Sunday, 11 February 2018


61. “They want to know what the fuck is going on, Howard.”


You don’t often get films made these days where someone is so hellbent on making a statement about how they see the world, that the only way they could make it even bolder would be to set the sets on fire. Paddy Chayefsky was a man who had made his name in writing plays for television, in a time when there was such a thing as TV plays, and before they were supplanted by TV movies – his most well-known work there, 1953’s “Marty,” was adapted by Chayefsky into a feature film two years later, winning Academy Awards for both Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. By 1957, however, Chayefsky had left TV for film, only returning to it twice – when he adapted his stage play “Gideon” in 1961, and when he tried to exorcise the medium altogether in “Network.”

This film’s reputation remains powerful and bright because the targets it satirises so savagely still remain – the TV network searching for ratings at any cost, the presenters that tell you exactly what you want to hear, and the viewers so engrossed in “the tube” that their ability to engage in real life has been compromised. For Chayefsky, TV no longer had the ability or inclination to make the kind of intimate human dramas that made his name – the race to exploit what TV could do to its audience had become a race to the bottom.

This amorality is portrayed in “Network” as the story of Howard Beale, a failing TV news anchor on a failing TV network, who decides he will kill himself on air – Beale is supposedly visited by God, telling him to use his position because “you’re on television, dummy,” and implores people to stick their heads out of their living room windows to yell, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Meanwhile, the network also starts showing “The Mao-Tse Tung Hour,” a docu-drama series that uses real footage from a terrorist organisation. The urging of the network to exploit Beale’s wailings, and the willingness of his audience to follow him over the edge, is distasteful, but that is Chayefsky’s point – the head of programming is shown as amoral in the extreme, and when she has a relationship with the ageing former head of news, whom she admired, she is accused by him of “wanting to change the channel” when things stop working between them.

The ending is surprising when taken by itself, but perfectly logical by this point in the film. When the head of the company that owns the network summons Beale, once a takeover deal is scuppered by one of his “sermons,” to tell him about the true nature of the world – one controlled by companies, not countries, to which Beale answers in the same way that he answered God – Beale’s ratings fall. Because the company likes what they see, the show has to stay, despite the network wanting out. Instead, they hatch a plan that sees Beale killed on air by the terrorists of “The Mao-Tse Tung Hour” – indeed, it is what begins that show’s new season.

“Network” is pretty strong stuff, a film that has stuck with me since I first saw it twenty years ago, and a perfect example of writing with conviction. Chayefsky had a say on who would star, so a perfect mix of old and new Hollywood it was: William Holden, Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall. Bryan Cranston is currently starring in a striking stage adaptation, by Lee Hall of “Billy Elliott,” at the National Theatre in London, which is just down the road from the headquarters of ITV, a channel that shows “The Jeremy Kyle Show,” “The X Factor,” “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here,” “Celebrity Juice,” “Loose Women,” Piers Morgan on “Good Morning Britain,” and so on, and so on…

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