A middle-class music journalist once asked Sid Vicious if he sang for the Man in the Street, expecting punk’s very own Dennis the Menace to support the scribe’s opinion that the peasants were revolting; however, Sidney rubbished this theory with succinct bluntness – ‘No, I’ve met the Man in the Street,’ he replied, ‘and he’s a c***.’ If Sid Vicious had been in Telford last weekend, he would have had his character assassination confirmed; if you or I had been there, we’d most likely have walked away from the scene of a horrible personal tragedy feeling ashamed that we belonged to the same species as a particular breed of the Man in the Street.
Around lunchtime on Saturday, an unnamed individual in his forties appeared on the roof of a multi-storey car-park attached to Telford’s Southwater Shopping Centre and threatened to jump. The police sealed-off the immediate area and did their best to negotiate with the man, all to no avail; he leapt to his death less than three hours later – a tragedy in more ways than one. That someone so young should see no future is a tragedy; that the police were unable to persuade him his life was worth living is another, as is the fact that he chose to die in such a terrible manner; one could even sense the absolute despair and futility facing him that he should end it all beside one of those soulless and sterile retail cathedrals that are such irredeemably ugly blots on the modern British landscape. But what drags this tragedy down to an especially gruesome level is the way in which some members of the gathered throng reacted to a sight that would fill most with concern and compassion.
According to first-hand accounts, some onlookers present encouraged the man to jump. Why would anybody in their right mind want this awful outcome? Have the desensitising effects of incessant exposure to Hollywood or videogame interpretations of what happens to human flesh and bone when they encounter something strong enough to reduce them to a bloody pulp provoked curiosity as to the reality? Or does the fact that some of the crowd that goaded the suicidal man chose to record events on their mobiles in eager anticipation of the money-shot serve as evidence that so many now can only relate to a world that has a Smartphone border framing it, making everything their eyes see a virtual movie? In this case, all empathy has evaporated. They weren’t looking at a fellow human being clearly suffering an intense mental trauma; they were witnessing the end scene of a pretend drama, frustrated that they didn’t have a joystick in their hands that could tip the man over the edge and score them their highest points in the game so far. But there’s possibly more to it than even that.
Certain distasteful characteristics that were once universally reviled have, in recent years, come to be accepted as acceptable, primarily by the generation under-30, those whose concept of how to behave in public has not been shaped by parents and teachers who have absolved themselves of the job for fear of ‘stifling’ junior, but by the few remaining TV shows guaranteed to rack-up the kind of viewing figures that come closest to those regularly scored back in the old four-channel era. In one respect, the pioneer was ‘Big Brother’.
Following the Nasty Nick debacle of series one, something that turned the show from a minority sport to the most talked-about programme in the country, contrived cruelty began to filter into the format, subjecting participants to humiliations both at the hands of their unseen ruler and at the hands of each other. With the power to vote out those they disliked, the viewer soon acquired the status of Roman Emperor, giving the thumbs-up or thumbs-down that would decide the fate of a gladiator. This interaction helped cement the incestuous relationship between the programme and its audience whilst simultaneously encouraging a more sadistic streak in the British that hadn’t really been seen since the end of public executions in the nineteenth century. The competition for ratings as ‘Big Brother’ imitations began to clog up the mainstream schedules also meant the originator of the concept had to stay one step ahead of the game, and it did so by introducing the ‘freak show’ element.
There seemed to be little reason for the presence of such ‘freaks’ other than for them to be held up as figures of fun, reducing the programme to a modern-day equivalent of Georgian Bedlam, with the viewers coaxed into being members of the public paying to watch the lunatics at play in the asylum and unnaturally upbeat presenter Davina McCall taking the role of the over-enthusiastic gate-keeper. This aspect of the programme, in which the sadistic mocking of those who were square-pegs either by nature or design was rewarded, showed that personality traits traditionally regarded as undesirable were now perfectly acceptable ones to air in public. The audience of ‘Big Brother’ absorbed the subliminal messages inherent within the show and began to bring behaviour that was confined to the Big Brother House on screen into the public arena. The heightened and fabricated drama enacted by gullible pawns on TV was employed as a yardstick for social interaction in the real world.
Running parallel with the rise of ‘Big Brother’ was the rise of Simon Cowell on ‘The X-Factor’ and his trademark rudeness when confronted by contestants he proceeded to cut to ribbons with verbal evisceration. Yet, the most remarkable aspect of the whole Cowell system was the willingness of its hopelessly optimistic participants to submit to any humiliation on the exceedingly slim chance that they might become a star – almost reminiscent of the energy-sapping dance marathons that offered vague hope to desperate Americans during the Great Depression. With each successive series of ‘The X-Factor’, pop music’s individual voices were slowly silenced as the nation’s youth spinelessly submitted to Simon Cowell’s unelected Absolute Monarch without putting up a fight.
Indeed, the presence of a waspish party-pooper soon became a pre-requisite for all entertainment shows to follow, with everyone from the obnoxiously oily Piers Morgan to the bluntly brusque Alan Sugar encouraged to adopt the contemptuous sneer of an especially spiteful games teacher forcing the poor kid without a kit to don a pair of spare shorts with unsavoury stains on them; and the more humiliating the put-down, the better. When impressionable young viewers realised how these atrocious traits were being handsomely rewarded, either in the astronomical wages TV producers were prepared to pay or in the plethora of peerages and awards such figures were lavished with, it was no wonder that a streak of verbal cruelty began to assert itself on the streets and in the chat-rooms of Britain, with any perceived misfit fair game for the Cowell treatment. At a time when there was a greater awareness of bullying than ever before, it was horribly ironic that television’s most celebrated stars were legitimising the tactics of the playground or workplace bully for mass consumption.
So, take half-a-tablespoon of legitimate rudeness in social interaction, add a pound of technology that found an early outlet for physical manifestations of antisocial cool via the ‘Happy Slapping’ craze, blend with a mix of cold indifference to the sufferings of others now that they are detached from reality due to being viewed as miniature figures on a screen, and carefully place in a baking tray for around a decade on crass mark five. When ready, serve to a guest-list of two-dozen 15-25-year olds at a grotty Telford mall as a starter; the main course will come when a chronically depressed man undergoing a mental meltdown ascends to the roof of the multi-storey car-park and is urged to jump to his death by diners who have acquired a craving for blood. Once dinner is over, throw-up in unison and weep at how cheap life has become.