critical thinking on the media|culture|celebrity|sport
Yesterday’s fatal terrorist attack on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo draws our attention to the persistent and undiminishing political power of that antiquated vehicle of expression known as the still-image cartoon. The basic technology of pencil, paper and print, almost banal in its simplicity, nonetheless represents a potent weapon in the fight for journalistic freedom and the democratic right to say what one wants.
Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the term ‘cold media’ to define forms of communication, like cartoons, that require higher sensory participation in order to interpret the message they convey. So the cartoon is a cold medium in contrast to the hotter media of photography or film, the latter of which convey a message (i.e. image) that is more vivid and requires less sensory work to understand it.
Today’s media are, predominantly, hot. They are short, succinct, sensational, and demand little brain or eye or ear work to be fully appreciated. The 140-character tweet is perhaps the ultimate expression of cold information, though the most popular social networks and user-generated sites - Facebook, Instagram, Youtube - attract users with visual/video rather than textual matter.
The cartoon, by contrast, remains colder, harder to digest, more highbrow and intellectually challenging, perhaps even alienating in its aloofness, but therein lies the secret of its success. Much like the book, the sermon and the political pamphlet, the cartoon demands respect and carries with it an air of authority and assurance no hot medium could ever acquire.
Just as the burning of books and the censorship of the printed word has, historically, made a far greater impact on the pursuit of civilisation and democracy than has the latest sensational fad or gimmick, so too, that cold and simple, but frighteningly effective, medium of the cartoon moves the world today - provoking fervent debate on religious and political rights - in far greater degrees than hotter media forms.
Recently I welcomed crime writer Peter Robinson to the School of Cultural Studies, Leeds Metropolitan University. In front of a packed audience in Broadcasting Place, we discussed Peter’s award-winning, best-selling novels featuring Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks (televised in the UK as DCI Banks on ITV).
Peter’s detective stories are notable both for their gripping readability and for the contradictions that he manages to blend seamlessly into his characters and plots. These contradictions – the rational investigator versus the emotional human-being, countryside versus city life, pop culture versus classical music and art, deep love and affection versus murder and hate, a quintessential versus a modern, post-industrial, multicultural Yorkshire – would sit awkwardly in a lesser writer’s works… put it down to over-ambition, the generous critic might say.
But in Peter’s writings, these same contradictions enrichen the stories, adding a literary quality to their sense of atmosphere and humanity whilst in no way diminishing their satisfaction as works of thrilling entertainment.
Inevitably I asked Peter his views on the TV adaptations of his novels, and on the whole he was supportive of ITV’s aims and outcomes, though clearly what the author creates bears no resemblance to what directors, script-writers, producers and others collaborate to conjure up.
In my view, Peter’s works would be best served by a feature-film treatment rather than the quick-fire, soul-removing TV dash. Film Four and other British film interests would do well to explore the potential value of a long-running Banks film series set in the beautiful English/Yorkshire Dales countryside - after all, with 21 Banks novels and counting, there’d be no shortage of material.
The recent death of football legend Sir Tom Finney, who played for the same club – Preston North End - throughout his playing career, has reignited the debate about whether local sporting heroes are a bygone oddity; a phenomenon of the past; a nostalgic but long-lost chapter in the ever-raging commercialisation of the sports-entertainment nexus.
Ironically, history is repeating itself in the football context when we think of how English Premier League greats like Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, John Terry, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, to name a few, have stayed loyal to their local, childhood teams. Things were more of a contrast in the 1970s and 1980s, when the lure of foreign wages attracted the British-born star players – Best, Gascoigne, Rush, Lineker, Waddle, Hoddle and so on – to club teams in Italy, Spain, France and elsewhere.
This said, the days when Finney played football are very different from today – since the maximum wage was abolished in English football in 1960, there has been a gradual shift away from club power to player power. The 1995 Bosman ruling, upholding the right of free labour movement for footballers in the European Union and allowing them to be free agents once their club contracts expired, further tipped the balance in favour of player power – and gave more rope for players’ agents to negotiate lucrative deals with the wealthier clubs, most of which are now owned by capital-rich foreign businessmen.
Outside the realm of sport, other types of local heroes can continue to retain ties with their home towns, even after they leave for the big smoke or foreign climes, and there is usually little resentment when this happens. So the best actors and directors head to Hollywood; the best musicians, models and designers to London, Paris or New York, but that steadfast connection to their ‘roots’ lives on in magazine interviews, documentaries, biographies and autobiographies.
So the local hero is not a thing of past, but on a much grander scale than in previous times, today’s local hero is a product of economics. What keeps the twenty-first-century local sports star loyal to his or her origins is not some enduring love of a place and its people – as with Finney’s Preston – but the financial rewards on the table.
Which means, sadly, that sporting clubs, teams and even nations that cannot afford to out-smart competitors for the right to hold onto their beloved heroes end up losing them… to the highest bidder… to the bidder who can promise state-of-the-art training facilities, a luxury lifestyle, a sun that always shines.
Louise Le Prince, founder of modern cinematography, was a great man whose great innovation and expertise justify the blue plaque in his honour, stamped to the wall of the university building in which I teach.
Robbie Williams, famously described as a fat dancer by Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher, may be more than just a fat dancer… he’s quite a good singer actually… but does he deserve a blue plaque? Not on your nelly, sunshine!
Angels, surely his best-known hit, was a big-selling, all-embracing anthem for the late nineties, propelling Williams to global fame and recognition. But let us not forget that Williams is no songwriter – the writers of his songs are carefully hidden behind the mythical veneer of individual genius that Williams loves to perpetuate – nor much of a musician, for that matter. He’s entertaining, funny, a bit of a lad… but his greatness is questionable at best, laughable at worst.
My views on the matter were nicely reported by Andrew Glover in a recent BBC news feature. For once, too, a journalist actually did a decent job representing my views. It’s a really interesting article, raising all kinds of questions about heritage, legacy, historical interpretation and discrimination, and I recommend it to all students of popular culture. Debates of this kind are the very fabric of what we do.