Do TV shows normalise real-life violence? - with poll
With murder and mayhem on the streets of the West Midlands, what do the law-abiding do? We stay at home and watch what one of its own stars calls the ‘disgustingly violent’ Peaky Blinders.
With gangland stabbings and shootings turning parts of the West Midlands into no-go areas and the police incapable of getting to grips with it, we would appear to be in the midst of a new crime-wave.
That’s why Boris Johnson’s temporary Government is promising more money for the police, more money for prisons and a crackdown on foreign criminals evading deportation.
Yet we are deluged with programmes like the much-hyped and widely-praised Peaky Blinders which can best be described as televised ‘crime-porn’. It makes the whole evil world of crooks and gangsters look glamorous and attractive even as it is pretending to moralise about how debilitating it all is.
A new series of Peaky Blinders is on its way – switched to BBC1 to get a bigger audience – with its stylised violence and cruelty.
The series is so well put together – great music, atmospheric lighting, Black Country museum backgrounds and all – that it invites us to look back on what supposedly happened in the 1920s and 30s with sepia-tinged nostalgia.
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Next month there’s to be ‘The Legitimate Peaky Blinders Festival’ in Birmingham, so-called, it must be assumed, because someone has already tried to make an illegitimate, knock-off version, which seems strangely apt really.
Helen McRory, who plays Aunt Polly in the series, admits it is so ‘disgustingly violent’ she can’t watch it.
She goes on to defend this on the grounds that it would otherwise ‘normalise’ violence and that, in the series, these terrible crimes damage the criminals as well as their victims.
She says: “It should be horrifying and you should have the people who are responsible for the violence either unable to self-medicate or having mental health problems, or all the things that do happen to people, if you kill other people – because it is not a natural state of affairs,” she says.
“And anybody who looks at the violence of Peaky Blinders and some sort of gun slashing scheme and thinks, ‘That exactly is what I want to do’ – I mean, sick.”
She’s right to say anyone who wanted to copy the show’s violence might well be sick but the malign influence of television can’t be under-estimated. And our couch-potato willingness to embrace these shows must play a part in adding to the sickness.
It’s not as if Peaky Blinders is a one-off. The majority of shows on mainstream television seem to involve criminals, usually murderers. And it is rare indeed to find any straightforward division between the goodies and the baddies.
Take Killing Eve, another widely-praised crime-porn series, where the impossibly glamourous hired assassin, who may be called Villanelle, ends up in some perverse relationship with Eve, the woman who is supposedly bringing her to justice.
Not an episode passes without Villanelle bumping off someone, often with a wry smile to camera as her victim is done in thanks to some innovative or off-beat method of our anti-heroine’s devising.
This is all made seductively entertaining, to the point where we are far from horrified by these deaths and merely thrilled or excited by the audacity of the outrageously attractive villain.
Crime on television is seen to pay. There is no ‘moral compass’ pointing out what is right and what is not. There is a great deal of crime and hardly any punishment.
The moral ambiguity is everywhere, even in relatively straightforward, bland shows like Midsomer Murders or Endeavour.
Wherever you look on TV, the goodies always turn out to be baddies, the police are invariably corrupt while ‘the system’ is rigged in favour of the rich.
The rich themselves, as well as figures of power or authority such as politicians (especially if they are men) are always crooked.
Successful businesses are even worse – they have to be polluting, uncaring, malign money-making machines run by unpleasant, greedy selfish people.
That means even if the business itself isn’t breaking the law – polluting rivers, covering up blunders or something similar – it’s entirely understandable if criminals feel the need to rip them off.
All of this is part of the fun. These shows need to keep the viewers guessing. They have to mislead us as, in many cases, the intrigue is all about ‘whodunnit’ so there must be several plausible killers with good reasons to want one or more of the victims dead.
Out on the mean streets of the Midlands, it’s doubtful if many of the drugs gang members who go around knifing one another sit down quietly on a Sunday evening for a nice episode of Vera.
Yet the constant displays of violence and dead bodies, often in grisly detail, on our TV screens night after night must surely help to create a world in which such behaviour is increasingly seen as normal.
At the very least, like violent video games, crime-porn makes the unacceptable look attractive and without real-life consequences.
It’s all very well for Helen McRory to write people off as ‘sick’ if they copy the violence of Peaky Blinders. We would all agree. But this is what we give ourselves as entertainment. Doesn’t that make us all just a bit ‘sick’ as well?
I’m not advocating censorship. There’s no point, these days, when things like the obscenity laws no longer apply. But must we be quite so fulsome in our praise for these crime-porn TV shows? Could the TV companies not tone down the violence a little? Do they bear no responsibility at all for the terrible real-life crimes on our streets?
In the end, I suppose, we get the television we deserve. But if they must keep broadcasting Peaky Blinders, couldn’t they at least employ a couple of actors capable of delivering a genuine Brummie accent?