It seems that wherever you go in the world now you see the same television programmes, worked according to the same formula. And why not? If it works, repeat it wherever you can get away with it.
Here in Germany I have channel-hopped a bit in order to see what’s going on. I’ve seen some great political coverage, high-quality extended interviews (never deferential, but always respectfully penetrating and usually productive) and some good German football. I have followed the newspapers and seen how Haiti and Afghanistan (in particular) are being covered here. As I keep saying (usually with reference to Helmut Schmidt), you learn a lot about your self and your own culture when you look at it through the eyes and listen to it through the language of another people.
It’s a bit worrying, therefore, that what sticks involuntarily in my mind is Germany’s version of X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, Pop Idol (they all seem to blend into one vision of tears and self-insightlessness). Here it is called Deutschland sucht den Superstar. The panel is formulaic, too: one young woman who generally looks sympathetic but sad, a bloke who says almost nothing but looks shocked, and the Cowell-esque ‘been there done it’ ageing rock star whose vocabulary seems limited to ‘Scheisse!’ and who looks as if he’s been ‘fanta-ed’.
I’d never heard of Dieter Bohlen before. That’s what is always interesting about seeing something that is familiar in format, but where you have no idea what the credentials of the judges actually are. He’s big in Germany, but he’s brutal to the people who submit themselves to this public humiliation. Bohlen makes Simon Cowell sound diplomatically adept.
I feel like I just don’t ‘get’ it. I know what’s going on, but because I don’t know the characters I can’t relate to them. I have no idea who the other two judges are, but they say almost nothing and defer without demur to Bohlen. I’d love to know what it sounds like through German ears.
But this sort of entertainment is an old formula in new dressing. I was sitting in a cafe in Friedrichshafen this afternoon – my last before returning to England tomorrow – reading Clive James‘s North Face of Soho, the fourth volume of his wonderful Unreliable Memoirs. I didn’t know he had done the pilots for New Faces back in the 1970s. Feeling he would be too critical of the punters, he didn’t go ahead with the job. But he did say this:
I thought the aspirants were touching even when untalented, and if they were talented then they had a better right to hug the screen than the judges.
Clive James knew his limitations. Even if as orange as Simon Cowell, at least Dieter Bohlen has performed on the stage and plied his trade.