Never Try This At Home tells the story of a fictional children’s television programme in the late 1970s called Shushi, taken off the air after a notorious episode in which a female presenter attempts to hang herself live on air in order to escape the chaotic and abusive on-set environment. The production takes the format of a later TV show called Looking Backwards (Together) in which people involved in traumatic events are reunited and asked to reflect. There’s a lot to like here. The garish, amateurish and slightly vulgar tone of this golden era of kids shows like Tiswas etc., is well captured, and the first fifteen minutes has a wonderfully anarchic and unhinged feel.
The themes are also pertinent. During the rendition of Shushi we’re gently introduced to the chauvinistic and racist elements of the show: lone female presenter Petra is routinely the butt of the joke, with games often revolving around sexual puns that insinuate her, whilst a child guest on the show, Okorie, is made to stand in the stocks and sing songs that clearly reference his race. As the show develops, these offensive tropes spill out of Shushi and into the general narrative, prompting feelings of discomfort as we’re presented with gross racial stereotypes and deviant humour. Told by an Idiot and Carl Grosetake the audience right up to the edge – willfully provoking them not to have a good time.
My issue is that the tone of the piece doesn’t support what I can only suppose are it’s serious intentions. It feels like it’s rooted in the anti-art tradition, in the Forced Entertainment mould – and in this way again goes right up to edge, to the extent that I often wondered how intentional it all was. The strangely uncommitted – amateurish, even – feel of the piece was no doubt designed to raise questions about the value of entertainment in line with the themes of the show. But sometimes (as in the partly improvised scenes) it was far too dry, whilst at other moments (as with the band) it felt unintentional. This kind of thing is hardly confidence boosting, and more importantly it doesn’t push us in the same direction as the rest of the piece – which as I’ve suggested asks serious questions about the unsettling relationship between sadism and popular culture.
If this is – as I can only hope – an intelligent concept piece questioning the boundaries of decency, rather than something that is simply symptomatic of the general malaise it reflects, then Told by an Idiot and Carl Grose should have the balls to commit, and not undermine their project with the kind of postmodern posturing that is so unfortunately prevalent.