Eoin Butler: writer, journalist and Mayoman of the Year

Tripping Along The Ledge


Published: Irish Times, August 25 2012

There are three interesting jobs. They are president, astronaut and secret agent.

A FEW YEARS ago, my then-girlfriend and I had some friends over for dinner. While we ate, we listened to music. Afterwards, we relocated to the living room for a glass of wine. Rather than lug my old, clunky stereo and speakers with us, someone suggested that I play my CDs on the television’s DVD player.

It was a novel idea, and it worked out fine. There was just one problem.

All of our guests were now sitting staring at the TV screen. It was blank, save for the CD track number and a ticking time counter. But they stared at it anyway. That’s when it struck me. People will watch just about anything on television. Now I’m not here to complain about the trashy reality shows, the endless, pointless talent contests with premium-rate voting numbers, or the fact that I currently seem to have two digital channels broadcasting Craig Doyle on a continuous 24-hour loop. (I could, but I won’t.)

What intrigues me, rather, is the other end of the reality spectrum. Those shows whose stars are engaged in tasks so outlandishly mundane you probably wouldn’t turn your head to observe it if it was taking place live in your own sitting room.

You know. The renegade gardeners. The take-no-prisoners pastry chefs. The interior decorators who have tangled with conservation regulations and lived to tell the tale.

In 2005, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece for a magazine called Mongrel about a show called “Celebrity Potato Peel Challenge”. The presenter was a (fictitious) Frenchman named Jean Pierre Juppe, who had peeled potatoes in some of the world’s finest hotels and was passionately dedicated to his art. (“Expect waterworks aplenty as he tears apart his pupils’ inept peeling techniques live on television!”) The piece was intended as a parody of television schedules at the time.

But revisiting it seven years later, with at least half a dozen shows about grouting currently running in prime time, serves only to illustrate how impervious this genre of television is to satire.

Think I’m exaggerating? Here’s a snapshot of what’s on television right now while I’m writing this article. On RTÉ One, there’s Martin & Paul’s Surf n’ Turf, in which a man is buying pudding. On TV3’s Supernanny: The Worst Kids Ever, a woman is putting a small child to bed. (A toddler who doesn’t like going to bed? May God have mercy on us all.)

Over in the UK, it’s much the same. On BBC One, Phil Tufnell of The Flowerpot Gang is having a fake argument with someone about where to plant a shrub. BBC Two’s Restoration Home stars someone called Heather, who is attempting to install underfloor heating in a newly renovated mill. (National Mills Open Weekend is only weeks away so, obviously, things are on a knife-edge there.) Finally, the presenters of Channel 4’s SuperScrimpers are talking to a man who is a garden-shed expert.

IT ISN’T HARD to figure out why these shows are such a staple of our TV schedules. As one TV producer I spoke to explained, “They’re quick and cheap to make, gently aspirational but also completely inoffensive to almost the entire audience.”

That’s fair enough, but if this writer could speak directly to the people who commission these programmes, I would say just this: Guys, let’s be honest here. There are really only three interesting jobs: president, astronaut and secret agent. But access isn’t always possible with these people, so I’m willing to compromise.

In future, if you’re going to give someone a television show, could you at least ensure that what they’re doing is more interesting than what the average person sitting at home watching it is doing? Could you imagine, if you will, that you’re competing against what this person would see if they opened the curtains and stared out their living-room window? That should help you raise your game.

Failing that, here a hot new show I’m in a position to deliver. It’s about a young freelance journalist, a renegade in his own way, sitting at his desk finishing a short article for Saturday’s newspaper. He’s using single-line spacing. (No double-line spacing for our man, that just ain’t how he rolls.) He’s running a spellcheck. He’s attaching the document to an email. The tension is almost unbearable. At any moment, his internet connection could drop and he’d be forced to file copy very slightly late. It’s a high-wire act and he doesn’t have a net. Any takers out there? Anyone? Hello?