Channel 4 shows the good and bad of authority

Oct 29

Four years ago, when I was nowt but a scribbler on street gangs, I cited the work of Stanley Milgram in my research. I pointed out that one of the reasons that gangs held kids in such thrall was simply because of the power an authority figure and mob mentality can wield, in whatever form they come. Get kicked out of school, live on a bad estate, come from a broken home, and most likely the authority figure in your life is the local drug dealer. If all the kids copy him, you will too.

Now four years on I found myself watching Derren Brown’s The Experiment. He’s a great showman and  a very clever man, is Mr Brown. In this programme fronting a game show (although it started with another trick entirely which I won’t describe because to render it in words would be to ruin it). The premise was simple. The audience (who were all asked to don ‘anonymous’ V for Victory-style masks) had a box with two buttons – A and B. On the screen before them was a young man being watched by secret cameras whose life Brown, the host, was about to control. The man was drinking with his friends in a bar. What he didn’t know was that the bar was full of actors.

At set points during the evening, Brown presented the audience with two options – button A meant something nice happened (he got a free drink, etc). Button B meant something bad happened (a girl accused him of pinching her bottom and her boyfriend threatened him, a drink got spilled over him). To rousing chuckles, the audience chose Button B. Brown gleefully responded, and we watched as a scene of mild disturbance was played out before us – a sort of slightly more threatening You’ve Been Framed.

Then things started to get darker, and darker.

The young man was being subjected to increasingly severe trauma. Not once did the audience choose option A. In each instance, rather than being granted something nice, he was told by a co-worker that he was going to be fired, framed for shoplifting and finally arrested by the police.  A ‘producer’ had let himself into the young man’s flat. At first the audience were gleefully laughing as he looked at his Internet history and found toenail clippings in the bathroom. By the end of the show – and it’s hard to describe how slowly and subtly this section built up during the evening – the producer was taking a baseball bat to the young man’s television, to rousing cheers and laughter from the audience.

The audience eventually decided that it would be funny if the man was kidnapped by a gang of men in masks. He started to run away from them, and was hit a sickening blow by a passing car. The camera feed cut out and the crew members in the studio staged panic. The audience gasped and bawled out questions, asking if the man was alright. Brown disappeared off stage, then came back out and explained to them that they, not the man, were the subject of tonight’s show. The camera panned around hundreds of faces, all silently staring at him, all etched with collective shame. Cut to credits.

Brown had linked this episode to the behaviour on display in the August riots in the VTs prior to the show (along with more conventional links – the Nazis, lynchings in the Deep South etc).  Of course he manipulated the audience, but they way he did it was coruscatingly obvious – our subject wasn’t portrayed as an entirely nice individual (he boasted in the VT of having cheated on his girlfriend), when a cash prize of £10,000 was offered it was presented as a surprisingly puny pile of £50 bills, and above all there must have been the sense that there was no way a television show could allow the man to be continually tormented with no recompense – who knows what the audience would have chosen were an option given as the final choice of the evening? My suspicion is they’d have decided he deserved recompense for bearing his trials with remarkably good humour. But the point is, for an hour the audience chose to torment him, time and time again. It was Milgram for 2011, and it was utterly shocking.

Update: as a viewing of this (VERY) interesting interview reminds me, it was actually more like Zimbardo for 2011. Interesting stuff, especially having posted ‘This is Water’ up here.

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Oddly, one hour before this came on, I’d been catching up with Educating Essex on 4OD. This is also a show about authority figures. It’s set in a secondary school in Essex which has hidden cameras placed throughout, and these cameras have been monitoring the teachers and pupils for months, to the extent that all the participants have clearly forgotten they’re there.

Now this is a show which shows entirely the other side of human nature. Passmores Academy, the school in question, may be rated ‘outstanding’, but the kids in it have more than their fair share of issues. We’ve seen the police turn up because they’ve run away from home, the effects of marital breakdown and some very nasty bullying, to name a few.

But the teachers in the school have, over the course of this show, come across as nothing more than incredible. Heading up the list is Mr Drew, the pernickity Deputy Head, who lectures on and on at his charges about their dress, their behaviour, not running in corridors, and any other disciplinary issue you care to mention. Soon the nasal, droning quality of his speech becomes increasingly endearing, like a favourite jumper.

‘Who are your role models then?’ asks one of the cheeky little shits doing detention in his office, thinking he’s caught Drew on the hop.  ‘I like Aung San Suu Kyi, I like Nelson Mandela, I like the man who stood in front of the tank in Tienanmen Square in 1989, I like..’ seemingly half an hour later, Drew asks ‘…Would you like me to go on?’ In the face of the kids’ hysterical, impatient, brattish outbursts, Drew is seemingly superhuman in his patience and implacability.

They cross the line, these kids. They display an attitude to their teachers that at my school would have had them out on their ear within weeks. But what Drew and his boss, the similarly likeable Headmaster Vic Goddard, absolutely believe is that if the kid fails in any way – in their exams, if their behaviour leads to expulsion – then as far as they’re concerned it’s their fault, not the kid’s. ‘No one gets left behind’, says Goddard at one point, in the manner of a grizzled World War II commander waiting for the boats to arrive at Dunkirk.

And what shines – absolutely shines – through in this series, is love. These teachers don’t have the weapon that teachers at many schools have, which is fear. What they garner instead is far more valuable: respect. The kids know that whatever happens, they’re there for them. Many of them, as Drew never tires of pointing out, rarely hear the word ‘no’ at home. So it’s no wonder they react badly when they hear it at school. And it takes a lot of ‘nos’ before they realise exactly why they’re having to hear it. But when they do, Drew and Goddard strike a hit, a very palpable hit.

It’s almost impossible to watch it and not shed a tear.