Monday, 20 August 2018

"Lets see what you could have won!": The gameshow as a tool for social self-esteem.

The jokes are usually about the speedboats. And, granted, it is funny when two people who live somewhere in the Midlands or here in Newcastle are shown a speedboat that they have just failed to hitch onto the tow bar of their Ford Granada Estate. But there is something revealing about the comedic response we have to old TV game shows like Bullseye. As they are recalled in nostalgic laments of memory or through the repeats made available on digital TV these days, the old game shows evoke the distance of time and an ironic sense of whimsy for the way we were 30 years ago.
There is something quaint and strange about these shows. This was a time, if we believe what we are seeing, when people could win a metal tankard or handmade key fob without a crushing sense of awkward self-awareness or the need to look knowingly, David Brent style, into the camera lens to share the joke. These shows act as a portal on the passage of cultural-time, they present to us a society that seems quite distant, alien and maybe even odd. This is despite them actually showing us an earlier version of our own cultural selves. The palette of beige and grey, the neon lights, the captions – 'jackpot', 'holiday of a lifetime', 'TVs biggest..' – the posing models, the multipurpose, modular sets, the applause, the shady innuendo, the grinning hosts, the catchphrases. I’ve often thought that you could use TV game shows as documents of social change as they seem to capture something very much of their time the way that other media fail to.
Over the last few years, the Challenge TV channel (Sky 145, Freeview 46, folks!) has provided plenty opportunity to reflect on this. This channel predominantly shows old episodes of TV game shows from the 1980s and early 1990s. This was something of a golden era for this format. Challenge TV has been showing old episodes of a wide variety of shows for years now, everything from Bullseye, Family Fortunes, Take Your Pick, Big Break, The Price Is Right, Strike it Lucky, Celebrity Squares, 321 and Wheel of Fortune have been thrust back onto our TV's. If we look carefully, these repeats potentially reveal more than a taste for nostalgia, they actually document some interesting social characteristics of the time – especially when compared to the few equivalent programmes of today.
Game shows today if we can still call them that, are often centred on large cash prizes, a million pounds is often the landmark but it is nearly always in the tens-of-thousands at least. Although in some cases the prizes are knowingly small and are delivered with an unmissable sense of irony and a calculated wink (Pointless deploys this type of approach). Back in the 1980s shows like Bullseye were built around prizes, these prizes might be seen to reveal something of the aspirations of the time. There is an overwhelming sameness to the desired lifestyles that are put on display and narrated by these prizes. From pine plant stands and canteens of cutlery to trouser presses and hand-held video cameras. And then there are the infrequently won star prizes, a trailer tent, a caravan, a fitted kitchen, a dining room suite, a hatchback, a speedboat. These prizes all reveal something of the aspirations of the time, they may even say something about lifestyle choices and perhaps even social mobility. On Wheel of Fortune, we see something similar, with a pint-size bottle of French perfume contained in a large glass flower, leather trouser suits and ‘his and hers’ watches. These are prizes that seem to be woven with powerful social norms – embodied by those ‘his and hers’ watches.
If we look at the TV games shows I mentioned, we begin to get a vision of what might have been an ideal or a desired utopian lifestyle. Waking up to a cup of tea prepared by an automatic Teasmade, preparing a fondue in a fitted kitchen, entertaining a laughing family around a barbeque whilst sitting on pristine plastic garden furniture and sipping from a magnum of champagne poured into crystal champagne flutes, or perhaps gathered around a dining room table serving from a hostess trolley to a table decked in gold knives and forks whilst discussing our latest holiday of a lifetime to Torremolinos – then our guests, dressed in Italian leather jackets, drive their saloon cars home for a nightcap poured from a cut-glass decanter. These are the types of dream lifestyles that were woven into the prizes and into the way that these objects were presented to the contestants and viewers. They have norms bound up within them, norms that now might appear somewhat stifling in their depiction of the lifestyles that they are scripted to be a part of. These shows, many of which were watched by huge audiences in the 14 million + category, seem to say something about the types of 'want' that were dominant at the time, and may even be a precursor to the vision of consumerism we see today. Where the prizes in 80's and 90's game shows were about scripted lifestyles, today’s are about the consumer freedoms of money. That is to say that instead of pre-determined objects with narratives and norms attached to them, instead now the focus is upon the limitless possibilities of large sums of hard, dirty, cash.
Looking back at these shows though, what is perhaps most immediately obvious is how the protagonists or as they were then 'contestants' have become much more media savvy. We now appear to innately understand how to behave when on television. Contestants of the 1980s and 1990s appear unsure and uncomfortable. They are uncertain in their movements and often mumble their way through anecdotes, furtively looking at their shoes. They ALL appear to be wearing 1 of 3sets of clothing options: the clothes they would either wear to work, wear when at home or the ones they'd wear to get buried in – this is the standard colour palette of greys and light browns that contrast with the brightly coloured sets. They appear to be ill-prepared for the experience. The knowledge of how to be media savvy is long yet to be developed. Somewhere along the line we became more media aware, with the confidence to speak, dress and move in the way expected and required by Ant and Dec! The contestants may no longer be dressing themselves but, if this is indeed the case, they look comfortable in the retrofit clothes provided by the stylists. People appearing on TV no longer appear out of place or like they are participating in a disconcerting or traumatic adventure to the unknown. They appear to know what they are doing. It is like we are now media trained as a routine part of our normal social process. In the 1980s game shows in particular and a little in the game shows of the 90s, there is still something of the wonderment in what is described as the presence of ordinary people in the media. It is as if both the contestants and the viewers are surprised that they are a part of what is happening. They respond accordingly. This is no longer the case, the wonderment has passed, contestants today look increasingly like they belong – and the viewers are not surprised to see them there.
These old TV game shows are not the type of documents or artefacts that might usually be used by those interested in understanding social change, but there is definitely something of a rich vein of cultural heritage as far as being an audio and visual account of these times can be. I remember once visiting an art installation by a chap I went to college with that simply included a TV showing a short loop of an old game show based around a variety of pub games. I didn't think anything much of it at the time but now I wonder if by its lack narrative or text, was he inviting the visitor to reflect back on this historical artefact? Knowing him, I'd say the good money is on the fact that he was just pissing about and I'm reading far too much into it. But it does go to show that these old TV game shows tell surprising stories and reveal something of the time. These are audio and visual documents that depict a real and clear social change. There is definitely more to be said, but for the moment they certainly seem to say something about aspiration and how we have become increasingly media savvy.

Till next time.
Big love. Mark. X

Friday, 17 August 2018

The best DJ you've (probably) never heard of #10: Armin Schmelz.

With one thing and another, I've been TERRIBLY lax with posting on the blog over the last few months. What with life, and my crippling lethargy, seemingly constantly getting in the way of things it's been an absolute 'mare getting something, ANYTHING cobbled together for it!
Well, I've had my hand somewhat serendipitously forced on this one. I had been planning to write something about this guy for a while now but seeing as he's only recently recorded the latest installment in the ever wonderful 'Krossfingers' podcast series I figured I may as well put this out now. I've posted a couple of Armin's mixes and radio shows over the last couple of years across on the Thoughts on Love And Smoking Facebook group but as I say, had been intending on doing a small focus piece on him for some time.
Armin Schmelz is something of a musical enigma. A long time, and equally important name on the Vienna scene co-organizing events and parties like Erdbahnkreuzer and Tingel Tangel, alongside previous TOLAS podcast contributor Bernhard Tobola.
From the first recording I'd heard of him, it was clear that he had little concern about sticking to one style of music or a certain genre. In a scene where it's becoming increasingly rare these days to find individuals who have a bold approach towards dance music, those pushing genuinely genre-defying DJ-ing are worth they're weight in black plastic.
He sometimes forays into the psychedelic, sometimes into the electronic. Percussion drifts from remote islands and rises up to touch tender discosoul in a cinematic exploration of the slower heart rates of danceable music. Each stage and its environs carefully define a new tone and set to his voyages into the mysterious.
Moving deftly from angular disco cuts and frantic techno to NY post punk-funk and coldwave in wild selections of un-chained melodies while also rounding up elements of continental pop and electronics.
Listen, then seek him out. Armin Schmelz is MOST DEFINITELY the real deal.

Till next time.
Big love. Mark. X