Why we are still mad as hell…but will probably keep on taking it

The scene is one of the most iconic in cinematic history. The ex-newsreader, wearing an overcoat with his pyjamas underneath, walks nonchalantly into a television studio, apparently unaware that he is soaking wet, having walked through a rainstorm to the studio straight from his home. He then calmly sits down, and addresses his eager audience:

We know things are bad — worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is: ‘Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.’ Well, I’m not gonna leave you alone! I want you to get MAD!

I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot — I don’t want you to write to your congressman, because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say: ‘I’m a human being, goddammit! My life has value!’

So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell: I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANY MORE!

As if on cue, reports circulate that thousands of people in Atlanta and Baton Rouge are indeed sticking their heads out of the window, and yelling that they are (what else) Mad As Hell and Not Going to Take This Any More. Back in the studios, the production team pat one another on the back for another ratings winner from Howard Beale.

Peter Finch (1916-77), star of Network

Peter Finch (1916-77), star of Network

Peter Finch, who portrayed Beale in Sidney Lumet’s 1976 hit film “Network”, died in January 1977, just a few weeks after the movie was released. His performance turned out to the first of two in which the actor won a posthumous Oscar. The second was that of Heath Ledger as The Joker in 2008’s “The Dark Knight”. Since “Network” came out exactly forty years ago, however, its reputation has grown and grown.

Way ahead of its time, the satirical flick relates the story of Howard Beale, an aging TV newscaster who learns that he is to be fired because his ratings in the fictional TV channel UBS are falling. After drunkenly discussing his career and fate with his news editor and friend Max Schumacher (William Holden), Beale announces in his next bulletin the following day that he will shoot himself in the middle of his last programme in two weeks’ time. Unsurprisingly, the floor management team unceremoniously remove Beale, protesting, from the studio before he can say anything else. Then, the UBS top brass learn that Beale’s outburst has led to a spike in the channel’s viewership, and their light entertainment division re-hire Beale, not as a newsreader but as what they call a Mad Prophet of the Airwaves, free to fulminate about the craziness of modern life – a sort of televised Thought for the Day. Nobody, apart from Schumacher, appears to notice that Beale’s fulminations are part of a mental-health problem, about which the network are either ignorant, or else do know, but decide to exploit anyway.

Inevitably, perhaps, Beale goes too far, at least for the comfort of UBS’s head honchos. After Beale leads a successful letter-writing campaign to stop a Saudi firm from buying out the channel, its chief executive Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty) assails Beale with his own philosophy (‘You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and YOU WILL ATONE!‘) of how business and its growth is the only show in town. In his weak mental state, Beale meekly agrees to tone the rhetoric down, and thereafter uses his regular slot to deliver more business-friendly monologues that are fine with UBS senior management but which also cause the channel’s ratings to plummet, as TV viewers find the new, diluted Beale just utterly depressing.

It is arguable that, in penning “Network”, scriptwriter Paddy Chayefsky effectively invented the genre of reality television, and highlit the increasingly blurred line between television news and entertainment. Perhaps the film’s biggest contribution to our shared culture was to ask the question ‘How far will television go for ratings?’ and then to offer, by way of an answer, another question: How far do we want it to go? After “Network” the next movie to have a go at answering the question was Peter Weir’s 1998 blockbuster “The Truman Show”, in which a man’s entire life is made literally into a soap opera, but with the show’s star blissfully unaware of this until the very end. As for whether television should have any limits when it comes to making programmes, another suggestion had come forth in the previous year, in the first episode of the Steve Coogan sitcom “I’m Alan Partridge”. In his meeting with BBC television’s commissioning director Tony Hayers (David Schneider), failed chat-show host Alan Partridge (Coogan), in a desperate attempt to get back on the BBC, pitches a slew of crass programme ideas:

ALAN ATTACK! – like the Cook Report, but with a more slapstick approach

ARM WRESTLING WITH CHAS AND DAVE

KNOWING M.E. KNOWING YOU – I, Alan Partridge, talk to M.E. sufferers about their condition… we intersperse it with their favourite pop songs, make it light-hearted, give them a platform – you’ve got to keep their energy up…

INNER CITY SUMO – We take fat people from the inner cities, put them in big nappies, and get them to throw each other out of a circle that we draw with chalk on the ground…

COOKING IN PRISON

A PARTRIDGE AMONGST THE PIGEONS – Opening sequence: me, in Trafalgar Square, feeding the pigeons…

YOUTH HOSTELLING WITH CHRIS EUBANK

MONKEY TENNIS

The episode came out nineteen years ago, but the joke has become funnier with the passage of time, because the above programme ideas would in all likelihood be commissioned today (Indeed, Cooking In Prison has been done, with Gordon Ramsay, though with the title “Gordon Behind Bars”, while Chris Eubank, though yet to front a show about youth hostelling, has nonetheless made an advert with Hostelling World).

The message in these films and shows is the same: that if enough people are prepared to watch it, television will make it happen. Ratings seemingly are the only criterion that ultimately counts. Max Schumacher in “Network” morosely concedes it himself, as he realises his mistake in having left his wife of 25 years, and prepares finally to leave his lover, UBS’S programming head Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway):

You’re television incarnate, Diana: indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer. And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds and instant replays. You’re madness, Diana. Virulent madness. And everything you touch dies with you. But not me. Not as long as I can feel pleasure, and pain… and love.

At least Schumacher can see where everything is ultimately heading. The same cannot be said of audiences in either “Network” or “The Truman Show”. In “Network” one of Howard Beale’s most attention-grabbing monologues (in his pre-Jensen days) is particularly noteworthy, in that he excoriates his audience for allowing television to become such a pervasive influence in their lives:

Television is not the truth. Television’s a goddamned amusement park! Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business!

So, if you want the Truth, go to God! Go to your gurus. Go to yourselves! Because that’s the only place you’re ever gonna find any real truth. But, man, you’re never gonna get any truth from us. We’ll tell you anything you wanna hear. We lie like hell, we’ll tell you that Kojak always gets the killer and that nobody ever gets cancer at Archie Bunker’s house. And no matter how much trouble the hero is in, don’t worry, just look at your watch: at the end of the hour, he’s gonna win…

We deal in illusions, man, none of it is true! But you people sit there day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds. We’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you: you dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even think like the tube. This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing, we are the illusion! So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now! Turn them off right now, turn them off and leave them off! Turn them off right in the middle of this sentence I am speaking to you now. TURN THEM OFF!

And what happens next? Beale collapses, exhausted, on to the studio floor, while the production assistants gesture for the audience to applaud wildly, and the show music comes on again. That is why, however Mad as Hell we might be, we will probably still go on taking it: we all want something entertaining to watch, after all.