Let’s stop making tears a cheap TV trick

"What worries me that if more people burst into sobs over a half-formed jug, or a disastrous cake, or a bad song, then what will we have left for the important stuff?," asks TV editor Alison Graham...

Crying over the deaths of people you don’t know and have never met is an indulgence, I’ve always felt. Tragedy belongs to families and friends, not to strangers. Crying is the right of the loved ones. But as the photographs of cheerful faces that will smile no more filled our television screens after the Paris massacres, my tears came.

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It wasn’t just fellow-feeling and sadness, it was also seeing images of British buildings and magnificent structures from Durham Cathedral to the London Eye bathed in the floodlit glow of the blue, white and red of the French flag. And the noisy solidarity inherent in thousands of British football fans preparing to belt out La Marseillaise.

We all watched real emotion, real tears in the face of a real horror on those Paris streets as inhabitants confronted their bafflement, despair and grief. Such a wrenching reaction would give anyone pause, because you don’t have to watch as much television as I do to set this response against what I’ll call “television tears.” 

You know what I mean, the empty lachrymosity of talent shows, where tears are a valuable commodity when it comes to making a good show. You don’t get through to the next round? Have a cry! That hopelessly unrealistic dream that you were so “passionate” about lies in tatters? Sob on camera! People will love you!

How many gallons are shed by thwarted reality-show contestants as they elaborately wipe a glittery fake-nailed finger under their eyes so as not to smudge their mascara? Can the environment withstand washing waves of weepy empathy from X Factor judges? I’m not sure it can. It certainly can’t cope with the sobbing of Great Pottery Show Down judge Keith Brymer Jones.

I’ve seen four episodes and Brymer Jones has burst into tears in every single one. I have no objection at all to men crying, it’s fine and lovely. There’s nothing unmanly about weeping, and Brymer Jones genuinely moved. But come on, gather yourself, Keith, you’re on telly and it’s a pot. Not a cute baby lambkin.

People should care about what they love doing. But it’s a pot. Just a pot. By all means have a sniffle, but off-camera. Then gather yourself and go on. What worries me that if more people burst into sobs over a half-formed jug, or a disastrous cake, or a bad song, then what will we have left for the important stuff? Will it forever, by stealth, numb our reactions to real, piercing tragedies like Paris?

Tears, an indicator of a powerful human emotion, are being devalued because they are seen as necessary to just about any television-imposed narrative  where they’ve become little more than salty outpourings. We’ve all seen how “ordinary” members of the public on chat shows or cheap documentaries now slip into that well-worn vernacular, the little pantomime waving of the hand at the camera as the tears come, and the whispered apology of “Sorry, sorry.”

I always feel sad for people who do this, because it’s as if they’ve absorbed – probably like the rest of us – what is expected of them by seeing everyone else doing it, and they are just playing their part in the “drama”.

Television needs to re-evaluate its approach to the very tears that it tries so hard to prompt. Anyone on television who hasn’t gone through a life-twisting trauma should dry their eyes.