The horror. The horror. There are few horror shows, even in the horror film canon, so reliably terrifying as Apocalypse Now. Francis Ford Coppola’s expensive, flawed and peculiar masterpiece remains a horror, and when Colonel Kurtz offered his monologue again on SBS last Friday, it had lost none of its power to terrify. Evil in the jungle is not done by monsters, Kurtz tells us, but by men. It is done by men. It is done by the hollow men of a colonising west who, in attributing monstrous qualities to the brown millions they slew and enslaved, become evil themselves.
They become evil. And unless they have a good hard think about themselves, they make blithely evil programs like I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.
Whether or not you saw it on the back of Apocalypse Now, last night’s debut hour of western repression was its own kind of horror. I mean, have you seen this shit, which is not filmed, as claimed, “deep in the African jungle”, but in a game reserve. If you have not viewed the program itself, perhaps you have glimpsed images promoting it which offer us an Australian celebrity vet in a brief “Africa”-inspired ensemble, which refers less to any dress that has ever been worn by an African people than it does to the limited imagination of a wardrobe department. One, apparently, that resides happily in the nineteenth century and has no knowledge of Apocalypse Now nor of the novella on which it is based, Heart of Darkness. Which, fairly perversely, I re-read last night to convince myself that the long psychological process of decolonisation had been started in the western mind and, surely, could not have just been ended by Dirty Street Pie and Fev.
It is difficult to watch this program — which can only get bearable if contestant Shane Warne does go full Kurtz — and understand how it was produced in this era. As marvellously camp and mocking as its host Julia Morris can be, there is surely no comic flourish that makes this lurid ethnocentrism broadly acceptable. And I don’t mean “unasseptable” in the PC Super Nanny moralising sense, but just in what we as viewers can actually accept without being so embarrassed, we have to turn off the fucking telly. The vision of black men in pith helmets serving drinks to white tourists surely makes many people squirm as I did and the sound of “jungle drums” manufactured by the Rudyard Kipling White Man’s Burden studio is horrid. Like many western people, I do not care to be regularly reminded of the evil of my history. It is difficult enough to read Conrad and watch his self-awareness and guilt emerge. It is impossible to watch this colonist’s cartoon and I wondered how one could ever think to appear on it. How could one take this voyage into the darkness of the self and down the river of despair?
How? Why? What is the sum that makes someone decide to take a trip out to a sea of vanishing flatness? Even if our celebrities have been too busy acquiring their celebrity through appearances on other celebrity reality programs to know of Joseph Conrad, how could they have no knowledge of good manners? And how could producers pay no respect to basic geography? That this “Dark Continent” shit can survive all the way to twenty-first century primetime is curious. Would it kill the program’s writers to describe or decorate their location a little more particularly than “Africa”? There are more than fifty nation states on the world’s second most populous continent and although I have never visited one of them, I am pretty sure that all of them are at least a little different from the other and that not one of them recognises a gym-toned vet with blonde highlights who cavorts in a suede loincloth “deep in the jungle” as a citizen.
It is rude to apply a one-size-fits-most Disney aesthetic to any people, but it seems especially ill-mannered to do so to a people who not so very long go were in manacles and remain, in many cases, enchained by debt.
Host Chris Brown welcomes us to a mystical continent canopied by “ancient baobab trees”, which are more commonly associated with Madagascar. But, fuzzy misunderstanding of one’s landscape is what produces evil, as Kurtz, by way of T S Eliot, reminds us. This is shape without form, shade without colour. We are the hollow men. We are the stuffed men. Leaning together. Headpiece filled with straw.
While it is true that there were some mildly funny moments in this program and that the promise of seeing luvvies like Val Lehman and Bonnie Lythgoe so far from the comforts of the boards is almost enough to keep me watching, it is also true that the entire thing is just icky.
This is not to say that we should hold the unthinking colonialism of producers responsible for real life horror — the World Bank has done far more damage in African states than Morris ever could in her questionable costume of “headdress”. It is simply to ask: what the fuck? Representing a continent’s culture in such amorphous ooga-booga terms deserves widespread complaint. And, even if it does not elicit such complaint, it will certainly dissuade large numbers of people from watching.
And not just because this is obviously not a respectful way to see “Africa”, but because it is a shameful way for us in the west to see ourselves. When the Nellie leaves from the Thames for the Congo, we no longer see London as the greatest city on earth. “The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.”
This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but in the Bondi Vet’s loincloth.