I've grown to hate Don Letts.
Don't get me wrong, I've long forgiven and, as much as possible, forgotten the output of Big Audio Dynamite and I would never belittle his contribution to punk of the introduction of reggae. I'm just sick of his sunglasses-indoors-bedecked face cropping up every five minutes to tell the same boring stories about punk. He has become the George Martin of punk - and not in the 'creative genius' way - more in the 'couple of years of doing something, four decades of agreeing to every interview and saying the same old boring crap again and again' way. He also holds the world record for the most films made and appeared in talking about The Clash. I think, at this point, he's said more about Joe Strummer than Joe Strummer even ever did. And seems to have turned doing so into a nice little earner.
But why am I sat writing about my dislike of Don Letts on a bank holiday morning? Well, because I just watched the first part of the BBC's latest flagship music documentary series Punk Britannia. I think a more appropriate title might have been The Cleanliness and the Geniality as this film showed an entire musical community - once heralded by the hysterical newspaper headline The Filth and The Fury - welcome being put into a tidy, anodyne, clean little uniformed box which could comfortably be displayed on a shelf next to their nemesis Prog Rock Britannia.
Now, I'm no punk. I was born in '76, so I was unaware of it for a good decade and a half, at which point it did have a significant effect on my thinking and my musical tastes. This was the early Nineties, before the Sex Pistols reformed, before you could buy Ramones T-Shirts in high street fashion emporiums for £25 and before the deluge of documentaries about the genre which we now find ourselves surrounded by. There was still some edge to it. Some mystery, some anger. There have been some great documentaries on punk. Julien Temple's Sex Pistols film (the extras on his most recent live DVD of the band actually represent some of the best and most poignant Pistols reminisces and punk dissection I've ever seen), End of The Century, New York Doll, American Hardcore, The Future is Unwritten...
But to me, this new documentary marks the very death of the original punk spirit. To see every single punk luminary from Johnny Rotten to Adam Ant consent to a cosy HD interview, on their comfy sofas, in their lovely clean houses and discuss the most gone-over, facile elements of what they did for a documentary whose entire point is to tell a generalised history of all popular music in the least challenging, most easy-to-digest format ever imaginable... well, it made me feel very sad.
I've enjoyed a lot of the Britannia docs. Synth Britannia was a lot of fun, Folk Britannia and Reggae Britannia were both informative and highly watchable but they also represent a kind of general decline in television documentary over the last decade (I hasten to add that of that decline, they are on the far more acceptable scale as opposed to the bottom rung that Channel 4 has become with its mockery of fringe ethnic groups and people with behavioural or medical anomalies in the name of factual programming). The particular format that the Britannia docs follow seems to have stemmed from those risible 'I LOVE THE 1980s' style shows that started to appear in the Nineties. The idea seemingly to create a documentary that neither told a story in much depth or had any actual message or theme to it but instead piled in as high a volume of celebrities as possible, filmed in colourful locations such as empty nightclubs or clean and friendly houses, covered as many topics as humanly possible and kept it as light and breezy as could be. Rather than to educate, it's remit seemed to be to elicit a warm chuckle of nostalgic recognition. This format has rather polluted the mainstream. And this seems like the culmination - probably the highest budget and most well-marketed all-encompassing documentary on punk which, rather than convey and enforce the spirit and point of the movement, just invites the luminaries along for a jolly cup of coffee and an affectionate chinwag.
I'm disappointed that the punks themselves bought into this. That they allowed themselves to be herded and presented in this completely uniform and sterile manner. I'm not saying the film shouldn't have been made - there has yet to be a significant overview made - but what a shame they all allowed themselves to become complicit in this particular venture. I'm sure they're all long-resolved with their younger selves and it's ludicrous to suggest that anybody should be held accountable in middle age to their teenage ideals. You'd be an idiot to begrudge a 70s punk a comfortable sofa or a clean townhouse. But there is something to be said for protecting one's legacy and I would have hoped it would be obvious to them that the 'Britannia' treatment was actually the diametric opposite of how their story should have been handled.
So, here we are again - the same old archive footage of Bob Harris, a wonderful man who has done so much for popular music culture in the UK is held aloft for our tuts on account of his almost 40-year-old dismissal of the New York Dolls of 'mock rock' (they were, indeed, mocking rock, by the way) and, what's this? Why, apparently in part two of this series there will be some footage of The Sex Pistols being naughty on the Bill Grundy show. A piece of footage that three fucking generations of music lovers can quote verbatim.
The doc is narrated by Peter Capaldi who, depsite having fronted an insignificant art-school punk band back in the day, one can't help but suspect is chosen because Malcolm Tucker is as close to being a rebellious anti-hero (ie being a bit sweary and rude) as the BBC has come in a rather long time.
This horrible dullification of the punk movement into a clean and presentable documentary which gives Middle England an inoffensive, general overview of the basic facts without any discernible voice and absent of a point of view is the most painful example of this degradation of the form that the BBC purveys these days. All of their cultural documentaries are shot the same, edited the same, with the same high volume of voiceover rather than editing craft to tell the story. They look the same, sound the same, have the same run times and they're now even titled the same thing.
This week I had the pleasure of seeing documentary film-makers Nick Broomfield and Carol Morley speak about their craft. Whatever your views on them and their work personally, they are undeniably the kind of people who should be making documentaries. They see it as not just a form to tell stories but a form to tell stories that convey a message. Which is what stories are supposed to do and what filmmakers are supposed to do with stories. Both of these established filmmakers mentioned how they are currently, as usual, struggling to find funding. Yet the BBC churns out these sterile monoliths about subjects which intelligent filmmakers and decent commissioning editors could turn into something as significant as the subject matter itself.
Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?
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