Considering that I am 50% to blame for naming my son after a TV serial killer I may not be in the best position to moan about the escalations of depravity and despair currently being visited upon our tellies. But hey-ho, I’ve always been a ‘having-my-cake-and-eating-it’ kind of girl, and I think somebody needs to say something. Enough with the child murders, small-town massacres, psycho-sexual depravities and seedy social underbellies. I can’t take it anymore! Every evening it’s the same—read a few chapters of Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat to Dexter, reassure him for about ten minutes that witches aren’t real, tuck him in, come downstairs, eat a healthy and nutritious supper, chat to Dexter’s dad about my thrilling day, then watch a couple of hours of murder-porn.
A while back I thought I could stop whenever I wanted—but I’m not so sure anymore. I blame The Killing, The Bridge, and more recently, Broadchurch. They were the gateway shows; sucking me in with their long-running convoluted plots, the Bafta-begging acting. But then I got hooked and now, thanks to the Sky planner, I’ll watch anything—people coming back from the dead in a spooky French valley? I’m there, gorging myself box-set fashion. Gillian Anderson in a silk power blouse, hunting a Northern Irish sex-killer? Can’t get enough of it, especially the scenes where the murderer rocks his little children to sleep. Murdered, pregnant teen in the lake? Who dunnit? Who cares—when the whole community is broiling in guilt. And for light relief, when I just want to party—Hannibal—an American show where the victims are impaled on stag antlers, strangled by ‘neckties’ made of their own tongues or left bleeding to death whilst clutching their own internal organs like a bunch of sticky grapes. “Pass the After Eights,” I instruct Dexter’s Dad, saucer-eyed as I watch Hannibal, the urbane anti-hero cook somebody’s liver in a fine froth of asparagus cream.
Hannibal though is just for laughs compared to last night’s Southcliffe. This surely must be the heroin of murder-porn. “Harrowing” “Hard-hitting” and “Gritty” say the fawning TV critics and Channel 4 press releases, so no-one can say I haven’t been warned. I am a consenting adult after all, so I’ve only myself to blame, but it was with a slightly heavy heart that I set the Sky planner to record yet another beautifully shot drama full of horror, despair and lashings of Acting. Do I really need this? Can I actually stomach another elongated tale of violent death and the effects of violent death on the characters left behind, however true to life it purports to be?
Like ITV’s Broadchurch, Southcliffe is set in a typical British anytown amidst a community of people that we are encouraged to recognise as ourselves, just better acted. A disaffected veteran goes on a shooting spree and a few hours later, several members of the community are dead, while many others are left emotionally broken. Unlike Broadchurch this is Why-dunnit, not Who-dunnit, because today’s murder-porn is all about showing the viewer just how close they are to being both victim and perpetrator. TV drama is the most powerful medium for this kind of narrative, not only because it can dedicate almost unlimited time to picking over its material—a four-part series, a thirteen-part serial, multiple seasons if it gets the viewing figures—but unlike film or even a good book, it shares a platform with television news—so we are already conditioned to believe in it more.
When I was an undergraduate I took a module in Horror film because I was fascinated by the so-called tropes of the genre—I devoured texts by Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Laura Mulvey and Kim Newman and re-read Freud’s essay on the uncanny over and over. Unfortunately I was really, really bad at watching horror films. Unlike most of the class (mainly boys) who had spent their formative years renting video nasties and endlessly replaying the ‘good bits’, I had never seen Psycho, The Living Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Thing, Friday the 13th or Evil Dead. Consequently the weekly screenings became something of a trial. I spent most of them with my eyes screwed shut and my hands over my ears to block out the scary music, being jeered at by my co-students. Twenty years later and things haven’t changed much—I still put my hands over my ears when the music signals a scary bit coming up, and I have been known to get up suddenly and leave the room on the pretext of letting the cat in or fetching more After Eights.
“Shall I stop it for you?” Dexter’s dad calls after me as I head for the kitchen.
“It’s okay,” I call back, “I can tell what’s going to happen anyway.”
Which is usually true, because despite all the great script-writing, the atmospheric locations and subtle emoting by increasingly star-studded casts, I can usually tell what is coming next because even the best murder-porn drama subscribes loosely to traditional narrative techniques and is packed with clichés. For example every community stricken by a particularly nasty crime tends to be riddled with dark secrets that somehow connect back to the crime and might even be at the root of it. There is always a husband cheating on his wife, the vicar’s closet is generally full of skeletons, and the investigating detective will of course be racked with personal problems and have a guilty connection to the crime. And while the archetypal old man who runs the local sweet shop and boys’ brigade will always turn out NOT to be the child-abuser, somebody with a beard usually is. And if I have to see another small terrified boy hiding in a wardrobe while the camera pans down his darkening trouser leg to a puddle of pee…well I’ll crack, I really will. Because I’ve had enough of seeing child actors pretending to be terrified victims—they’re just too good at it.
These days, if I need to see an innocent child suffer I just make Dexter watch Numberjacks or the new CGI Peter Rabbit currently being aired on CBeebies. Because even on the BBC’s generally excellent pre-schoolers channel there seems to be a slavish fawning towards presenting scary stuff complete with jeopardy and ‘baddies’ aplenty. The Numberjacks villain, aka The Number-taker, looks like a coked-up Patrick Stewart in white top hat and tails who’s just climbed out of a flour bin. While in Peter Rabbit, Mr McGregor is a disembodied pair of boots chasing Peter and his trendy young friends around a garden rife with murderous cats and precariously positioned rakes. “Scaredy, scaredy me!” shouts Dexter running out of the room as soon as the theme music for Peter Rabbit kicks in, and I can’t say I blame him.
Okay, so we get it—bad stuff happens—to fluffy rabbits in cottage gardens as well as to people minding their own business in small towns. I only need to listen to the news this week to remind myself of that, but I put it to you—and Dexter agrees with me—that there is something a bit manipulative about these made-for-TV fear-fests inviting us to gaze, passive and wide-eyed, at an expensively shot, exquisitely realised facsimile of human terror and grief. As though we are somehow being tested to see how much we can handle. Before I became a stuck-at-home Mum I used to make trailers for CBeebies and CBBC where I was regularly encouraged to ‘age-up’ the things I was making so that children as young as three and four would feel like bigger, tougher kids. That echoes in my mind a lot when I watch Dexter suffer through an episode of Tree Fu Tom or the turbo-charged Peter Rabbit. I have also begun to wonder if all the murder-porn currently doing the rounds is an attempt to do a similar thing with its adult audience. Are we tough enough to sit through another sex murder rampage? Can we handle the truth about child abuse? “This is real life” these dramas seem to tell us—BAD STUFF HAPPENS! And if you steal yourself to watch the latest fictional reconstruction; you’ll not only get a vicarious thrill from seeing people who aren’t you suffering, but you’ll also ‘engage with the issues’ behind such horrific events as mass shootings, child-abuse, and so-called serial killings. It’s what they used to call ‘Take Out’ when I was still making TV programmes—entertainment laced with, if not exactly education, then edification.
Dexter however seems to have found the perfect antidote to the on-screen violence visited on his own channel—a Bagpuss DVD—no social comment, no scary music and if there is a message then it’s something vague about the wonders of the world and the beauty of telling stories for their own sake. Perhaps it’s time to join him.