We’ve already had one frankly astounding post on scary parents as part of Notes From the Borderland, but this clip from Chris Morris’ Jam depicts a very different sort of parental horror, one in which the child’s viewpoint is removed along with the child, and which instead of a tidal wave of bloody emotion you’ve got the drifting currents of casual alienation:

“He’s made a great spaceship… Incidentally, did he come home from school today?”

And yet, from the first few lines onwards, it’s obvious that these parents aren’t completely disinterested in their missing son. They do eventually realise that he hasn’t come home from school, and while they might not want to go to all the bother of identifying his body, they’re still annoyed enough to want to “have a word” with his murderer.

In other words, they’re dimly proud enough of his existence to be cross that he’s gone, but beyond that their level of attention is mimicked by the drifting camera-work, which passes by the parents in a 4am haze, vaguely curious as to what they’re doing, but not enough to stop itself from floating off every few seconds to look at something else…

Flashback to 1997: the year in which I bumbled through this clip on Channel 4 while watching TV with my parents.

The gaudy graphics of the transition should probably have clued us all in to what was really going on – after all, it’s only in the past decade or so that news shows normalised this level of visual excess, and those OTT musical stings still provide a strong clue that you’re staring through the looking glass even today.

Back in 1997 though, we watched on, not really sure what we were watching.  Something about the tone was convincing – the opening arm-wrestling competition between Chris Morris’ presenter and Mark Heap’s guest radiates an artifice that seems too tacky to be fake, but this innocuous beginning only made the sudden lurch into group-hatred seem all the more distressing.  You can almost taste the nastiness as Morris chastises Heap for having “bad aids” (i.e. the kind you catch off of your boyfriend), and as the panic in the audience becomes more apparent, you realise that you’re watching a demonstration of how much pressure a tall, well-spoken gentleman can apply without seeming to apply much pressure at all.  Of course, this technique is more aptly displayed in the scenes in which Chris Morris manipulates real people into doing and saying idiotic things, but I didn’t know that at the time.

“Like everyone else in this audience, I’m thinking ‘What about us? What about me, now?’”

I’m pretty sure that my parents didn’t know what was going on at first either. Oh, sure, by the time we got to the stuff about how everyone in the audience who was yawning could catch aids if someone machine-gunned Heap’s “aids guy” to bits, I think we’d all figured it out. But the few moments before that, where I wasn’t sure if what I was watching was real or fake, made for properly queasy telly.  I think the fact that my parents seemed uncertain too only made it more terrifying – it opened up a little door to the Borderland, right in the middle of our living room…

Flashbackforward to a few paragraphs ago: By the time Chris Morris got round to adapting skits from his Blue Jam radio series to TV, I was pretty confident that he’d never catch me out again, at least not without making a prank phone call directly to my house.

That doesn’t mean that his work had lost its power though, far from it. Even without parental confusion factored in, the sketches in Jam still have a sort of terrifying blankness to them, and this blankness makes an unusual amount of sense in this particular scene.  While the child in question has already been “buggered quite a lot and then strangled” before the action starts, it’s still all-too-easy to put the kid’s viewpoint back in there, to imagine the distanced viewpoint of the piece to be the viewpoint of the dead child, realising that what he always suspected was true, that adults only care about their progeny out of a sort of withered sense of duty, and what’s worse, that he’s unable to pretend that he cares about anything anymore either.

Fuck me, and I thought it was scary when my parents couldn’t tell me what was going on for thirty seconds, eh?

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Other posts in the Notes From the Borderland series:

The Overlook Hotel – Kubrick’s The Shining

Telly Terror: Elephant

Telly Terror: Threads

Telly Terror: Threads

October 26th, 2011

notes from the borderlandaka the obvious one…

Like Elephant, I didn’t see Threads at the time. It was deliberate this time, another video, borrowed years later on the strength of fearsome reputation. I think – but these memories could well  be half invented, half-recounted – I think I can remember the day after Threads was first shown.  Shocked and ashen elder sisters, parents bravely pretending everything was just the same as before.

We all knew we had a neighbour not 20 miles distant, forever an unwelcome megatechnological interloper into our innocently bucolic existence, who even if not an obvious first-strike target, still had that doorstep Chernobyl possibilty about it. Parents had explained roughly what it would mean if it went tits up, and I was shocked that there wasn’t something they could do about it. There was an apocalyptic timebomb just down the road. How did they go on without panicking? Why weren’t they screaming, shaking their neighbours and duly elected representatives by the shoulders, awakening them to the threat, begging for something to be done? How could normal life as I had always known it be so permanently close to the precipice of extinction?

Watching Threads again now, as the hardy among you will, that’s still the frightening thing – the destruction of the parental superego, manifested as the pathetically heroic, hopeless efforts of the municipal employees, those clerks and accountants, supervisors and secretaries holding onto the world, to save us all through continuation of a neat and orderly bureaucracy. The accumulated ballast of human society, those cultural codes and social securities, worthy words and high hopes, and all their inevitable extinction in the awful new reality beyond the opening of the atomic portal.

The sickest joke is the collapse of all those habits and symbols would not be instant and total. They’d persist in their broken, poisoned, ineffectual form for a short time after the  initial massive surge of human casualties. The words and numbers we use to organise our newly nonexistent world would be walking around undead in the fallout, scorched and sick but stumbling shortly on, for some time after we were sick and starved and gone, prior to the eventual (and as it turns out, unlikely) dominion of the cockroach.

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Other posts in the Notes From the Borderland series:

The Overlook Hotel – Kubrick’s The Shining

Telly Terror: Elephant