Wednesday must have been a really good day for three of the four stooges who took part in Derren Brown: Pushed to the Edge on Tuesday evening.
“Wow, I saw you on TV last night. You pushed someone off a building.”
“Yes, but it was an experiment designed to illustrate the power of social compliance.”
“Oh, well that’s okay then. Now do come in for your appraisal.”
The idea behind the programme was to tszuj up the old Milgram or Stanford prison experiments: both of these suggested that, in the right circumstances, people will do whatever they’re told to do, including harm to others. Brown’s take on this was to set up a meticulously rehearsed scenario in which 70 actors played out a fake youth charity launch, with only one of them unaware it was a stunt. In the first instance our dupe was a likeable IT man named Chris. Brown, offstage throughout, was the puppetmaster, relaying instructions via earpiece to the supposed charity head Tom. Together they managed to convince Chris that, first, a major donor named Bernie had died in front of him, second, that he should dump him in a crate, and third, that Chris should now pretend to be the major donor. Eventually, when it emerged that Bernie was alive and aware of all that Chris had done, Chris had to decide whether or not to push him off a rooftop to cover the whole thing up.
Pushed to the Edge was undoubtedly entertaining: it was played out in real time and it was fun to watch Brown, with his clipped diction, bulbous eyes and that weird habit of shoving his face at the camera as if he wants to see what’s inside it, pull the strings.
But as ever with this type of stunt, there was something discomforting about the whole thing. Firstly, was it a set up? A few years ago there was a mighty brouhaha about trust in TV after Bear Grylls’ hotel survival night and some dodgy quizzes. Now we seem to have regained our trust in programme makers, but I suspect that’s only because the storm blew itself out. Who knows the extent to which Brown’s elaborate, and expensive stunt actually fooled its targets?
And if it did, what are the ethics of such a massive manipulation perpetrated on an individual for our distraction? Over the course of 72 minutes our Chris thought he’d witnessed someone die in front of him, found himself capable of assuming another man’s identity and had to ask himself whether he would commit murder to avoid prison for what he was assured were serious crimes. Being ‘pushed to the edge’ has got to leave some lasting effects, no?
Chris, as it happens, was strong enough to say he wouldn’t push an old man off a building, but the kicker was that Brown had done the experiment three more times and all three of the hapless subjects did indeed ‘commit murder’ under peer pressure. Brown’s contention was that only by understanding how we can be manipulated will we ‘become stronger.’ Indeed, several times he linked his parlour game to geopolitics, extremist ideologies and suicide bombers. But I did wonder if that was just sententious window-dressing for what was actually a dubious diversion.
Tracey Ullman began her new sketch show, a return to British television after 30 years, with a title song that went, ‘Basically I’m still doing the same show I did in my mother’s bedroom.’ Ullman is 56, so the hope for the series was that the old jokes are still the best ones. The title song, however, was also a reminder that Ullman is a lifelong performer, and it was her stagecraft that raised some middling material in to what was a buoyant comeback.
It’s easy to assume that comedy is just about jokes, good or bad, but sketch comedy in particular is as much about performance as writing. Ullman’s Angela Merkel was a perfect example – essentially just a ‘let’s all laugh at ze german’s und zer funny talkings’ sketch, with no particular new insight about the German Chancellor, yet in Ullman’s hands it was a gem. Not only does she have one of those malleable faces, like Steve Coogan’s, that lends itself to assuming other characters, but her timing and delivery have been honed to a fine point over many years. She didn’t really need any bulls-eye one-liners to get laughs. Some people are just funny.
More than anything Tracey Ullman’s show felt like a return to the Not the Nine O’Clock News or A Bit of Fry and Laurie style of classic sketch comedy. There were skits around absurd ideas played straight (the project manager convicted of crimes against humanity trying to get her next job); musical numbers; and just-so celebrity spoofs (like a Judi Dench with a wicked side.) That’s no bad thing but given that the BBC has just commissioned a whole raft of old sitcoms to be remade, you do wonder where the new comedy is going to come from, especially with the demise of BBC Three, which has for a long time been the incubator. None of this is Tracey Ullman’s problem – she’s still got it.
Perhaps the new comedy was supposed to be Crashing, a Channel 4 series set in a disused hospital. The idea is that a ragbag of metropolitan twentysomethings are living there as ‘property guardians,’ thus avoiding London rental rates. It played out as something like Friends crossed with This Life, but more raucous and ruder than both, with all of the necessary archetypes present and correct – the cocksure bloke; the kooky girl; the anal-retentive girl who’d love to be the kooky girl; the socially awkward nerd and so on.
The setting is certainly something a bit different, and it’s an ingenious one, because it allows for characters to be introduced and discarded at the writer’s whim. The problem is that every single character in Crashing is either dislikeable or irritating. If you want to get away with that in sitcom then they all have to be almost indecently funny, and at this stage, at least, they’re not.