Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Death of Celebrity?

Britain is a country which has been obsessed with the concept of "celebrity" for about a decade now. This is reflected in all sorts of ways - the popularity of magazines like Heat, OK and Hello, the many reality televisions which feature celebrities (I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, Celebrity Big Brother), and those which aim to turn ordinary people into celebrities (Big Brother, Pop Idol, Strictly Come Dancing), the newsless tabloid newspapers which focus on the changing fortunes, relationships, fashions and diets of a vapid and glamorous set of people. A lot of this is linked to the rise of so-called "chav" and "reality" culture. You only need look at the aspirations of young people "to be famous" - footballing, singing, "tv presenting" - never before has academic success been seen as uncool, geeky and unattractive. Why have A Levels when you can have blonde highlights put in and wear something from DKNY? We live in an age where "celebrity" is like a disease - it can be caught, in much the same way as VD, by having sex with someone who is already a celebrity - hence people like Rebecca Loos, Jeff Brazier and Alex Best have all found themselves in the public eye, simply because of their relationships.

However, in the last few weeks, there are signs, hints, tidings that we are witnessing the first stages of the Death of Celebrity. A genre that has been so uncool to British culture that almost NO programs have been made in it for a decade (science fiction) has suddenly revived, in the form of Dr Who (a programme that previously conjured up associations with slightly autistic teenage boys of all ages and genders, geekily hanging on to a programme that few young people had even heard of. A one-off special, Cruise of the Gods, starring Steve Coogan satarised the essential naffness of the British sci-fi "fan" perfectly).

Science-fiction is everything that Celebrity is not. They are diametrically opposite. Science-fiction is imaginative, story-driven, hopeful, forward-looking, often politically motivated (the best sci-fi reflects back on our own current culture, offering warnings and insight). Sci-fi fans aren't interested in glamour. The kind name for them is "anoraks". Sci-fi is often an incredibly moral form of story-telling - consider the films of the 70s - Soylent Green, Planet of the Apes, The Stepford Wives - they all had something worth saying - whether it was about over-population, racism or feminism. Look at a series like Star Trek Deep Space 9 - which reflected on issues of identity, religion, politics in all sorts of fascinating ways. Even a more action-driven show like Voyager had plenty to say about the nature of humanity and its intersection with technology. Celebrity on the other hand is based on somewhat baser motivations, particularly schadenfraude and advertising. The British public are notoriously fickle about their celebrities - bullying them one minute, lauding them the next. Celebrity is also about surfaces - it's how you look, not what you say. Impermenancy is also key - celebrities themselves come and go - there can be no stability in their lives, like their hairstyles, their relationships must be continually changing - endlessly recycled - a modern La Ronde. The personal lives of many soap opera actors are actually far more interesting to follow than the soap operas themselves.

And now - Dr Who, which was banished to tv wilderness for years, has made a triumphant return. The BBC, who are showing the series on Saturday nights must be kicking themselves for not recommisioning it sooner. ITV, have taken the opposite stance by showing a programme called Celebrity Wrestling - which is pushing the celebrity ticket about as low as it can possibly go. And they got it wrong. Ratings fell to an all-time low of 2.6 million on Saturday, and the show has been axed. This may just be a blip in the health of Celebrity Culture. It may reflect the fact that audiences eventually tire of anything. But all the same, it is a promising turn of events. ITV have already commissioned their own sci-fi programme (with Patrick Stewart). My partner, who for the past decade had sadly noted that the British don't make sci-fi anymore because we can't imagine ourselves in the future (the future is American), may have to rethink his position.


matty said...

...if the future is American -- we should all just give it up! LOL!

JayMaster said...

Well-written and incisive observations. I will not be one of the chief mourners at the great celebrity funeral that is around the corner. I agree that the saddest thing about the cult of the celebrity is that so many young people see a normal job/life as inferior today. Of course there is an appeal to a multi-million pound lifestyle with exotic holidays, first-class travel, personal trainer etc, but this is not going to happen for 99.99% of us. Rather than object to how unfair this is and fawn over whoever Heat says is the newest and hottest star, I would rather make my own life as fulfilling as possible. (This may explain why I was so excited to get my power washer and the weekend to blast the flagstones clean!)