overthinking the idiot box

July 11, 2005

Bonafide British Person C.J. Quinn covers the strange intersections between British television and American television in

London Calling
Live8: A Big Thing Done Badly
by C.J. Quinn

Do you remember where you were during LiveAid? I for one certainly don't, largely because in 1985 I was 4 and more concerned with Postman Pat and finger-painting than famine and aid to Africa. Will you remember, though, in 20 years' time, where you were for Live8? I myself was at home slumped on the sofa with my flatmate, suffering from the after-effects of a lot of wine and a plate of bad mussels the night before. It was a grey, humid, overwhelmingly blah day in London on July 2, and sadly the televised version of Live8 never really lifted us out of that "blah" state of being.

It was a couple of hours before either of us dared broach the subject, but finally my flatmate turned to me and said "Is it me, or is it a bit..."

"Of an anti-climax?" I finished, and she nodded.

It wasn't just her. We wondered aloud for a while why that should be. After all, both of us support the aims of Make Poverty History, and both of us are hoping for a meaningful announcement at Gleneagles that will lead to real change, and soon, for the world's poorest people. My birthday/Christmas gift of choice nowadays for unfortunate family members is a goat or a flock of chickens, and I've been wearing a white Make Poverty History wristband for months, despite the daily challenge of explaining exactly why to my students (one child listened carefully to my explanations of international debt, and then said, "So... you want to get rid of poor people, then, Miss?")

I was waiting to be stirred, to be moved, to feel like a part of a revolution. It should have felt like one — billions of people watching worldwide, hundreds of thousands gathered at Hyde Park, all of them ostensibly saying "Enough is enough" to global social inequality, even if some of them had secretly just tuned in for the promise of the greatest rock show on earth. I was waiting for the feeling that here was my revolution, my generation's moment to meet Nelson Mandela's exhortations to greatness.

It never came.

Part of the problem, I think, was the essentially passive nature of Live8. In 1985, the problem was clear — a famine of "biblical proportions" — and so was the solution: Dig deep and "give us yer fockin' money."
Part of the problem, I think, was the essentially passive nature of Live8. In 1985, the problem was clear — a famine of "biblical proportions" — and so was the solution: Dig deep and "give us yer fockin' money." In 2005, the problem is also clear — the world's poorest countries, many of them in sub-Saharan Africa, have no chance of ever climbing out of the black hole of crippling poverty, because they're shackled by a combination of massive debts, unfair trade conditions and corrupt governance. The solution, at least for your average G8 citizen standing in Hyde Park or slumped at home on the sofa, was less clear.

"We don't want your money, we want your voice" announced the electronic screens above the stage at Hyde Park. Well, one could text or e-mail one's vote of support for the MPH agenda (assuming the site's servers hadn't gone down due to overwhelming demands, as they did frequently throughout the day), but that was about the size of it. Other than that, there was nothing one could do but sit back and look on. This was supposedly an "awareness-raising" event, but the trouble is, once your awareness has been raised and you're still also aware that the power to change what's wrong lies with eight men in suits, rather than in your hands, you tend to feel just the tiniest bit impotent.

I think I might still have felt differently had I been watching in Hyde Park, and not from my living room, though. For reasons passing all understanding, the BBC, which broadcast London Live8 and then the Philadelphia show for a marathon 15 hours, had decided this was indeed the greatest rock and roll show on earth — and nothing more. Between acts, when the crowds in Hyde Park seemed to be watching thought-provoking and moving videos about the scale of the global poverty problem and the need for immediate action, BBC viewers were subjected to the most inane filler imaginable.

Presiding over the coverage was the odious Jonathon Ross (or "Jonafun Woss"), a man who has made a pretty good career out of having a comedy lisp, a lot of floppy hair and a lot of famous mates. Inexplicably, Woss spent the entire day shut up in a glass "pod," rather like the ones you get on the London Eye, surrounded by fluorescent purple, orange and pink furnishings, and wearing a vile canary-yellow suit ("I wanted to look a little bit colourful, like an African might. I said give me a mango-coloured suit," he explained to the Sunday papers, without a trace of embarrassment). While the Hyde Park crowd might have been grateful that Woss was hermetically sealed off inside a glass capsule, those of us at home had less cause to be thankful, as he babbled away unrelentingly to anyone who would stop and sit for a minute (including such bafflingly pointless celeb guests as John McEnroe, who had nipped over after the close of play at Wimbledon, and Jeremy Clarkson, the oafish chauvinist pig presenter of a BBC show about cars).

Meanwhile, beyond the pod, Jo Whiley, a DJ I used to have a tiny bit of respect for, was busy squandering her remaining credibility in a candy-pink and white outdoor studio, lounging on fuschia couches with whichever vaguely indie musical act had just come off stage, repeating variants of the theme of "Isn't this just an incredible day?" long into the night. Whiley carefully glossed over anything controversial her guests might want to say — when Chris Martin, after coming offstage, asked "Who were all those people in the front?" (referring to the £1,000-a-head corporate hospitality guests quaffing Dom Perignon and Pimms in the "golden circle" in front of the stage), Whiley smiled awkwardly, hastily said "Special people," and changed the subject.

Meanwhile out in the backstage area and on the fringes of the crowd, a blonde kids' TV bimbette called Fearne was roving around, sticking her mike into the faces of embarrassed/embarrassing celebs and ordinary concertgoers alike, while the pack for her radio mike sat under her smock and made her look like she was wearing a bustle. Robbie Williams, allegedly jetlagged but seemingly coked up to the eyeballs, made a long and involved pass at Fearne live on camera, while some of the audience seemed understandably bemused by her shrieking at them to name their highlight of the concert so far after just two acts had played.

All this dull and pointless linkage might have been less infuriating to sit through had it not been for the growing certainty that while we were being subjected to another dose of Woss, Jo and Fearne, we were also missing out on all the material meant to put the music in context and make this more than just a great big rock show.
All this dull and pointless linkage might have been less infuriating to sit through had it not been for the growing certainty that while we were being subjected to another dose of Woss, Jo and Fearne, we were also missing out on all the material meant to put the music in context and make this more than just a great big rock show. Confirmation came early on, at the end of Coldplay's set, when Chris Martin leaned into the mike and said that what we were about to see was the most important film of the day, one that would remind us all why these concerts were happening, and that "if the BBC switches it off, then it isn't doing its job properly."

I don't know if Chris Martin jinxed himself by saying that out loud, but, inevitably, the BBC did indeed switch it off. Those of us at home never found out what was so important about this film, which appeared to be starting with some stark statistics on infant mortality and preventable diseases in Africa. Someone at the Beeb, thrown into a tailspin for no apparent reason, cut straight back to Woss, who burbled something about how we'd see more of the film later, and then it was back to Fearne shoving a mike into people's faces and asking them about the atmosphere in the park.

This reticence is mystifying. Perhaps the films were cut on the basis of political neutrality — the BBC is supposed to remain political neutrally at all times, and indeed later in the evening Woss reminded us, with an enormous stage wink, that he couldn't encourage us to text in our support to the Live8 List because the BBC is impartial and unbiased. One must remember that this caution marks the BBC post-Hutton inquiry, after the Corporation had the experience of coming under daily attack over the question of whether its coverage of the lead-up to the war in Iraq was unbiased. However, during the annual Red Nose Day high jinks, when people around the UK raise huge amounts for charity, the BBC has no problem showing films portraying extreme deprivation in the world's poorest countries, specifically in order to tug at the public's heartstrings and persuade people to donate more cash.

True, Comic Relief doesn't have an overtly political agenda, and is purely about raising aid donations, much as LiveAid was, whereas Live8 was sold as primarily a political protest and pressure event. If that was the rationale for cutting out the contextualizing material between acts, though, one has to ask how the BBC even justified showing the performances in the first place, or why we were allowed to see Geldof's sermons and some of the original, haunting footage from Ethiopia's 1985 famine prior to the appearance of Birhan Woldu, the little girl shown in that footage and given 10 minutes to live, 20 years ago.

I hear that viewers in the U.S. had to contend with even worse interruptions (and, of course, ad breaks) courtesy of MTV and ABC, so I suppose it could have been worse, but that seems like a small mercy (do, please, join me later for a cuppa and a rant in the forums if you have your own sad stories of Live8 coverage in your home country to share). The music itself might have been enough to carry the day and capture hearts and minds, despite the Beeb's odd editorial pruning, but in terms of what happened onstage, there were moments of extreme bathos — I for one could have lived without the spectacle of Mariah Carey hobbling round in a dress about five sizes too small in front of a lot of tiny little children from the African Children's Choir, not least because the dress was also so short that I was terrified the tiny African children could see the emancipation of her Mimi.

I suspect that if I were a parent watching with kids well before the 9 p.m. watershed, I could also have quite happily lived without the flurry of 'motherfucking's and 'fucking's kicked off by Snoop Dogg, who was emulated by Madonna ("Are you ready for a fucking revolution?") and the funny skinny boy from Razorlight who, full of Mick Jagger fantasies, announced that he was going to show the crowd "how we finish a fucking rock show" (apparently, by taking our shirts off and throwing lilies at the front rows).

Ms. Dynamite speaks her mind.
However, Live8 was not without its great, defining moments. I doubt it was shown outside the UK, as she's still not broken into foreign music scenes, but for me, Miss Dynamite's performance was a welcome breath of fresh air. It hardly came as a surprise that Britain's foremost female garage MC chose to speak her mind; this is a woman whose first album asked her fans and contemporaries to answer the question "How many Africans died for the baguettes on your Rolex?" No stadium-rock bombast here — instead, after a breezy, sunny performance of her breakthrough single, she made a short but blistering speech, all the more powerful for the fact that finally, several hours in, we were hearing a black voice speaking on stage, and speaking honestly. "We, as a nation, have robbed, killed, tortured and stolen from the Third World for centuries. If there is a debt to be paid, then surely we are the ones that owe it," she told the crowd, before delivering a lilting, melodic cover of Bob Marley's liberation anthem "Redemption Song" (updated for 2005 with a swift garage rap insert) that had me blinking back tears.

I felt stirred, too, by Sting's reworking of his stalker's anthem, "Every Breath You Take," as a threat to the G8 leaders, whose images flashed up behind him, overlaid by their national flags, as he warned them that "we'll be watching you." The wonders of satellite TV links also gave us the ability to flit in seconds across continents, seeing the chilling sight of massive crowds in Africa, Europe and North America as one, clicking their fingers to represent the death of a child from extreme poverty every 3 seconds around the world.

By the time this column appears, the Gleneagles G8 summit will be over and we'll know whether or not Live8 and Make Poverty History has given Blair, Bush, Schroder, Koizumi, Berlusconi, Martin, Putin and Chirac a kick up the arse at all. For now, all I know is that the BBC fell at a crucial hurdle while the whole world was watching. As a medium, TV has the potential to be so much more than simply vacuous entertainment — it can be a catalyst, as it was when the BBC beamed Michael Buerk's footage of the incredible suffering of Ethiopian famine victims back to the UK, 20 years ago, and paved the way for LiveAid. It can stir, inform, and help "nation speak peace unto nation." Sadly, yesterday, a sheepish BBC lost sight of all that and sold a revolution down the river.

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Return to Vol. 1, Episode 8.