviously sad when they do. In contrast, as the Weakest Link is voted off in each round, the team members are subjected to individual personal mortification. ‘What do you do?’ she will ask, knowing perfectly well what their occupation is because it is on the computer screen before her.

Over the months of showing, it has become obvious that, not only does she not care for the Welsh, she doesn’t like civil servants, social workers, police (especially police) – in fact almost anyone with a ‘proper’ job. And no one should ever admit to being involved in Media Studies.

Inverted snobbery?

But most of all, she seems to despise those with a university education and particularly students presently receiving one. According to her entry in Debrett’s People of Today, she was herself educated at a convent school (actually the 1991 edition I consulted said ‘covent’, not ‘convent’, but I have assumed it is a misprint), and then at Les Ambassadrices in Paris. Could that be a finishing school? Wow!

Only those folk who have been prepared to take the risk know what really happens, and it isn’t a risk I would want to take. After all, I know nothing about sport or pop-music and haven’t even heard of most of the groups who appear in the questions. But even in my worst nightmare I can’t imagine the mincemeat the Woman in Black would make of a clergyman, and not least a retired archdeacon.

But no one seems prepared, at any rate in the British version, to stand up to Ms Robinson. If she challenged me, ‘What does an archdeacon do? Make trouble for other clergy? Did you enjoy doing that?’, would I dare to answer, ‘Not as much as you seem to enjoy being unpleasant to people’? (Of course, dear Reader, you will understand that the job of an archdeacon is certainly not to make trouble for their fellow clergy – I just suggest this as an example of the unjust calumny she might heap upon one.)

There is a problem too with the contestants. Everyone who is voted off is given the opportunity to comment on their fate, and occasionally one will admit to being the weakest link and of deserving the Walk of Shame.

Resentment and humiliation

Most of them, however, resent what their fellow contestants have done. ‘I didn’t deserve it’, ‘They’re ganging up against the men/women/young/old’, ‘I’m too good for them’, ‘He’s arrogant and I hope he’s next’, ‘She’s getting too big for her boots’, and so on – the victim syndrome, the refusal to accept fault.

Be that as it may, a nagging question remains: What is it about our society today that a programme whose main content is humiliation can become one of the most popular on television? No doubt we can all remember from school days how painful it is to suffer humiliation, whether from teachers (usually the incompetent ones, who cover their own inadequacies by taking it out on their pupils), or from the school bullies. Dumb insolence is the weapon against the teacher, but the knowledge that a bully is always a coward at heart provides useful ammunition. In both cases it is a misuse of humour, laughing at people rather than laughing with people.

A careful watching of television adverts shows the same trend, and now that it is politically incorrect to make fun of women, it is men are who fair game, often showing them as incompetent and worthy of as much ridicule as can be heaped upon them. Come to think, one of my most unpleasant memories of 25 years of the General Synod is of just a few members, clever speakers, whose debating technique seemed to consist only of making as much unpleasant fun as they were able of those with whom they disagreed.

It is nothing to be proud of in today’s society that we can enjoy seeing other’s squirming on the end of a hook, wherever it happens. Perhaps I really ought to do my own little bit and stop watching The Weakest Link.

But sadly, it really is compelling viewing. I know, I’ll just watch today’s programme and then give it up. Or at any rate, just this week, and then next week I’ll stop.