THE GLITTER VORTEX: the seductive diversion of the Russian Box. – Generation P: Edward Crabtree’s blog.
How can I discuss television as a medium without sounding like a pseudo- Herbert Marcuse type figure sounding off about `psychoterror` and `constructed realities` and so on? The problem is that television is both superseded and powerful. The millenials are all on Tumbegrinder and Twitface anyway.
And yet – and yet we live in a television moulded world: both Trump and
Johnson began as television stars before being voted in as leaders of their
nations. Likewise, the Russian political establishment – from the Great Leaders
New Year message onwards -owes much to broadcasting.
As much as I would like to sneer, I
am a member of the televison generation myself. The first full novel
that I read, aged about eight, was a novelisation of The Tomorrow People –
a children’s science fiction show. Later, the arts programme The South Bank
Show would introduce me to authors that I would later read and music shows
like The Tube to the popular music which was out there. All of this has
shaped what I am.
Bread and circuses.
It seems fitting that the Ostankino radio tower provides one of the most conspicuous sights in all of Moscow. This illuminated edifice, the tallest of its kind in Europe, represents the capital as much as Red Square does.
Television constitutes the most popular medium of the Russian Federation.
No licence is needed for it, and should you not have one in your flat there is
one in your local cafe or bar – a one-eyed monster with a cathode ray gun aimed
at your head.
Russia boasts 3300 channels with Channel One, Russia 1 and NTV1 being sent
out all across the nation. The government owns, or has a controlling interest
in, many of these stations as does Bank Rosiya, Gazprom, the Russian Orthodox
Church, the military and the Moscow City Administration (CIA World Factbook).
An independent channel exists too. Dozhd (`Rain`) – `The Optimistic
channel` – has of late been slapped by a police raid and subsequent tax audit (Moscow
Times, 1/8/19) – all of which has nothing at all to do with the fact that
their journalists covered the rallies for free elections that took place last
I have spoken to many middle-class Russians who deny ever watching television. They must be untypical because a poll conducted by the Levada centre between 26th and 27th May last year found that 79% of Russians take in serials or films on television every week as opposed to 28% who read some literary fiction.In fact, 55% claimed to only read one book a year and the same proportion of people never attend museums or theatres. Those who never turn up to concerts make up 64% of the population. (Moscow Times, 1/6/19). However, the same polling station discovered that a 25% drop in trust in the TV news over the last ten years. (Moscow Times, 1/8/19).
BBC Russia was pushed off the airways in 2007.Dubbed Western shows that can be found here, however, include Poirot, the IT Crowd,The Simpsons and American Dad. Otherwise Russia is content to produce their own variants of Western hits with a car show called First Gear, with a ballsy female presenter and a talent show called The Voice.
Russian television transmissions feel sleek and sophisticated but also brusque. There are no continuity announcers and commercials flash up without interlude or warning. Speech is quickfire and shouty and the colours are all gaudy purples and yellows.
Contemporary crime drama forms the most prominent type of show. These appear all more or less interchangeable: parades of tough guys and lots of armaments. The more cerebral detective end of this can sometimes spawn promising results as we have seen with Freud’s Method, I See, I know and Akademia.One that seems to be on back to back on Channel five these days is Slyed (`Tracks`), an uptown version of Akademia.
At the other end of the spectrum we have the endless sherbert fountain of Russian pop. RU TV functions as the Russian MTV and it stretches the vacuousness of the genre to snapping point. A manic cult of the nubile young woman is much in evidence with many a scantily clad doll warbling in some hot beachy locale, to the strains of milk -and-water pop/hip-hop dance fusion, posing betwern a Lamborghini and a yacht. The talented Georgian crooner Valerie Meladzhe might liven things up by appearing in a blatant S and M themed video to go with his much polished ballads.
Over on the Mooz channel we ge some live music. Here the more established
acts – Oilka, Sveta and Via Gra –cavort through their routines
before the massed ranks. Here, at least, is a cheery crowd with no pretentions
other than to indulge in some healthy fun.
Tears and laughter.
In Russia, `melodrama` is a distinct genre. It resembles a soap opera condensed down into one or two episodes. The protagonist will be a young woman beset by tragedies from which she emerges at length with the help of a wise old granny, a sassy female friend and and unexpected male suitor. The laboured plots play out in a paralell universe where there are few real money concerns, well resourced hospitals, jobs galore and everyone lives in swish apartments.
They are done rather well and their emotional punch draws one in. Many of them have been made available to the Anglophone world by Star Media who have put them on Youtube with subtitles. (I have linked one of my chersished ones below – Dark Labyrinths of the Past, a borderline psychological thriller).
Russian television comedy strikes me as quite broad. Much of it consists of boisterous skits on modern Russian life, but there is also the comedy of recognition via various stand up shows.
Shysest Kadrov (`Six Cadres`) – with its quickfire assembly line of satirical sketches – seems less ubiquitous than it was a few years ago. Pappini Dochi – Dad’s Daughter’s, on the other hand, seems to play on a perpetual loop. (This tale of a divorced and failed relationship counsellor struggling to raise a clutch of young women is one of the few Russian shows to have been replicated abroad – the German’s have their own tribute to it).
There are lower rungs of the broadcasting hell yet. If you wish to elicit
an agonised grimace from an educated Russian – just say the words Dom 2.
This reality show has, since 2004, been inviting us to gawk at leather trousered aspirants as they mumble inconsequential words to their bottle blonde inmates as they try to build a house which they then have to compete to live in.
Let us not forget the commercials (not that we could!) Should television be believed, Russia is a nation of dyspeptics. Viewers are peppered with a string of adverts offering solutions to stomach complaints complete with graphic images of colons and bladders.
Advertising alcohol has been disallowed so breweries have carried on by
touting zero per cent alcohol beer – though their usual brew carries the same
name and is as well known. (This same kind of pointless censoriousness extends
to pop videos where, for example, should someone be puffing on a fag or holding
a drink, this will be pixellated out!)
In some areas Russian television does shine. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson ( 1979-1986) is well established as a classic adaptation of the Conan-Doyle canon. Less well known gems on the same lines include Kapatin Nemo (1975), inspired by the Captain Nemo tales of Jules Verne, which boasts a sumptuous score and an atmosphere which transcends the period-piece special effects. Moreover, the 1987 rendering of Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity (Konets Vechnosti) is well worth a watch.
Not all of these minor breakthroughs belong to the Soviet period
either. Chernobyl Zona Otchuzhdeniya
-Chernobyl: Danger Zone (TNT/TV3 -2011 -2014) is another television drama
that may well be remembered in years to come.
As though making up for lost time, travel shows in Russia are approached
with marked gusto. Mir Naiznankoo – World Inside Out -is overseen by a
young male Russian everyman, a Dmitry Something, who hurls himself into exotic
encounters with abandon,whether it is tucking into fried insects with the Thais
or or gutting large fruits with African ladies. It is all quite apart from the
cautious and ironic distance that his British counterparts would project.
The Russian small screen can
deliver other positive messages too. A recent TV serial Tolya Robot (2019)
had a man born with no arms and legs as its inspirational hero. Wedding and
Divorces, from the same year, included a gay man as one of its players as
well as portrayed his rejection by mainstream Russian society.
Even the easy-to-revile world of pop is can be a welcome space for those on
the outskirts of Russian society. Rap music, for example, provides a voice for
young men from Muslim backgrounds.
Rose tinted spectacle.
There is one adjective to describe Russian television : brash. It is also diabolical. A new opium of the people is what it all boils down to and should you try to use it as a guide to the Russian life of today you will be wasting your time. Just to give one example: I dwell in a downmarket, but not untypical Moscow apartment. I have yet to see a domestic interior even close to anything like my own in any Russian television drama.
And how does it compare to the old silver screen? During the quarantine period the Ruskoye Kino TV 1000 channel gifted us with some films had seen first at the cinema: Rassvet, Baba Yaga: Terror of the Dark Forest and – a particular favourite – Selfie. These seemed diminished when taken out of the dark and loud cavern of the cinema – and spliced with those stomach complaint commercials.
DARK LABYRINTHS OF THE PAST: