Saturday, November 02, 2002

I first posted this back in June. Now that The Osbournes is about to be given its long awaited terrestrial screening I'm going to be ever so slightly egotistical and republish this piece should anyone have missed it first time round! Well there aren't any rules that state I can't, are there?

I finally got round to watching an episode of "The Osbournes" last night - Episode 3 I think it was. A strange experience but like most distasteful ideas that find their way on to our television screens, strangely watchable. The fly on the wall format still has the sucker power of its namesake's feet, the natural strength of its hair-thin legs, and the all-seeing appraising eye of the edgy voyeur.

Whoever identified the insatiable curiosity we humans have in the everyday/workaday minutiae of each other's lives and the congenital need for this fulfillment once we're exposed to an unfolding sequence of mundane events, must have found the television equivalent of the Holy Grail. They must also have been blessed with the psychological perception of a Freud combined with the kind of entrepreneurial acumen that could turn a cockney barrow-boy into a millionaire.

Each time reality-based TV programmes show signs of losing pre-eminence to a newer obsession it returns stronger than ever. Pretenders to the popularity crown are destined to always be just that. The clever (the host as star) chat shows, the quiz-show with the rude presenter, the "on location celebrity." Even the confrontational confessionals - choreographed itineraries of pulled-punch ups, crocodile tears, and slaughtered grammar, takes a lesser billing in the public preference to the " here we are living our lives, fancy a peek?" television programme.

Years before the "Airports", the "Driving Schools", the "Hotels." Long before the "Survivors" and "Big Brothers." Ages before these programmes spawned all those low grade improbable celebrities such as Airport's camp Jeremy Spake, Driving school's ghastly Maureen, the callous Eileen from Hotel and the uncouth Helen from BB; the ground-breaking: "The Family," which created a celebrity out of no-one except the format, was filmed back in the 1970's.

Over a number of months this working class family's life - which I believe was all but destroyed, such as it could be made worse, in the process - was filmed in intimate and prurient detail. The "life" as depicted, resembled little more than a peek at a group of people living more or less on top of each other, in a Council house in Reading. They were lives of penurious desperation. More no-s than a Japanese theatre group characterized the individuals: no work, no money, no brains, no morals, a kitchen-sink drama of rows, petulance, dirty talk and idleness. The scenery consisted of a complement of cheap beer, smoldering ciggies, tatty sofas, chirping budgies, and outside lavs. Viewers were tacitly invited to condemn the poverty- stricken, morality-free horror of this "typical" working class family unit. It made grim viewing. But it was also compulsive viewing. A factualised hybrid of "Cathy Come Home"'Til Death Do Us Part" and "The Royale Family." And as real as the editors allowed it to be.

"The Osbournes" - particularly when it hits mainstream television will also be compulsive viewing. "The Osbournes" is essentially the Wilkins family but with the liberating resource of money. And a famous though shambolic, constantly befuddled, hard-life-ravaged, foul-mouthed but still somehow charming, male lead.

Old rocker Ozzy Osbourne with the glamour of his youthful excess long behind him - the dark poetry of his Black Sabbath days fighting for the tenancy rights of his mouth with the heads of doves and bats. Provocatively strutting the worlds gig stages part Jagger, part devil - the real deal to Alice Cooper's Prince of Darkness manque. Now reduced to an oddball, bumbling figure of fun, fifty something (he can never remember), raddled, shaky, and nearly deaf. "So would you be if you'd shared a stage for thirty years with millions of decibels," he mumbles brummily to his fun-poking daughter, his enunciation the proof that half a lifetime of drunkenness induces a second half permanent hangover.

Just as with the Wilkin's we marvel at the very awfulness of it all. We hate most of the cast of the star-struck wannabes, camera-mugging their way to tabloid-style fame, real or imagined - the trainee vets, soldiers, cruise ship entertainers, and God help us traffic wardens. And we hate all the shrill Big Brother contestants and crude exhibitionist "Uncovered" wastrels. But our appetite to drop in and out of other people's otherwise private affairs is still strong. A glimpse at the living creation of other people's lives enables us to form opinions as to what our lives are all about. To recognize similarities or dissimilarities helps in the effort to try to understand something more about the meanings of our own lives. This is probably why we have the desire for a casual squinny at something we should not really see, or to eavesdrop on something we should not really hear.

Who of us would not rather penetrate those roped off areas of the stately homes open to the public, and break off from the organised route and into the areas marked "Private." And who amongst us can say that they haven't felt a frisson of excitement when stumbling into a private conversation on a telephone line and felt compelled to continue holding the receiver to your ear long after the error has been realised.

Whatever it is that drives me to watching these TV programmes, whatever it is that makes me so curious, it's a real force to reckon with and I shall be watching (or taping) "The Osbournes" every Sunday night from now on.


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