There was a glorious moment during the Olympic Games, what Malcolm Gladwell might call a ‘tipping point’, when the cumulative brilliance of Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis prompted Twitter to explode in a vociferous endorsement of modern multiculturalism. Amidst cries of “suck on that, Daily Mail”, the entire social network seemed to extend a collective middle finger in the general direction of anyone who had criticised the ‘political correctness’ of Danny Boyle’s triumphant opening ceremony. Here was a Team GB that truly represented contemporary British life. Our Britain. A glorious celebration of our complex melting pot of a society; one that sees no colour, other than bronze, silver and gold.
With our progressive credentials duly asserted, expectations were sky high for the Paralympics. That collective liberal guilt was promptly cast aside, as we prepared to cheer on the ‘Superhumans’ and warmly applauded the insouciance of a campaign slogan that read “Thanks for the warm up.” Who didn’t get goosebumps the first time they watched Channel 4’s incredible promo film?
This isn’t a cause to be pitied or a charity to be indulged, we told ourselves. It’s simply another celebration of sporting excellence. Of course, we also took vicarious pride in the fact that these were the first games in Paralympic history to sell out. “Stare all you like,” the papers told us. And to be perfectly honest, it’s hard not to when you see some of the sporting achievements being accomplished on an almost hourly basis. These were no mere human interest stories, nor were they relegated to the back pages either. Our rapidly growing medal haul has become front page news, with Ellie Simmonds promptly usurping Rebecca Addlington as our begoggled national sweetheart.
Obviously this was never going to be Frankie Boyle’s latest gig, despite his articulate explanation of the difference between laughing at and laughing with the Paralympians.
The coverage may have switched from the BBC to Channel 4, but on the whole the commentators seem to be doing a commendable job. And aside from the frustrating proliferation of ad breaks, the coverage has been pretty comprehensive. In basketball terms, this might be described as a slam-dunk. So why is it, that I can’t shake the feeling that something’s not quite right?
For the answer, look no further than The Last Leg – Channel 4’s misguided attempt to create a late night comedy property on the back of its status as the official Paralympic broadcaster. Sadly, edgy improvised comedy and an inclusivity remit make for decidedly awkward bedfellows. Obviously this was never going to be Frankie Boyle’s latest gig, despite his articulate explanation of the difference between laughing at and laughing with the Paralympians.
Instead, Channel 4 have recruited Australian comedian Adam Hills to present this crushingly uncomfortable mess. Our genial host makes regular references to his own prosthetic leg, and he’s joined by regular participant Alex Brooker who also wears an artificial limb and has what he describes as “arm issues”. They’re accompanied by Josh Widdicombe, who appears to be playing the part of ‘token able-bodied sidekick’. Whilst the show’s intentions couldn’t be more noble, based on last night’s abysmal showing, this trio wouldn't know a good joke if they fell over it. And even then, no-one would laugh because that wouldn't be right.
If you haven’t seen it, try to imagine the bastard offspring of Graham Norton and Baddiel & Skinner’s Fantasy Football league – couch-based sports banter, interspersed with assorted special guests. Remarkably, it’s even more awful than it sounds. That’s because every comment, pre-prepared gag and off-the-cuff remark is met with the sound of the entire crew sucking the air through their teeth. You can almost hear the producers frantically asking each other “Are we allowed to say that?” And the problem is, no-one really knows for sure.
Hills and his cohorts act as the unofficial arbiters of the gossamer thin line between funny and offensive, but unfortunately they seem to be just as clueless as the rest of us.
Making matters even worse is the fact that most of the show’s talking points seem to originate from a single ridiculous hashtag: #IsitOK… That’s where the show’s thick-headed viewers submit a series of inane questions in an attempt to determine what you are and aren’t allowed to say about the Paralympians. Sure, we’ve been told to refer to them as ‘superhumans’ when the cameras are on, but the rest of the time we’re far more interested in their mis-shapen limbs, or curious about whether “it’s OK to punch someone in a wheelchair if they’re being a nob?” I wish I was making this shit up.
Hills and his cohorts act as the unofficial arbiters of the gossamer thin line between funny and offensive, but unfortunately they seem to be just as clueless as the rest of us. Which is why last night’s edition saw Hills running footage of a long-jumper face-planting into the sand. “We’d all be laughing at that, if he was an able-bodied athlete…” he argued, as no-one in the studio felt sufficiently comfortable to concur. This late night format is clearly designed to encourage an alternative comedy vibe, but no-one is ever entirely comfortable with the material. In the end, it’s like having sex with an overly-conscientious partner, who keeps interrupting the action to ask “Is that OK? Am I doing it right? Is that supposed to be there?”
Meanwhile, the (presumably able-bodied) studio audience are left standing in the corner of the studio for the duration of the broadcast, as if someone simply forgot to order the chairs. Still, if anyone dares to complain that their back is starting to hurt, Mills can always tell them “Well, now you know how we feel.” The rest of the set is similarly ill-conceived – especially the prosthetic leg that’s been dumped on the coffee table, as though mislaid by a previous guest. Now imagine Gary Lineker and Ian Thorpe trying to hold a conversation next to a pile of Fatima Whitbread’s old sports bras.
It’s worth pointing out that the 4OD broadcast of the show comes with repeated disclaimers to inform viewers “Warning – this programme contains product placement.” When surely, “Warning – this programme is staggeringly unfunny” might be more apropos. Of course, there’s always the possibility that the show was devised to appeal to a predominantly disabled audience, but that would be to undermine the whole point of the Paralympics. Unlike other minority communities, there’s no discernible culture to speak of, where the ‘differently-abled’ are concerned. Rather than being defined by the physical challenges they’ve had to overcome, they’re far more likely to identify with people of the same gender, religion, sexuality or race – just like the rest of us do. The more The Last Leg fixates on what we can or can’t say about disabled people, the more we focus on the disability, rather than the person.
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