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The Great British Break-Off

Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig on The Great British Bake Off. Photo: ZJJG/LNG/WENN - Credit: Supplied by WENN

TV critic KEVIN O’SULLIVAN on what our viewing habits say about us as a troubled nation

Karren Brady, Lord Sugar, and Claude Littner on The Apprentice. Photo: Jim Marks/BBC – Credit: BBC/Jim Marks

Amid the moronic inferno of a ludicrously polarised mass debate there is perhaps one thing we can all agree on about Brexit: it has driven us collectively mad.

The raging row over Europe has turned Britain into a neurotic nation. A disunited kingdom unable to cope with a momentous shock decision that has propelled us into a frightening universe we struggle to understand. We are out of our comfort zone and out of control.

But why are we in such a discombobulated state? Why can’t we handle leaving the EU? Or, if you prefer, why can’t we even deal with trying to remain? Why has this seismic situation reduced what should be an important exchange of views to the level of rival soccer supporters screaming abuse at each other?

Don’t ask the boys and girls in the Westminster bubble. Neither Theresa’s Tories nor Corbyn’s Labourites have the faintest idea how to articulate their Brexit vision. Mainly, because they don’t have one. Ever since the referendum, parliament has become a house full of uncoordinated Euro dervishes thrashing around in all directions. When we look to our political leaders what do we see? A ship of squabbling fools adrift in a sea of confusion.

It’s not as if Britain has never been divided before. All elections and referenda are by their very nature divisive. We’ve had many narrow margins of victory and always accepted the result because in a democracy that’s the way it goes. But in the EU warzone, even the result is questioned because – horror of horrors – lies were told during the campaign. Gosh, really? Whatever next!

And so the intractable argument with no end or compromise trundles on regardless. Where it’s heading no one knows. The pompous certitude on both sides of the fence (I’m definitely right, you’re definitely wrong) only serves to fuel the chronic instability that has sent vast numbers of increasingly insecure citizens into a tailspin they cannot fathom.

But it’s their own fault. When, for whatever reason, 17.4 million voters put their cross in the Leave box they did something that went against the grain.

They did something uncharacteristically radical in a cautious country that is innately conservative (with a small c). And thereby plunged themselves into an unfamiliar world of profound change.

If there are two things Brits can’t stand, unfamiliarity and change are at the top of the charts. Confirmed creatures of habit, they love routine and knowing precisely what to expect.

Surprise and differentness are anathemas to them. That’s why they watch the same television shows at the same time of year, every year. In their droves. The fact that the likes of Strictly Come Dancing, I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! and Britain’s Got Talent are exercises in rigidly formulaic annual repetition is precisely what makes them so enduringly popular.

As a TV critic who has followed the less-than-exciting entertainment tastes of a strangely unadventurous nation for way too long, it never ceases to amaze me how British viewers want nothing more than carbon copies of everything they’ve seen before.

In the safe UK, it’s the intoxicating call of the mild that reigns supreme. Minor stars doing the Tango for four judges. Since 2004. Minor stars getting cockroaches tipped on their heads and eating kangaroos’ testicles in the Australian jungle. Since 2002. End-of-the-pier desperados attempting to impress Simon Cowell with laughably old-fashioned variety acts. Since 2007.

Meanwhile, end of the peer Alan Sugar and the BBC have been serving up their comedy business competition for the hopelessly hilarious ‘tycoons of tomorrow’ for 12 long years.

Incompetent contestants specifically chosen for their amusing uselessness ploughing through the same old tasks before the same old boardroom mauling by the same old anachronistic Lord of the realm. And we’re still supposed to take it seriously, even though no one ever has.

Not forgetting the eternal Big Brother, which has been locking losers in a compound so that they can unravel on camera since the turn of the century. Will this ground-breaking reality TV pioneer ever stop? You decide.

Mess with the comfortingly familiar format of any of these hardy annuals and you will pay the price. Disturbing the equilibrium of TV’s ‘groundhog year’ calendar will not be tolerated.

Once a 15 million a week juggernaut, ITV’s fallen idol The X Factor now can’t even pull in an audience of five million for its grand finale. Why? Because, laudably in search of improvement, ringmaster Cowell – a notorious perfectionist – has subjected the punters to too many changes. And up with that they will not put.

There were howls of dismay and fury when it emerged that The Great British Bake Off – a breathtakingly unambitious programme devoted entirely to amateur cake-making in a tent – had been snatched from poor old Auntie Beeb by ‘evil’ Channel 4 for £75 million. Never mind leaving the European Union… this was the big one!

One glance at the seething social media sites and you’d have thought no one would ever tune into the Bake Off again. But once the new series started it swiftly became apparent that here would still be cakes in a tent and the crucial monster ratings soon returned. The secret of Channel 4’s success? Despite several enforced personnel changes after Mel, Sue and Mary Berry handed in their aprons, the show was the same. Phew.

And that’s the trouble with stressed-out post-Brexit Britain. It’s not the same. Our broken hearts yearn for the warm embrace of the EU show and we fear we’ll never get it back.

We are unsettled, anxious, nervous and depressed because this time next year Strictly Come Remain will be waltzing towards the edge of oblivion. The last dance. Almost accidentally, this normally restrained and careful nation did something wildly out of character and voted for drastic change. And we are stunned into a kind of directionless despair by the consequences.

God knows why so many politicians think that calling for change is the way forward. If Obama had tried his rallying cry on this side of the Atlantic would it have worked?

Can we change? No, we don’t want to! We still don’t want to. But it looks like we’re stuck with it. And the problem is that, constitutionally, we’re not cut out for turbulence. We love consistency and permanence. After 45 years of the long-running European soap opera, Brexit took them away from us.

Written one year after the end of the First World War, W.B. Yeats’ portentous poem The Second Coming addressed the febrile mood as traumatised Britain came to terms with the cataclysm of massive social upheaval and a lost generation of men. Somehow, his powerful words seem acutely relevant to our current cataclysm: ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…’

Still uncomfortably relevant to today, Yeats’ timeless observations on a nonplussed nation in freefall continue: ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’ A thousand postulating political pundits and babbling MPs pathetically convinced of their own indisputable correctness spring to mind. In our dysfunctional vortex of Brexit chaos, only the talkers are thriving. And who, apart from the rolling news channels’ booking bozos, gives a damn about them?

As for the rest of us – mere mortals who take refuge in the merciful relief of light and trite telly – it’s roll on the next Strictly, Apprentice, Britain’s Got Talent, I’m A Celeb and the Bake Off. At least they’ll never change.

• Kevin O’Sullivan was television reviewer for the Sunday Mirror for 10 years. He reviews at

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