Reach for the Gun: The Culture Show & The Hour

It would’ve been nice to see an hour-long special of The Culture Show (BBC Two) devoted to Tom Wolfe’s writing career, presented by, say, Alan Yentob, but sadly we had to make do with a ten-minute puff piece with Andrew Graham-Dixon asking the Man in the White Suit the predictable questions about his famous research method and his new novel Back to Blood. There Wolfe was in his Upper East Side apartment, wearing one of the famous white suits with a light blue shirt, silver-white tie with matching blue dots and blue-trimmed white kerchief – but where were the shoes!? Were they patent leather two-tones? And what of the socks? The socks! This was a major slip-up: when it comes to Wolfe, these details are everything. (Perhaps the only thing.)

Graham-Dixon told us that Wolfe started wearing the suit in the sixties, but he didn’t say why. As it happens, the reason is that he wanted to be ‘a man from Mars’, utterly alien from anyone, or anything, he could be writing about. Perhaps this points to the reason that a longer documentary about the writer wouldn’t work: he is, as Charlie Rose once observed, an odd guy. His hobby is neuroscience. He is indeed alien from everything and quite hard to press on issues. Graham-Dixon tried to get his position on strippers – he seemed surprised they were nude in a strip club – and on the people of Miami, who are the subject of the new book, he clammed, as it were, up.

The remainder of The Culture Show delivered some nonsense about Rambo – no, not Rimbaud – being a lone wolf defender against injustice. If that’s true, then what of the injustice of having those films inflicted upon us in the first place? Oh, the humanity! No one deserves to have their human rights infringed upon by being told that Rambo is a foe of ‘Western society’s meretricious values’. Well, as the late Gore Vidal might say, meretricious and a happy New Year, Culture Show.

Tom Wolfe always seems possessed, when talking about Miami and Back to Blood, by two things: that it’s a pretty diverse place and that everybody hates each other. Having yet to read it, I don’t know if he discusses the potential of the Latino vote to decide the the elections of the future and even bring about the end of the GOP, if that party cannot start appealing to minorities that are fast becoming majorities, as one Republican pundit said on the Beeb’s US presidential election night coverage.

And what a night it was! David Dimbleby pitched up on BBC One like one of his brother’s Dimbleburger vans at a festival and was there until the breakfast news. For once there was some fairly interesting commentary and debate; Emily Maitlis – leggy, imposing – was on hand with her electronic screen to analyse the results as they – breaking news – came in. It’s always enjoyable to watch them attempting to present the most insignificant development or predictable result as ‘breaking news’. It’s all part of the fun. The only sour note is when we have to cut to prize-arse Jeremy Vine twatting about in his virtual studio, repeating everything Emily’s just said and pointing to the wrong parts of his virtual graphs.

On the whole, it was a more interesting election than 2008’s but it certainly wasn’t as exciting. Did any of those Salt Lake City poltroons ever really think they’d win? A pre-election episode of 30 Rock had one of the characters scrabbling around in an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the previous election – all for a kiss, as it happens – but, in the end, it was concluded that there just wasn’t enough hope around this time.

Speaking of which, those of us who hoped never to be bored by another episode of The Hour (BBC Two) will have been sorely pained this week with the beginning of a second series. Overwritten and overwrought, the whole thing is delivered with a forced air of chumminess that I hope sticks in the back of the cast – most of whom are actually excellent actors (in any other programme). It’s difficult to remember whether it’s supposed to be a feminist standpoint to have a woman in a senior position at the drama’s fictitious news show but, if it is, the whole thing falls down when we we’re presented with all those silly little girls who just can’t keep their silly little heads around Dominic West’s news anchor character. One struggles to stay awake long enough to find out, or even care, what the plot is – better make that many, many subplots – because the script is basically people saying words without a shred of engagement. On the other hand, it’s positively arresting how many knowing glances and weak innuendoes there are, like the whole thing could be a Carry On film if only Hattie Jacques were alive. On and on the misery rolls: there’s not a scene without someone snapping their fingers or a fucking glockenspiel plonging along in the background; as though the costumes and sets weren’t enough of a giveaway that this is a period drama.

One struggles to imagine why Ben Wishaw, playing gadfly Freddie Lyon, puts up with all this mummery: over the summer he was responsible for, perhaps, the most outstanding performance television has ever known as the eponymous prancing king in Richard II. A lesson for us all, then: stay wise, stick with Shakespeare.

(Originally written for, November 2012.)