Thursday 20 December 2012, 15:19
THE POLITICAL USE AND ABUSE OF ANIMALS ON TV
Animals have been a central part of television from the very beginning. But over that time the way animals are portrayed on TV has varied enormously - not just in the way they are filmed, but in the stories they are used to tell the viewers.
And the truth is that the animal programmes are far more about us than they are about the animals. They are really about how we see ourselves. I have always been convinced that animal programmes are one of the most powerful ideological expressions of our time - telling stories that both express and reinforce how we understand our relationship to each other socially and politically in powerfully emotional ways.
Over the past thirty years the wildlife programme has been dominant, led by David Attenborough. The story these programmes tell is a deeply conservative one. The central, natural, unit that the films portray is the family - and they tend to follow that social unit through repeated cycles of birth, discovery, danger and tragedy - followed by the birth of the next generation who will repeat the cycle.
The backdrop to this story is the endless repetition of the seasons - "spring returns and the first green shoots force their way through the melting snows" - which gives the cycle a natural inevitability that reflects and echoes back to us the static conservatism of our age.
But it wasn't always like this - and for Christmas I want to tell the story of the far more larky and chaotic age of animal programmes that came before in the 1970s and early 1980s.
It is The Age of the Talented Pet. It was a way of portraying animals on TV that was not only very funny - but was also equally a powerful ideological expression of the politics and aspirations of the time. I don't think this has been properly recognised and I would like to set the record straight.
To put the age of the talented pet programme fully in context it is necessary to start with the way television portrayed animals - and pets in particular - before that, in the 1960s.
I have found in the archives an absolutely wonderful film made in 1969 about the relationship between pets and their owners. It is called Love of a Kind, and it is a series of scenes and stories about different owners and their pets. Some are very funny, others are odd and eccentric, and some are incredibly moving.
It is a really good film that is also brilliantly shot in that loose 1960s verite way where you get the feeling that the camera is just looking around as a normal person would. It also perfectly expresses the belief that underlay the counterculture notions of the 1960s - because at heart it is about eccentricity and tolerance of oddness and difference.
Everyone in it - whether animal or owner - is a distinct character who is being just what they want to be. I particularly love Flo the enormously fat and very grumpy cat who begins the film, and Benji the vicious Cairn terrier who just goes for everyone - including his owner and her close friend. Their dialogue as they discuss why Benji does this is great.
The film is about how individuals and animals can forge deep emotional relationships - yet still fully be themselves in all their awkward and grumpy ways. It shows these deep bonds in some incredibly moving ways. The scene where an old woman waits while her dachshund is operated on by the vet is just heartbreaking and so moving.
But then, at the end, the credits reveal that the film was shot and directed by Lord Snowdon - and you can't but help get the feeling that what the film is really expressing is a traditional One-Nation Tory fantasy about the world - where everyone can be funny eccentrics and be happy, providing that they all know their place on the estate. Perhaps that was always the idea that underlay the hippie dream.
The problem was that by the end of the 1960s more and more ordinary people didn't want to be patronised by the upper middle class elites in Britain and kept in their place. They didn't want to be told what was the right way to think and behave - because that somehow implied that the elites knew what was right, and so were cleverer than everyone else.
This rebellious feeling rose up among many ordinary people in the 1970s and would later be co-opted by the right under the term "aspirational". At its heart was a conviction among those people that they were just as clever as the patronising elites.
And as this feeling rose up so did a new type of animal programme on British television. Talented pets were animals who wanted to be as clever as their owners and took great delight in showing that they could do many of the things that humans could - like talk or sing or dance or even skateboard.
Here is one classic example. It is Meg the Counting Dog and her owner Mrs Martin. And Meg can not only count, she can do a lot more mathematically. Aspirational Dog.
From one perspective these short films - which were predominantly made by the programmes Nationwide and That's Life - can be seen as deeply patronising to the owners of the animals. But they didn't patronise the animals - what comes over in most of them is the sheer joy and liberation that the animals clearly feel as they behave in sometimes the silliest ways - just like humans.
Here is the one that I think is both the oddest and the funniest of all these short films. I don't want to give anything away except to say that I call it The Soda Dogs - and it makes me cry with laughter, above all because of the sheer eagerness and excitement on the dogs' faces.
And the animals got cleverer and cleverer. Here is one of the great talking dogs. He is called Domino. He only has one phrase but the film brilliantly repeats it in inventive ways. And the phrase is also a perfect expression of the world of 1980s and 90s consumer aspiration that about to come.
And notice how the power structure was shifting. Along with the talking dog is the non-talking husband, sitting next to his wife on the sofa. His only job is to feed biscuits to the dog as it talks.
But as well as being odd expressions of the new aspirations of the time, these films also express the sheer anarchic silliness of the late 1970s and early 80s.
I think that that silliness was one of the products of the economic collapse and political chaos of the post-war planned society - a free-wheeling individualism born out of a general realisation that the elites who were in charge didn't have a clue any longer about what was going on. And it was by no means inevitable that the right would grab hold of that individualism. If the left had had the imagination and courage - they too could have taken hold of it and steered Britain in a completely different direction.
And here is a collection of the best of these silly, talented, anarchic animals. The wonderful somersaulting dog, plus Shep the dog that that's going to play Salut D'Amour by Sir Edward Elgar on the piano the way he wants to - in a fabulous out-of-tune style, and the singing parrot who accompanies his policeman owner in Weymouth.
But in amongst all this new-found self-confidence among the pets of Britain there were still the ghosts of the old rigid owner-pet power structure.
Here is a beautiful moment I discovered in the live Election Programme from October 1974. It is 6.30 in the morning and the programme goes live to Downing Street. It is deserted except for one old man who is waiting to welcome Harold Wilson back as Prime Minister. With him is his dog - waiting mutely as his owner is interviewed, not allowed to do anything. He knows his place - very Old Labour.
(To be honest I have also put this in because the interview is great and the man's explanation of why he is there is beautifully logical and deadpan. Again very Old Labour)
And the talented pets got weirder and also began to exploit their special talents. Here is a short film about Balls the Bat - plus his owner Cherry Bramwell. The bat is beautiful - and I love the bit where it goes shopping - but he has begun to go commercial, having just had a starring role in a movie.
And you can also see how the old power structure between owner and pet is beginning to be reasserted by the owner. Cherry is a brilliant interviewee - because she has realised the basic law of all comic factual TV. That if an interviewee is serious about an absurd situation - they are funny. If they think it's funny - it's not funny at all.
Cherry is deadpan serious and thus funny. But in reality she is acting. The earlier innocence of the talented pets' owners is disappearing to be replaced by a controlled reality.
I want to end with a legendary moment from the Age of Talented Pets. It is a moment that millions remember - but it also shows dramatically how the silliness and anarchic stupidity was now beginning to be managed and controlled.
It is Prince, the dog from Leeds that said "Sausages". It is very funny – but, as the owner Paul Allen admits, he is manipulating Prince's throat to make the words. He has an elaborate justification for this - but, like a flash of lightning on a dark night, it shows how the individualism of the talented animals was now being increasingly institutionalised and managed. The age of innocence was over - and you could see the reality of what Thatcherism was going to become.
Then - in the 1980s - the talented pets receded in TV. They still exist, like Pudsey the dancing dog and Simba from Top Dog model, but their place at the top table of TV culture was taken by the epic, conservative moral stories of the wildlife programmes and series.
We have lived with that portrayal of animals for thirty years, mixed in with programmes like When Animals Attack - that was started by Fox TV in the 1990s, that also has an implicit conservative message - the eternal law of the jungle.
But maybe that age is coming to an end as the boosters for our conservative age sound ever more uncertain. And at the same time the animal programming on the BBC is weakening and being challenged by the kingdom of Youtube with its wonderful range of stupid animals doing very silly things.
If animals on TV are the innocent ideological expressions of our age - maybe it is possible to look to the sneezing panda and its allied operatives on Youtube as the harbingers of what is to come. The return of the revolutionary libertarianism that was glimpsed with the joyous, anarchic talented pets of the late 1970s, before that moment of silly freedom was co-opted by the forces of reaction and market conservatism.
And the first hero of this new breed is Loukanikos - the dog that turns up to all the riots in Athens. Naturally his name translates as Sausage.
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