Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The Prize of Peril

Nigel Havers has dramatically quit "I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!", just hours after complaining to producers about treatment of contestants. The 59-year-old actor finally left camp last night, after he was seen objecting to the Kangaroo Court task, which saw camp members given electric shocks if they failed in the special trial. Havers was seen fuming: 'I'm not up for it, I don't do electric shocks so I'm leaving. I cannot waste another second of my life. I will probably do something drastic like probably go. Every time the celebrities saw a baby Joey shoot out of the kangaroo, they had to bang their gavel. The slowest starts to bang their gavels were given electric shocks. (1)

On last night's show, the smoothie actor made it clear that he was unhappy with the latest task, in which he and the other celebrities should receive a mild electric shock. After threatening to quit, he had a heated exchange with producers and technical staff but was eventually persuaded to return.(2)

Quite why this show is called "reality" is unclear. The "bushtucker trials" are not part of any reality that I know much about, except perhaps where torture is inflicted on people for political reasons. And the tortures get more and more extreme, to titillate the appetite of viewers.

Now we have electric shocks - supposedly "mild" given to the contestants. The situation is fast starting to resemble the celebrated Milgram experiment, the subjects were told to give electric shots to a supposed volunteer, but here they volunteer themselves for electric shocks. Clearly, if they don't react enough to the shock, it is too mild, and no doubt voltages will be adjusted accordingly.

Another contestant actually fainted during the show:

During last night's show, nutritionist McKeith fainted live on television when she learned she had been chosen to do the "Unfairground" trial. Doctors checked her over and decided she had suffered an anxiety attack and Olympic gold medal winner Christie stepped in to tackle the bugs. Earlier, McKeith said she was on the verge of "mental exhaustion" as she became the first ever contestant to refuse to attempt a Bushtucker Trial....She told hosts Ant and Dec: "It's just too much, having things all over my head and my body and trying to move the thing all at the same time. "I feel exhausted, just mental exhaustion." (3)

Julia Raeside, writing in the Guardian, noted that:

she probably thinks now she's physically collapsed this early in the show, she'll be given a break by the viewers. But she couldn't be more wrong. We're like those people in the Milgram experiment who were asked to give strangers electric shocks. We're horrible. We'll keep turning the dial up until she admits defeat and begs to go home.

In Stanley Milgram's celebrated experiment, ordinary people were to give increasingly high electronic shocks to a subject at the prompting of an authority figure. Despite the fact that they could hear the experimental screaming with pain, the majority moved on progressively to send 450 volts through his body, a dose that could certainly be lethal. But in fact, the subject was an actor, the buttons were dummies, and no shocks were actually given.

Yet with shows like "I'm a Celebrity", we have moved on. The voting viewers can keep people in, can vote for them to have the latest "bushtucker" torture, and despite the celebrities very real protest, or the person fainting (which is dismissed as attention seeking behaviour), they vote on and on for each act of sadism, and relish seeing the celebrity suffer. Instead of taking the psychological pressures as genuine, it is dismissed as hysterical antics, dramatic outbursts and fainting fits.

The game show has taken on the trappings of "Tom Brown's Schooldays", where wimps are picked upon for not being manly and despised, and one character says "Moral principles! What's a school boy to do with moral principles? Feed him one end and beat him the other! That's education". Likewise in Goodbye Mr Chips, boys are subjected to Initiation rites, such as "barreling" and there is general bullying of weaker boys by older or stronger boys and any sign of weakness is seen as wimpish, despicable behaviour, and despised. When we see films of these in a period context, we do not identify with the bully, but it is a culture of bullying that is being promoted by the reality TV show, where the ratings are everything.

Michael Portillo commented on this kind of Game Show:

Television brings with it two dangerous hazards: the worship of celebrity, and the blurring of reality and fantasy. As director Christophe Nick commented: "On a game-show set, you can get people to do absolutely anything. The boundary between reality and fiction disappears."

In Robert Sheckley's prescient science fiction short story, "The Prize of Peril", written in the 1950s, he looks forward to where this kind of sadism, in which the trials have to become more unpleasant and nasty to pander to the ever jaded palette of the viewing public, and also shows the unexpected hazards of making euthanasia legal:

The owner of the local television store had explained it further. "You see, Jim, the public is sick of highly trained athletes with their trick reflexes and their professional courage. Who can feel for guys like that? Who can identify? People want to watch exciting things, sure, but not when some joker is making it his business for fifty thousand a year. That's why organized sports are in a slump. That's why the thrill shows are booming."

"I see," said Raeder.

"Six years ago, Jim, Congress passed the Voluntary Suicide Act. Those old senators talked a lot about free will and self-determinism at the time. But that's all crap. You know what the Act really means? It means the amateurs can risk their lives for the big loot, not just professionals. In the old days you had to be a professional boxer or footballer or hockey player if you wanted your brains beaten out legally for money. But now that opportunity is open to ordinary people like you, Jim."

"I see," Raeder said again.

"It's a marvelous opportunity. Take you. You're no better than anyone, Jim. Anything you can do, anyone can do. You're average. I think the thrill shows would go for you."

Raeder permitted himself to dream. Television shows looked like a sure road to riches for a pleasant young fellow with no particular talent or training. So he appeared on Underwater Perils, sponsored by Fairlady's Soap. In face mask, respirator, weighted belt, flippers and knife, he slipped into the warm waters of the Caribbean with four other contestants, followed by a cage-protected camera crew. The idea was to locate and bring up a treasure which the sponsor had hidden there.

Mask diving isn't especially hazardous. But the sponsor had added some frills for public interest. The area was sown with giant clams, moray eels, sharks of several species, giant octopuses, poison coral, and other dangers of the deep. It was a stirring contest. A man from Florida found the treasure in a deep crevice, but a moray eel found him. Another diver took the treasure, and a shark took him. The brilliant blue-green water became cloudy with blood, which photographed well on color TV. The treasure slipped to the bottom, and Raeder plunged after it, popping an eardrum in the process. He plucked it from the coral, jettisoned his weighted belt and made for the surface. Thirty feet from the top he had to fight another diver for the treasure. They feinted back and forth with their knives. The man struck, slashing Raeder across the chest. But Raeder, with the self-possession of an old contestant, dropped his knife and tore the man's respirator out of his mouth. That did it. Raeder surfaced and presented the treasure at the standby boat. It turned out to be a package of Fairlady's Soap -- "The Greatest Treasure of All."

Finally, Jim makes it onto the "Prize of Peril", where he has to face trained killers:

"If you accept, Jim Raeder, you will be a hunted man for a week. Killers will follow you, Jim. Trained killers, men wanted by the law for other crimes, granted immunity for this single killing under the Voluntary Suicide Act. They will be trying to kill you, Jim. Do you understand?"

"I understand," Raeder said. He also understood the two hundred thousand dollars he would receive if he could live out the week.

"I ask you again, Jim Raeder. We force no man to play for stakes of death."

"I want to play," Raeder said.

Mike Terry turned to the audience. "Ladies and gentlemen, I have here a copy of an exhaustive psychological test which an impartial psychological testing firm made on Jim Raeder at our request. Copies will be sent to anyone who desires them for twenty-five cents to cover the cost of mailing. The test shows that Jim Raeder is sane, well-balanced and fully responsible in every way." He turned to Raeder.

"Do you still want to enter the contest, Jim?"

"Yes, I do."

"Very well!" cried Mike Terry. "Jim Raeder, meet your would-be killers!"

The presence of doctors - and no doubt psychiatrists will follow soon - on such shows as "I'm a Celebrity" are a clear indication that we are moving in the direction of serious hazard, where there is a risk to health. Contestants need to be given a physical examination to ensure that they will not die, and cause an unacceptable reaction to this kind of show, and they also show how the prize, not only of money, but also of fame, can lure many celebrities into this kind of show. But it is, at the end of the day, an exercise in vicarious sadism, in which viewers tastes can be glutted by ever more inventive and unpleasant trials, and the announcers act as cheerleaders, encouraging and welcoming the voter participation (and cash from calls).

Time was when Clive James showed clips of the Japanese Game Show "Endurance" with wriggling eels and other nasties, and encouraged the viewers to laugh at how other societies enjoyed this sort of sadism, often with a superior air, as if to say, we are not as bad as that. Unfortunately, the lesson that Stanley Milgram taught was that we all are.

But now the viewers are on the sidelines, while below, in the arena, the gladiatorial games continue for their pleasure, and as the Roman Emperor Augustus saw, the circuses are an experience which bonds the audience together, and distracts them from any thinking about social issues, or justice, or compassion.



Nick Palmer said...

I remember an SF story (which may have been a Sheckley one) about a protagonist who started out by having digits amputated on stage for money but had to progress to feed the public appetite for more sensation - inevitably it ended up with the first suicide for money.

Do you remember this one?

TonyTheProf said...

There was a Roald Dalhl story - the Man from The South, which may be what you remember - I don't think Sheckley wrote anything like that:

One of Dahl's more famous adult stories, "The Smoker" (also known as "Man From the South"), was filmed twice as both 1960 and 1985 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and also adapted into Quentin Tarantino's segment of the 1995 film Four Rooms. This bizarre, oft-anthologised suspense classic concerns a man residing in Jamaica who wagers with visitors in an attempt to claim the fingers from their hands. The 1960 Hitchcock version stars Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre. His short story collection Tales of the Unexpected was adapted to a successful TV series of the same name, beginning with "Man From the South".

Nick Palmer said...

Uh Uh.

It was definitely in an SF short story book.