Guy Rundle on GEM: television's brilliant cultural gully trap

Though he was by any reasonable measure one of the country’s most successful film-makers, there isn’t much chance that Don Sharp will get a career retrospective.

The actor-writer-director, born in Hobart, made dozens of films in the UK, in every conceivable genre. He made the 1978 version of The Thirty-Nine Steps, the flat version, not the exciting one from the 1930s. He made Curse of the Fly, but not the terrifying classic The Fly, to which it was the sequel.

He had a great life as far as one can tell, in front of and behind the camera, but you would have to dig deep into Netflix and beyond to come up with some of his more obscure work. Yet if you’re watching Channel GEM, hungover or stuporous from a lurgy, or filling out your 40 applications a month, then Don Sharp’s work will live again, as Rasputin:The Mad Monk fills the screen.

Produced in 1966 by Hammer Films and starring Christopher Lee and a range of lesser-known British thesps, Rasputin is a film of its time, seeing in the life of the “Mad Monk” something of a precursor to the abandon of the 1960s, a minor example of the compelling magus figure that, for example, the Rolling Stones would take over, and make their own in Their Satanic Majesties Request.

Summoning up a lurid version of the Tsarist ancient regime for the era of its release, now, recirculated, it summons that era — rock ‘n’ roll, espresso as a daring option, Technicolor hues, hand-drawn movie posters — for us. Seen on TV, it is best watched half-conscious, as an aesthetic act, dissolving the boundary between world and self, so that one can half-imagine it is coming from within.

Were one to dial this movie up from a download site, or a DVD store, it would be, for all but aficionadae of the genre, close to unendurable; encountered on TV, seen right through for no reason other than that one can’t be bothered to get up from the sofa long enough to reach for the remote, it becomes about as simple and pleasurable experience as one is likely to get.

That distinct pleasure, one mode of television, may well be the medium’s greatest gift to culture, combining an immersive experience with a random one, offering something you never saw coming that totally captivates, at least for a time.

For a long time that was the only mode of watching television. However much the pre-pay TV, pre-VCR era might have been one of people gathering around the TV for their shows, it was crucially one in which the shows were chosen by someone else, for the viewer, who chose from limited options.

From the 1960s, when TV had acquired a back-catalogue of taped programs, to the 2000s, when the spread of pay TV and then of online streaming  created an entirely different media environment, TV’s most charactersitic mode was randomness. Outside of prime time, shows became jumbled together: news, comedy, drama, game shows, reality.

Studios forced networks to buy their product en bloc, taking “the good” with “the bad”. Forgotten series would appear years later, episodes would run out of sequence — and the addition of the back catalogues of movies from the Hollywood era turned TV into a compulsive memory machine, a whole chunk of the century endlessly circulating in one corner of the living room.

And then, for a decade or more, it was gone. Pay TV offered specifically targeted channels; network TV, to compete, could no longer stuff any old bollocks in its off hours. Black-and-white shows were no longer credible for an audience that had no memory of monochrome transmission. And changes in media regulations made it possible for networks to run paid advertising in the off hours, when they had once screened movies.

In the 1980s, it was possible to see three classic films noirs in a night, simply by staying tuned to Channel Ten. The networks’ demand that they be allowed to run hours of Guthy-Renker put a stop to that. Network TV became focused, to a hitherto unprecedented degree, on the few prime-time hours, when event TV and must-watch series bore a lot of the weight for revenue and presence. Network TV became a rather monotonous genre.

And then came digital. Not actual digital, of course, since that is essentially the end of channelling, and thus the end of TV as we have known it. What is known as “digital” TV is, in reality, a digitally compressed analog signal, the process allowing for 20 or so channels to be squeezed on to a spectrum space that could previously host no more than four or five.

Why those channels — a scarce resource — should be not only considered commercial property but handed over to the existing networks is a question for another time. Commercialised they have been, in a market where even a half-dozen channels were failing. The possibility that they would be filled with original or current content is nil, and so the networks have kept a claim on their real estate by running strings of old sitcoms, long advertorial and low-rent reality shows.

Everyone’s doing it, but there’s random and there’s random. Eleven, Ten’s second channel, looks like a regional US channel — WWTF in Wyoming — with a string of old sitcoms. Seven Two has a quiet gag programming “street shows” — Kingswood CountryCoronation StreetShortland Street — in a row — but none of them come close to the combination kaleidoscope/cultural gully trap that is Channel Nine’s second channel, GEM.

Whoever is programming GEM is some sort of genius, a broadcast collagist, jamming together 70 years of zero-degree popular culture in ways that reveal fresh aspects and angles, and serve to make the familiar strange, and the strange uncanny. On Gem, a ’60s Hammer schlocker like Rasputin is likely to be succeeded by four episodes of Friends, followed by a half-hour advertorial, followed by Sphere, a Dustin Hoffman ’90s sci-fi that appears to have left no trace on the culture whatsoever.

CSI New York is preceded by Billy Wilder’s late mildly risque 60s comedy Irma La Douce, and then there is Gideon’s Way, a black and white British crime show from the 1960s, full of scheming spivs, and night shots of post-war London. Quite possibly no-one is actually programming this channel in any literal sense — it may well be that the schedule has been filled by sending the workie to opp shops, and grabbing whatever VHS tapes they’re selling at ten cents a go.

This is TV as it is meant to be watched for maximum pleasure, an antidote to the great illusion of our age, deeply embedded in Amazon, Netflix and both mirroring and reinforcing a neoliberal culture — the idea that choice, freedom and pleasure are somehow identical, each expressed in the other.

That was easy to believe in the first flush of online culture, when a whole series of otherwise limited circulation or unavaialble material was suddenly there at the tap of a screen. Since then, it must surely have become evident to many — in some half-formed way — that choice is work, the work of consumption, and like all work, demands a degree of repression.

The characteristic mood of much culutral consumption these days is initial desire, followed by the necessity of choice from an impossibly wide field of options, followed by rising panic, irritation, a tight frustration reminiscent of the sexual variant of that emotion, anger, acceptance, purchase and immediate regret.

With open-choice, all the work of self-shaping, of meaning, is thrown back on the isolated individual. As the ratio between culture offered — the thousands of new songs uploaded to iTunes every day – and the limited space for consumption by one individual once, widens towards infinity,  the possibility of making choice meaningful vanishes towards zero. The core process that lies at the heart of human culture — the ritualised gift between others, binding them and othering them at the same time- – goes missing, and things become unanchored.

Broadcast TV like Gem brings it back. What you’re watching is ‘a given’, an exchange with what we call the ‘Big Other’, whether it be the Delphic oracle, the God of Moses, or the voice of Being, as variously spotted in the landscape of the sublime or the poetry of Holderlin. (Does anyone else find it suspicious that Seinfeld, translates from the German as ‘field of Being’, or is it just me?). Gem’s collage of shows has removed any trace of subjectivity, intent or design from the juxtaposition — what remains is the pure pleasure of the gift.

Take the juxtaposition of the ’70s children’s movie Swallows and Amazons with episodes of Friends for example. What would be more lame, pleasureless and deeply self-alienating than watching a DVD of a season of Friends – actually putting it in the machine, cueing it up etc?

It’s the middle-age cultural equivalent of teen cutting. But when it’s just there, flowing out, it’s something else — the bright, Disneyesque colours, the goofy big jokes are not merely an aspic record of pre 9-11 New York, and the metropolitan United States, but of a certain style of subjectivity, a way of being young and metropolitan in the interlude between the ’60s/punk era of heroic youth culture, and the finely wrought fancies of hipsterism.

Friends mirrors the essential innocence that Edwardian/Georgian British childrens’ literature achieved – in Swallows and Amazons, Famous Five and the like – through rural pastoral. The Friends are the marooned children of RM Ballantyne’s Coral Island, which inaugurated the genre, brought to a close in children’s literature by Lord of the Flies, and then by those planes slamming into those towers (Swallows and Amazons is not that innocent in itself; written by the Guardian‘s Russia correspondent, in Moscow during and after the October revolution, and a Bolshevik sympathiser, it is really a retelling of Leninist strategy, from the revolution to the launch of the New Economic Policy, with sailing as a trope for dialectical materialism).

Thus does given culture give us more than we could ever choose. When three or four completely different shows are added together — Ellen, a black and white movie, CSI, and a British ‘reality’ show — then the complexity becomes almost unreadable. The most enduring effect is probably the way in which the sea of cheap TV colour, restores the starkness of black and white, its outline of the separateness of eras, the impossibility of access to the past.

Gem is a channel with a deep strain of melancholy running underneath. Its value lies not in the fact that it is knowingly restroing the lost work of Don Sharp to the culture, but that it gives all appearance of not having a clue that it is doing that. Whoever you are, lonely programmer in the back room, we salute you. The lost joy of broadcast TV has been restored for a time, until it disappears for ever, into a post-broadcast era. But for now, the best thing on television, is television.

15 responses to “Guy Rundle on GEM: television's brilliant cultural gully trap

  1. Increasingly, I reckon I would renew my Crikey sub just for the Rundle articles. And here, you’re giving them away for free so I can share them around. Great stuff.

  2. Yes, I thought I was the only GEM fan. Films I had forgotten I liked, as you say it’s like being wrapped in a feather quilt. Also love the 5am slot – Dangerman, Seaway, Gideons Way (probably have my channels confused but you get the drift).

  3. Very interesting insight!

    It’s a pity that most of the secondary channels from the commercial networks are largely uninspiring, but I must admit stumbling onto a 1960s film on a Saturday afternoon on Gem invokes memories of Saturday afternoon TV in the 1970s and 1980s or even the mid-dawn slot on Nine when they’d wheel out all sorts of random films… always leading into Dangerman or Gideon’s Way at 5.00am!

  4. Bravo! After a dozen years without one at home i still feel the pull of tvs in hotels rooms & staying at rellies, finally i get it & am nostalgic for the accidental epiphanies of (for me) Pinewood studios, Starstruck, & Empress Wu.

  5. What an interesting and nostalgic take on a TV networks attempt to make money out of the detritus of their library shelves.

    I know nothing about you Guy but it’s sounds like you sampled this when you were coming down off a particularly big night on a lazy, wet Sunday having some well deserved couch time with absolutely no desire to get up beyond the necessary calls of nature. I am envious it sounds like it was fun.

  6. Gem brings back a classic feature of my youth (1980’s) – Saturday afternoon movies! I have seen some great ones, and some shockers. I actually saw Zsa Zsa
    Gabor in a movie for the first time. On Sunday mornings they show The Avengers (Steed and Mrs. Peel, not Iron Man et al). I had never before seen this great show, although I was of course aware of it. I also saw re-runs of Green Acres, and gained a new appreciation of just what a surreal show that was! Still, I don’t know if GEM is the most random channel. I am currently watching Dirty Harry on WTV (the digital equivalent of the old Channel 31, which at one point was showing Amos and Andy. I wasn’t even sure if that was legal!)

  7. One of your best, Guy. I totally agree there’s a Utopian function in live-to-air-broadcast mass culture that transcends its ideological content and is totally missing from the anxiety of absolute choice entailed in the digital delivery of hyper-consumption. Mind you I’d get Rasputin the Monk out on DVD if they had in the store.

  8. It just gets worse. I’m hanging on to my subscription for the moment but if I have to read one more of Rundle’s truly irritating pieces in spite of some of the better work he produces that’ll be it.

  9. “as above”, basically. Once again, Guy Rundle gives coherent form to things that were trundling (rundling? if only) around in my brain. And the piece is much more than a “woe is contemporary intertubes culture” type whine (in my humble opinion).
    Thanks once more :)

  10. I could never quite put my finger on why it was so great to flick and stumble across a favorite movie on one of these random chanels, a movie that you have a DVD of in the cupboard just 2 meters away, but would have non intention of watching until that moment you realise its “on tv”.

    1. KAT: You’ve cheered me up no end. I suffer from this malady which has begun to niggle away at my self-esteem. Thanks to you, I can now relax and stop looking for shrinks, when confronted by my fetish.

  11. This is a gem. One of the best pieces of pop cultural criticism I’ve read for ages. Funny, insightful, provocative, with some serious things to say about contemporary culture. Nails it particularly on the celebration of ‘choice’.

  12. The repressing aspect of unlimited choice is probably why I always prefer to use the “radio stations” function on Spotify, rather than pick the songs myself; the only downside is, the stations all inexorably converge on Toto, as if Rosanna or The Line were the endpoint for all music.


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