I have just been watching Meerkat Manor. Every time I watch it, I swear to myself that it’s the last time; it’s just so depressing. At the end of each episode Bill Nighy intones of the “tragedy” or “disaster” the viewing public can look forward to next time. This week, poor Mozart had been expelled from her family and had a miscarriage because of it; the last time I watched, Shakespeare was bitten by a poisonous snake and suffered a long, agonising death. Entertainment, eh?
David Attenborough is the master of misery in the animal kingdom. Each time I watch one of his programmes, I come away wondering how anything survives past breakfast time (if they can even find any breakfast to eat, that is). And I must confess that if I could save an animal from a slow, painful death, I would step in and do so. But I suppose that would spoil the entertainment.
Of course, it isn’t just natural history programmes where the viewing public gets such a kick from the unhappiness of others. Soap operas aren’t exactly a laugh a minute, while people like Simon Cowell have made a mint from being pantomime villains and reducing people to tears and their dreams to rubble.
What is it about the human condition that we so enjoy viewing the pain, discomfort or humiliation of others? It’s nothing new – think about the crowds that gathered for public hangings and the little old ladies who sat knitting while the guillotine fell. There but for the grace of God …