Fifteen Million Merits: Part One

Well then. Fifteen Million Merits last night, right after the X Factor final. Who watched? What did you think? For me, it made me realise how good I’d found The National Anthem, how disturbed I’d been by it and how thought-provoking I’d found it, whereas Fifteen Million Merits (FMM for short, because I’m not typing that every few minutes) left me cold, for the most part. And not in a cold sweat, which is what happened after last week’s. I think because I reacted so extremely to The National Anthem – too upset to sleep, flashbacks throughout the week (especially when a particular sound effect came on in The Archers, oh Jesus), and I was still thinking about it yesterday and making connections; it was going to be tough for anything to compete with that.

Funnily enough, the general consensus seems to be the other way round, that this week was genius, and last week was…well, something to be consigned to a pig sty. All I know is, during TNA, I was gripped for every single ghastly minute. During FMM I kept pulling up the TV guide on screen and making sure I wasn’t missing any good films. Then I spent most of the time on Twitter, which is both exactly what Charlie Brooker probably wants but detests me for at the same time.

So, FMM. Where to begin? We start with scenes of Bing (the amazing Daniel Kaluuya)  waking up in his screen-bound world, losing merits for every time he ‘takes’ something – toothpaste, skipping an advert, eating some food – and gaining them by just pedalling on a bike for hour on end, presumably generating the energy needed to run the technology that is keeping everybody prisoner. We see a selection of the ‘entertainment’ on offer, and let me tell you, there’s no such thing as ‘Frasier’ in this dystopian future. Nope, it’s all fat people stuffing their faces, computer generated bike rides, and X Factor style ads for ‘Hot Shot’ (a talent show) – oh, and the ‘Wraith Babes’ channel. Bearing the example from TNA in mind (i.e. everything you see means something), I knew to keep an eye on this ‘Wraith Babes’ malarkey, and that this wouldn’t be the last we saw of it.

Bing is in love with a girl called Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay), but in a world where everything is controlled and manufactured, can their love exist? So far, so 1984, as I’m sure everybody said. Being TV illiterate, I haven’t seen either Downton Abbey or Fades, which is what the two leads are known for being in, so I had no frame of reference for them as actors. I thought they were fantastic, and not unlike the way Rory Kinnear and Lindsay Duncan made TNA by playing it gruesomely straight, these two carved something from the script by injecting a very natural, very real romance into a world where everything is false.

PLOT TIME! It takes ages for the plot to get started, unlike the ‘PIG SEX’ precisely one minute into TNA. I think it’s to build up a picture (or, screen) of the eye-bleeding monotony of their lives, where everything, including porn, is prescribed. The edge has been taken off everything – fruit is all too perfect; the Wraith Babes seem to be performing a very clinical, softcore, Britney Spears backing dancer-esque set of wriggling about; anything created is chucked. Abi constantly makes little origami penguins, which the yellow-clad cleaners throw away repeatedly. ‘Debris’, they mutter as they swat the little birds from around her. So Abi and Bing slope onwards in their pointless lives, watching crappy TV, and listening to a guy who REALLY reminded me of comedian Lee Mack yelling at the screen and at the cleaners.

I am the MTV generation folks, whether I like it or not. My attention span isn’t the best. I was flagging around 40-50 minutes in, wondering where the scathing dissection of the X Factor was that I’d been promised. Christ, the only reason I’d sat through the bloody X Factor final was to provide some context for this show! Dear Mr Cowell, I will be invoicing you for the two hours of my life that I shall never get back. Anyway, Bing hears Abi singing in the bathroom and tells her she should enter ‘Hot Shot’. She explains that she lives ‘hand to mouth’, that she can’t throw away the merits needed (the Fifteen Million of the title.) Bing promises he’ll give her his. It’s a sweet scene, both actors play it very innocently, making it all the more unbearable when the huge screen opens up next to Bing broadcasting the Wraith Babes to all and sundry. Oh, didn’t I mention? The screens are like those hideous targeted ads that stalk you around the internet. You know, when you accidentally scroll your mouse over them and they open up and pelt you with loud noise and you can’t turn them off. Well, imagine that following you around. On all your walls.

Bing is embarrassed, because the screen clearly projects what you’ve been watching previously, or something similar. Now this is the KEY POINT. You’ve got to watch Abi’s reaction when the trashy looking Babes come on. She sweetly averts her eyes and looks at the floor until it’s gone, then raises her head awkwardly. This is the reaction you need to remember as foreshadowing of what’s to come.

Read Part Two here:

Fifteen Million Merits: Part Two

About two million hours in – or, the length of an X Factor final itself – we finally got somewhere. Bing purchases the ‘Hot Shot’ ticket and accompanies a nervous Abi , who is beginning to have doubts about the whole ordeal. Bing talks her into it, and they swoop down to get her checked in. Bing gets a ‘Hot Shot’ stamp on his hand as her designated friend/family, and is told it’ll probably last ‘about two months’. No kidding, I’ve suffered at the hands of an overzealous stamper before when I’ve been on a night out, and it SUCKS. Led to the ‘backstage’ area, we get a glimpse of the ‘behind the scenes’ bit we always see on X Factor/Britain’s Got Talent, where hoardes of hopeless hopefuls are warming up or stretching out. The only difference is they’re all in grey tracksuits. No Kitty Brucknells here (THANK GOD.)

FINALLY, I think. We’re getting somewhere. Eventually Abi gets through to the stage, and we see the judges: Judges Charity, Hope, and…you guessed it, Wraith. A quote from 1 Corinthians (chanks Google, sadly I can’t remember huge chunks of the Bible myself) says this: ‘And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity’. Nice one guys, rhyming ‘charity’ with ‘charity’ was really ace. Anywho. I’m not in any way saying you’d have been better pushed to spend the time reading the Bible, no sirree bob. But what in God’s name was Rupert Everett thinking with his bizarre accent?

I still can’t work out if it was Aussie, New Zealand or South African. I like to imagine that he’s the kind of actor who gets really, really into the role, and just showed up at rehearsal and went ‘guys. Guys! I’VE GOT IT. I’m going to make him an Aussie/New Zealander/South African!’, and everybody just had to go ‘heeeey! Nice one Rupes, great idea’ etc etc until he shut up and drank his Starbucks. I adore Rupert Everett, I just didn’t understand what the accent was about. I would guess that they didn’t want it to be an impression of Simon Cowell, but last week worked on the basis of Rory Kinnear looking like a love child of Nick Clegg and David Cameron, so why would you deviate from that? Julia Davis was clearly giving her all to an impression of Amanda Holden. Everett just perched on the end looking like a mug shot of George Michael and acting up a storm, but with an ACCENT.

Aaand calm. Anyway, they hustled Abi into the spotlight, and she sang, and Judge Wraith began to talk about her taking her top off, and she looked confused and nervous, and Judge Hope (Everett) said ‘throw another shrimp on the Barbie, mate’. Then the crowd (all made up of avatars) cajoled Abi into signing up to be one of Wraiths Babes. She agreed. The kind, naive, innocent Abi was hauled off to provide 24 hour porn, which Bing himself would later have to watch (not having enough merits to skip it.) Even the scene where he had to watch her tartily made up face contorted on screen wasn’t quite there for me. I may be an utter pervert, but I wanted to see even more humiliation for her. Otherwise it was just a girl with some makeup on with some chap’s thumb in her mouth. A normal Friday out in Tunbridge Wells, what what!

Has anybody ever watched Babestation? Because that’s what Wraith Babes sort of was. If you haven’t, you’ve got to. True fact: you can actually hear your soul steadily seeping away. I remember flicking onto it with a friend and talking about the deadened eyes and plastic lips of the girls. It’s not even porn – the girls have sex with the air as opposed to a man/woman/pig, and they can never take their knickers off, I believe. What upsets me the most about watching it is thinking ‘that’s somebody’s little girl. That plastic chested, shark eyed girl was once a baby.’ Unbearable. I’d hazard a guess that a lot of girls who go for ‘modelling’ careers end up there. So, that’s what lovely Abi with the origami penguins and the fringe was consigned to for the rest of her life.

I don’t think a good enough reason was given as to why. Ok, she’d been drugged slightly before she went on, and the audience of avatars were cheering for her to do it, but really there wasn’t a moment when I saw that she had to make that choice. And she had a choice – it was porn or back to the bikes. Dude! The bikes weren’t that bad! Sorry, but if Brooker can make me think that the PM had no choice but to have sex with a pig on live TV, he should be able to make me think a girl can sell herself to a life of Babestation.

I found the avatar audience pointless. It lost the imposing feel of a real audience. If you’ve watched a talent show, you know that the ugliest part is when the camera turns on the audience and focuses on a single face as it turns from delight to anger, and starts chanting ‘off, off! OFF!’ And here’s where my stumbling block was. I was expecting this programme to really, really rinse X Factor/BGT for all it was worth. I thought Cowell would be completely lampooned. I thought the whole franchise would wriggle under the weight of Brooker’s careful and precise incisions.

Read the final part, Part Three here:

Fifteen Million Merits: Part Three

But alas, it was not to be. I would go as far as saying that you could pick any single episode of X Factor/BGT and you’d see something uglier and more brutal than what Brooker depicted. Ok, so the contestants aren’t being offered a porn deal (not on screen, anyway), but what about when the researchers send through a person with clear mental illnesses for us to laugh at? That happens EVERY. SINGLE. SERIES. Think how many times you’ve laughed at a completely deluded contestant only to stop yourself after a while and go ‘wait, this isn’t right’. People with psychological difficulties are put through round after round by researchers with no scruples, told endlessly how talented they are until they confront the judges. The judges then tell them something like ‘the dream ends here, today’, and they either protest or shuffle off.

Of course they protest! The process by which they gain access to the stage is one in which they are told how fantastic they are! This is not my guesswork, by the way, that’s really what happens behind the scenes. People JEERED Susan Boyle when she came on, purely because of how she looked. That poor girl Jesy from Little Mix has suffered endless torments about her looks and weight. Even last night on Twitter people were passing round photos of animals and saying it was her, or capturing her at ugly angles. That poor, poor kid. She might have won the show with her band last night, but the psychological scars won’t be as short-lived as the fame she’ll probably experience.

There is SO MUCH to be said about X Factor. How we treat people as villains for no reason, how it’s the 21st century equivalent of the Victorian freakshow, how the judges will say anything to sell records. And that’s before you even consider all the scandals about fixing, the bad press stories that the show itself propagates just to gain column inches, and the fact that the pile of nobodies who have won the show in previous years is getting higher and higher. And let me ask you this – can anybody tell me exactly what it is that Little Mix have won? Yes, I know they’ve won ‘The X Factor’, but what are the details here? Have they got a contract? Nothing was mentioned, I’m pretty sure. This is a week when scandal after scandal has hit British X Factor, but the events over at US X Factor are even weirder. Rachel Crow, a girl of 13 or 14, I believe, was voted off the competition this week. Her reaction? She sank to the floor, called for her mum, sobbed her heart out and yelled ‘mama! You PROMISED me!’

These programmes are ugly, and I think most of us have begun to see that. We are no longer in the thrall of them, we’ve had too many vote fixing scandals and insincere comments from the judges to actually take them seriously any more. Brooker portrayed the judges as being the ultimate authority. Actually, this year, we’ve seen the judges criticised as much as (if not more than) the contestants. When ‘reality’ is so ugly in 2011, I would have liked to have seen a really scathing, merciless take down of X Factor. Considering Konnie Huq co-wrote it, and she worked on the programme in 2010, I felt it lacked any insider info. People have claimed that after the axe had fallen on her job, she wrote this to get back at the show. Really? It would have been more effective to paint ‘You suck’ onto the side of a pig and send it on the X Factor stage. I just don’t think the programme was put under the microscope at ALL. It all felt a bit….well, GCSE Drama, really.

There is one more thing, though. I felt disappointed by the postscript in TNA, but in FMM the last 20 minutes were the best bit. Bing worked his way up to the credits needed, tucked a shard of glass into his pants (or was he just pleased to see me?) and proceeded onto the stage. Unfortunately, he didn’t stab Aussie George Michael in the sunglasses, but held it to his own throat and just yelled at everybody. The judges pretended to listen. Aussie George Michael leaned forwards and said something like ‘that was….without a doubt….BRILLIANT’, and got him to speak more. Bing’s anger became sanitised and as a result, he was given his own show, twice a week, half an hour each. He did the whole show with the shard of glass pressed up to his throat, yelling at the system but ultimately becoming increasingly inauthentic, the same as everything else.

Say…here’s a question, kids. Can we think of another angry man who has become a very cog in the thing he hates so much? Who is wheeled out to just yell at things until we all laugh? No, not Konnie Huq. No, not the pig from TNA, now you’re just being stupid. Yes! Charlie Brooker. Spot on. Charlie Brooker is the man who has to hold a shard of glass up to his throat for the rest of eternity, spitting bile and garnering viewers, hating the system but earning money for that very system. Quite a nice touch.

So, that was Fifteen Million Merits. I wonder if I do better with things that look more like our own world, as in TNA? Perhaps it was a little too futuristic for me (although as we speak Google are developing interactive rooms like Bing’s.) I didn’t wake up scarred for life this morning. It was a bit limp. Maybe The Xtra Factor wanted Konnie back to host, and she had to tone down her criticism of the programme. Who knows/cares. I’m off to download the Little Mix single and read the Daily Mail for all the latest X Factor scandals. Ta ra for now.

**Mulling it over, there is one more point I feel I’ve missed. When Bing goes to enter the competition, he’s let through the scanner with no questions asked, even though I’m fairly sure it’s obvious that he’s…erm…got something down his trousers. The security guard sort of gives him a look. It’s been bothering me, that little bit. I wonder if that in itself is a comment on the kind of people they let through to these shows – i.e. as long as they’ll provide entertainment, it doesn’t matter whether they’re a terrible performer, mentally challenged, or carrying a weapon. Just a thought. Another one. **