“Welcome to You’re Back in the Room, a gameshow like no other.” Phillip Schofield, you are not wrong.
Last week, Jacob Bolton wrote an insightful piece on Gogglebox, Channel 4’s half-arsed stab at meta-theatrical irony, which—in a glorious combination of clever editing, overt scripted segments, and dumb luck—nested itself in the hearts of millions of viewers nationwide. Now, a similar fountain of cheap entertainment has sprung into ITV’s primetime slot, but unlike Gogglebox, there is no real pleasure to ease the crushing guilt.
The odd thing is that, despite being (in the words of The Mirror’s Adam Postans) “one of the worst prime-time shows you’ll ever see,” You’re Back in the Room is currently doing very well indeed. According to Broadcast Now, over 4.3 million viewers watched this the debut episode, and apparently its ratings have stayed consistently high.
How, you might ask? Well, as the new Schrödinger’s Cat of British television,You’re Back in the Room is a show that relies on our skepticism. This, I argue, is the wellspring of its unorthodoxy. It relies on being seen, being scrutinised, and—most importantly of all—being doubted.
The show opens in a fairly conventional manner. Following a Doctor Who-like sequence of illusory clocks and hokey piano music, we are greeted with the face of Phillip Schofield, the magistrate of ITV’s canon of sub-par output. White-haired, mouse-faced, and sharp-jawed, Schofield has somehow earned our trust. He is used here as shamelessly as those pregnant women that appear on furniture adverts.
Schofield proceeds to give us a quick run-down of how things will play out over the next hour or so, for the benefit of the untenured. Five strangers will work together to complete a number of simple tasks, each designed to help them accumulate prize money into a collected pot to take home at the end of the show. The twist, as Schofield elucidates with some quasi-fervour, is that “we are going to hack their brains”—that is, ‘hypnotise’ them—“to make each task trickier for them, and funnier for us.”
It is about this point that I squirm a little. It’s unusual to find a television programme taking such pride in its ethical corruption, and the fact that this is all coming from our beloved Phillip makes the whole thing even worse.
With a twinkle of contempt in his eye, Phillip Schofield asks us to welcome “the incredible Keith Barry,” a man with possibly the most contrapuntal name on television. How are we supposed to take someone called ‘Keith Barry’ remotely seriously, especially when he’s trying to convince us that he is a serious hypnotist? Never trust a man with two first names. Nevertheless, our mate Keith—fingers pressed to his temples and garbed in the kind of cheap purple waistcoat that even a children’s party magician would condemn—waltzes onstage to great applause, and proceeds to make a case for the authenticity of his hypnotism. “Would contestants be doing things that would inhibit them winning money if they weren’t really hypnotised?” he asks. Schofield looks satisfied. There is no further questioning.
Except that there is a problem with Keith Barry’s explication. Though the surface logic of his statement is enough to placate the more passive viewers of this terrible programme, it falls on its face once we’re told about the contestants, and the arduous screening process they had to go through to get into that studio. I can imagine it now; some Orwellian concentration camp in which people with distinctive regional accents are hoarded together and told to do ridiculous things with outlandish conviction. The chosen few, those now nervously seated before the studio audience, know by now that the moment they break character is the moment that they leave with nothing. They have been conditioned. They have been exploited.
Now, in some senses, this might be considered hypnotism in its own right. I, however, think it’s a little bit more complex. And, in true form to this blog, I’m going to invoke a little post-structural theory to help get us on our way.
In 1981, a grumpy Frenchman called Jean Baudrillard published a philosophical treatise called Simulacres et Simulation. As you can imagine, it’s a riveting read. The point of this treatise, once you get past the thick layer of nihilistic cynicism, is centred around the inevitable backlash of an image-saturated culture. By image, Baudrillard means stuff like television, advertisements, pop Americana, and cultural iconography. Now, though, we have the internet too, on-demand TV streaming, and a greater exposure to image than ever before.
What’s so bad about that? you might wonder. Well, Ol’ Jean is a bit antsy about the potential for this saturation to become so considerable that the images themselves begin to overtake reality by ‘simulating’ it, to the extent that it forms a new reality. This, he calls the ‘hyperreal’ – keep this concept in mind. He uses the example of a story written by Jorge Luis Borges, in which a map of a kingdom becomes so detailed that it has to be expanded to a 1:1 scale, and ends up lying atop the kingdom itself. This map is what in modern philosophy they call a simulacrum: a representation of something that has come to replace or obscure the very thing it sought to represent.
Let us assume—for the sake of my whole argument, and to massage my fragile ego—that the hypnosis on You’re Back in the Room is bogus, as it has been pointed out by a whole cavalcade of modern-day Sherlock’s across the web. Now, I’m not here to debate the efficacy of hypnosis in the real world. A debate of that sort would get us waist-deep in the briney hogwash of Freudian psychoanalysis. What I am challenging is the efficacy of hypnosis in the context of Keith Barry and his merry men, paying particular attention to the problems that arise when we begin to simulate something we don’t understand.
I would argue that You’re Back in the Room is that simulacrum of hypnosis. Its contestants—through no real fault of their own—are being forced to simulate something that they have no first-hand access to. I use the term ‘simulate’ rather than ‘feign’ in reference to something that Baudrillard himself draws attention to in his treatise. He invokes an example given by Émile Littré (another grumpy Frenchman), who hypothesises thus: “Someone who feigns an illness can simply go to bed and pretend he is ill. Someone who simulates an illness produces in himself some of the symptoms.”
The ‘screening process’ we’re told about at the beginning of the show is, in the light of Littré’s example, simply a search for those people who can simulate the process of being hypnotised; i.e., who work so hard to represent it that they start to show signs of genuine hypnotism in themselves. Aha! I hear you cry, So they are hypnotised! Well, not quite. If they are, it certainly isn’t Keith Barry’s doing, but rather their own, spurred by the pressures of commercial sycophancy and the promise of national exposure. And even then, the poor sods are not completely under their own spell; they are only able to simulate some of the symptoms.
Where the contestants fail is in their ability to represent actual hypnosis. They are simulating something they have no empirical understanding of; most of them explain that they haven’t been hypnotised prior to coming on to the show. Therefore, we might assume that they are trying to represent the representations of hypnosis that they’ve been exposed to along the way. And representing something that has no foundation in our experiential reality is, as Baudrillard calls it, a ‘hyperreality.’
In theory, this should be enough for us to identify the fabrication and turn off the television to do more interesting things with our Saturday evenings. In practice, however, the vast majority of the audience at home, and in the studio, also suffer from a lack of first-hand experience with hypnosis. This means that however confident we might be that this whole thing is a sham, we are forced to concede the small possibility that it could be genuine, since we have no ‘reality’ to compare this ‘hyperreality’ to.
Now, that might sound very clever and interesting and might make you quite aware of your own experiential ineptitude, but to me it presents something rather worrying. When ITV’s audience is thrown into this weird limbo, there is no resolution. They will keep coming back for more, which means this programme might see a renewal for a second season. And the reason that this happens is to do with our relationship with image.
As our culture has become more and more image-centred, we have developed a sort of viewership entitlement. Take for example the ISIS beheading videos that were leaked throughout autumn last year, or the celebrity nude photo leak that happened in the summer. Huge amounts of people took to the internet to satisfy their apparent right to ‘see,’ to scrutinise, to make their case. In these cases, the results were as inconsequential as simply reaffirming the fact that ISIS were an evil organisation, or that Jennifer Lawrence’s body was or was not all it was cracked up to be.
Now, apply that to the bigger conspiratorial stuff. The Zapruder film—the video taken of Kennedy’s tragic assassination on 22nd November 1963—is still to this day scrutinised for the ‘truth’. The attack on the World Trade Center on 11th September 2001 was possibly the most documented event in world history, certainly from an imagistic perspective, and the result is conspiracy after conspiracy as a result of our need to bear witness with our own eyes. Image has made us skeptics of everything we encounter, and this is precisely what You’re Back in the Room plays into.
You see, if the hypnosis on ITV’s new hit game show were to seem real, not only would it be a kind of boring show (limited faculties would render some applied personas impossible for particular contestants), but it would also fail to make us really question it. It would leave us unengaged. We go back again and again to find evidence for ourselves of the conspiracy, to sniff out the pungent odours of fabrication and fraud. That’s why so many viewers are sitting down to bear witness to Phillip Schofield’s career suicide every Saturday night. It’s to reassure ourselves that we can’t be deceived by cheap tricks. It’s to share in that skepticism that brings us together in a distinctly British way. It’s to know that despite the protests from the producers and presenters, we can see through it all.
But that’s where we’re wrong. Because which ever way you try and swing the pendulum, a worrying number of us have fallen into ITV’s trap. So desperate are we to prove our critical autonomy, so strong is that entitlement to see for ourselves, that we fuel the very fire we are trying to put out.