Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Cliche Rolls On

With the rest of the nation glued to the X-Factor this weekend, I thought I’d finally give in… and watch Countryfile.

God it was awful. I'd expected not to like Julia Bradbury – poor woman, she annoyed me once on Steve Wright in the Afternoon fifteen years ago - but she turned out to be the least of my worries. Actually she was really good; what any other Countryfile presenter would surely describe as “a rose among thorns”… Because other than Julia, that’s how they all talk.

Within half an hour I’d counted 38 cliches – thirty eight!

From leopards (or in this case lighthouses) that ‘never change their spots’, to swimming pools that were apparently once ‘hives of activity’; it was so distracting. It was as if they were doing it for a bet.

I doubt they were. Cliches are actually quite hard to (if I may disprove my own point briefly) ‘trot out’ when you’re thinking hard about what you’re saying. They tend to spring to mind (bugger) by accident, convenient little analogies for what you actually mean that slip out (ah!) when you care little about how you say things.

Basically, clichés are a mark of carelessness.

And yet, on television and radio, we hear them all the time. God knows, it’s not just Countryfile, bless it. Cliches have spread like a cancer (I’m doing it deliberately now) which is not just killing creative expression, but beginning to throttle all original thought itself.

I hate them so much that I keep a record of the clichés I hear on TV and radio. The most ridiculous in recent weeks include:

-          “He now has another world title under his belt…”

-          “New life is being breathed into old land by farmers…”

-          “Council cuts are now starting to bite…”

-          “It’s the end of the road for our Airport…”

-          “A holiday maker has kicked up a real stink in the pool…”

-          “Businesses have been helping to get the town back on its feet”

-          “Our reporter has been picking through the debris” (what, literally?)

-          “There’s been wall to wall sunshine outside”

-          “Plans for a new cemetery have been given the green light”

(and on something as complex and individual as the Savile story)…

-          “Newsnight’s correspondent… says she was left scratching her head after the plug was suddenly pulled.”

Dear GOD!

Understandably, they’re most prolific in News. By their very nature of the task in hand, journalists must be a reductive breed. They take the many facts of a story, often thousands of them, and (ready for another?) boil them down (hehe!) to those which are most relevant to their telling of that story.

Done skilfully as many do, the result is an original, easily understood account of what has actually happened; it’s a marvel. Done carelessly, you end up with a stream of ridiculous metaphors that cloud the issue and blow you off course to another part of the forest entirely.

Hence, when you pick up your local paper, every new plan is unveiled (even though there’s no cloth), and every simple adjustment to a budget somehow involves wielding an axe…

I’m not suggesting it’s forgivable. But I’m sure that’s why it happens in News.

In programmes, I’m afraid there’s no reason why we should ever end up with a cliché. Programme making shouldn’t ever be a reductive process – it should be creative. We should be making things up. We should be dreaming up new, inventive ways to do and say new things. We shouldn’t be talking in riddles unless we’ve designed them ourselves.

And the real problem with clichés is that they self-perpetuate. You can’t really blame young broadcasters for failing to spot they’re even doing it; they’re so used to hearing clichés, and using them, they’ve not only come to accept them, they’ve even started to expect them. As a respected broadcaster and friend once said to me, “if you don’t talk like that, they think you’re no f***ing good”.

Maybe X-Factor mentality is why Countryfile gets away with clichés – or maybe Countryfile clichés are why we watch the X-Factor. As I say, it’s all self-perpetuating. Either way, don’t fall foul of the mighty cliché which is slipping under the wire and taking us all by storm.    

It’ll be the final nail in the coffin if you do – and, believe me, it looks likely that it’ll soon start to bite.

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