Midnight Subversion: A Eulogy for Late Night TV
You’ve been gone so long now that the time we spent together almost feels like a lie. Although, on certain days, I swear you’re still here, a nightlight to ease my febrile brain. And, as an echo of your memory floods my mind, once again you illuminate the darkness with a warning and a promise…
“DO NOT SLEEP”
But it’s just a dream. And as Jackpot 24/7 flickers across my television – the dead-eyed presenters offering financial redemption or ruination at the spin of a virtual wheel – the reality that you’re never coming back crashes over me.
Yet now is not the time for mourning or sadness, but the celebration of your short, resplendent existence.
Some may remember you best as a subversive educator. Ahead of your time in tackling subjects that less evolved entertainment platforms still struggle to grasp. With Bits you foreshadowed issues that remain prescient, celebrating the participation of women in video-game culture long before it would inexplicably come to be seen as a problem. A generation of social justice warriors and gamer-gaters birthed and divided through a collective crush on Emily, Alex and Bouff.
While Vids showed a young man such as me – working on a zero hours contract in a video store – that I wasn’t alone; that an unhealthy passion for cinema’s arcane depths wasn’t an anomaly, but something to celebrate. Its hosts, a maniacal Welshman and a stoned Scotsman, taught me that beauty could be found in even the shallowest perceptions of art, because how can you ever fully understand the good until you have learned to appreciate the bad?
Likewise, you were unafraid to give the margins of society a voice. I recall the time you unearthed the hidden world of “real” vampirism, a concept that both thrilled and terrified my teenage mind. I can only imagine how distraught its stars – the devotees of the Vampyria II convention – must have become when, years later, The Twilight Saga opened the curtains wide on their goth subculture, forcing a retreat to makeshift coffins and night-classes. But for a brief moment, the long toothed children of the night – exposed in the name of edification – held a wide-eyed child of the night rapt in curiosity and apprehension.
Although you could be sparing with your affections – the most you ever gave me was four nights a week, and that was in your prime – when you were on, you never shied away from life’s raw underbelly. Colin’s Sleazy Friends mixed porn stars and unpleasant titillation with MTV production values – think Henry: Portrait of America’s Funniest Home Videos – while Troma’s Edge took all the sex, lowball humour and zero-budget grue, synonymous with that inimitable studio, and compressed it into 30 twisted minutes. But that’s what made you so appealing: your remit was to enlighten, not to cast judgement.
The nights I remember best were those when we stayed up until first light, my mind expanding as my body incubated in the warmth of a heavy duvet. Richard Metzger and his Disinfo Nation reshaping my naive ideas of the world, setting my head buzzing with crackpot conspiracies, counter-cultural concepts and radical visions of both future and past events. You showed me history recast in anarchic new light, while the musings of the Divine David skirted the edge of hilarity and horror, a thick coat of greasepaint covering his face like a cosmetic fright mask, the endearing northern lilt of his accent the only offset to a hypnotic “anti-drag” performance.
Your cinema frazzled my synapses and gave me restive nights of she-beasts and lesbian vampires, Satan and Surf Nazis, Gojira tai Hedorâ, Texas Chainsaw Massacres and Jackie Chan marathons. Nightmares made flesh in a surreal sugar rush of exploitation, sex death and smog monsters. A psychotropic prayer, where realms collided and reformed; the cold war reassembled out of sequence to mesmeric trance music in The Trip, Add N to (X)’s illicit video for “Metal Fingers In My Body” – once viewed never be to be unseen – sitting alongside a late-night showing of The Clangers.
You gave me so much and wanted for nothing. But then you were gone.
Imitators tried to stand in your shadow as it faded. At first, I grew despondent at the endless repeats, the obscure sports, the lack of originality. And then, when it finally ended, all that remained was resentment. Your great void filled with the worst vestiges of commerce – televised gambling and advertainment.
But we all grow up, grow old and forget.
Satellite and cable channels arrived, high-speed internet was installed, life moved on and we found other ways to brighten that hinterland between sleep and waking life. Sometimes I wonder if it isn’t better this way. The internet – still in its infancy when you were in your prime – superseded you long ago. A night’s worth of ideas take up a mere thirty seconds on Tumblr or YouTube today, your grainy DIY aesthetic is crippled by comparison.
But then, we must lie to protect ourselves. And, however much I tell myself otherwise, it’s not the same without you.
I’m just thankful that I had the good fortune to spend my formative years in your glorious company on those journeys into the night. Although, looking back, your greatest gift wasn’t transporting me from those pallid magnolia suburbs to other worlds. It was reminding me that I wasn’t alone.
Time for closedown, have a safe and peaceful night.
Photograph by Channel 4