The free availability of hard-core pornography on the internet is changing relationships between men and women in ways we have barely begun to talk about, but it is also changing television. What should executives do with the knowledge that sections of their ever-fragmenting audience are watching images they could not have found in the greasiest Soho basements 20 years ago? Once they would have ignored them, but now that television's power is waning, it must run after every viewer it can find. It cannot give them porn — not yet, anyway — but with Mock the Week it can reassure the onanistic that they're good lads, really, just having a harmless laugh.
BBC 2 describes the show as satire, but it is not satirical in the usual sense of the word. The chairman, Dara Ó Briain, a buttery-faced man with a smugly malicious manner, presides over panellists without a political idea in their little heads. The viewer can never say, for instance, that Frankie Boyle, the show's star, hates the thought of a Conservative government and is determined to find the barb that will pierce David Cameron's defences, or that any of his team-mates are determined to punish Gordon Brown for what he has done to Britain. They do not want to scratch, let alone wound, those with real power over our lives, which is probably why the BBC gives them free rein.
The best way to picture Mock the Week is to imagine six men, with a low-grade but undoubted comic talent, late at night in a pub. Drink has dissolved their inhibitions and each is determined to push the others aside and prove he is top dog. The blatancy of their competitiveness sets them apart from other TV comics. Status anxiety torments performers in all panel games. But you never see Ian Hislop look resentful when Paul Merton comes up with a good joke on Have I Got News for You, or rush out his gags so he can be sure that he can get them on air. No veneer of conviviality hides the contestants' jealousy on Mock the Week. They don't laugh at each other's jokes. They visibly struggle for money and fame as they interrupt each other and race to snatch the microphone in the middle of the studio. As tense and mirthless as saloon-bar fighters in the moment before the first punch is thrown, they will do anything to establish their superiority.
Boyle is the show's strutting cock. A gaunt, aggressive, slit-eyed Scotsman with a neurotic determination to be heard first and always, he seems to have grasped that the critics will hail him as "edgy" if he courts the porn market.
Here he is in action. The show has a round called: "If this is the answer, what's the question?" Ó Briain announces that the answer is "40 years" so the question is..."Is it ‘For how long would I follow Beyoncé up an impossibly long ladder?'" says Boyle without a flicker of a smile. "Is it what is the youngest my balls have looked?" says a fellow panellist, getting the hang of the show. "Is it how long it takes me to knock one out to Loose Women?" says Boyle, back as snarling top dog again. (In case you have not seen it, Loose Women is a daytime show with middle-aged presenters.) "Depends who's on the panel, I fear, that average can swing quite a lot," smirks Ó Briain. "Oooh yeah, the week you were on was fantastic," a panellist tells Ó Briain.