That Week on TV: Preppers UK, National Geographic; Kookyville, C4
Armageddon addicts? People who prepare for the worst are just looking for a purpose, says Jack Seale in his weekly TV review
People need hobbies. Men need hobbies. Lonely men need hobbies. Preppers UK: Surviving Armageddon (Wednesday National Geographic) was ostensibly about "preppers": crackpots who think law and order are about to be splintered by war, rioting or natural disaster, so they've dedicated their lives to anticipating catastrophe.
In reality, it was about extreme hobbyists. Mike, a former soldier, feared adverse weather having been deeply affected by Hurricane Katrina. "They expected somebody to come and save them," he said, choking up, "and nobody did." Mike was in England, presumably not in an area that's below sea level or vulnerable to 100mph storms.
Nevertheless, he was ready to "bug out" (prepper jargon for moving to a pre-arranged safe place) within minutes. Mike demonstrated how quickly he could have a trailer full of food and equipment hooked to the back of his car. Once he'd done that, he didn't wheel it back inside: he drove to Wales for a full dry run of "a slow and progressive transition to a simpler life" post-apocalypse, cooking over a fire and sitting in his caravan. There was a small telly in there. Mike mentioned his family, but we never saw them.
Mike had gone camping.
Young prepper Royston's chief concern was "an ENP from the sun with a coronal mass ejection" that could potentially wipe out electricity systems worldwide. He had all the survival kit – hunting knife, kerosene lamps, several thousand pounds' worth of food in the garage – but his special skill was passing his knowledge on via his internet radio show, Survival Instincts UK. He sat, microphone plugged into laptop, and happily greeted his regular listeners, numbers unknown.
Royston was podcasting.
He was good at it, too: fluent and engaging, letting his talent out in the most opportune way. Like most broadcasters, he aimed to build a following, although in Royston's case they'd ideally end up rebuilding civilisation with him. "I can equip about a dozen people – create a community around me… leadership would be something that's forced upon me."
The king of the preppers was Edward. "I think there will be a new Dark Age," he said, pointing out how ill-prepared the UK and US are. "Russia now has enough bunkers to house the entire population."
Edward's bug-out spot was in Slovakia on the edge of a game-filled forest. He didn't bomb up there on a Friday afternoon. He'd moved there 14 years ago, and was living self-sufficiently with his wife and three kids.
This, then, wasn't a hobby. Edward, who already had the lank hair, two-mile stare, khaki vest and weary wit that you imagine survivors of a societal meltdown will sport a year after The Event, clearly wanted to protect his family. Except: when he decamped to Slovakia, he didn't have a family.
Watching Edward solemnly kill a hare he'd reared himself, using some kind of karate chop ("Forgive me for what I'm about to do. May your next life be better and thank you for feeding my family") was when, bombarded with theories about how the London riots or Greek financial crisis are signs that the end is a dice-roll away, I started catching myself making mental notes, just in case. Hares. Easy to keep. Fast-growing. Protein source.
Further evidence that the preppers might not be the crazy ones came from Noreen and Simon, who were new to it all but already had a roof covered in solar panels, their own chickens and plenty of homemade jam and foraged nettles. Taking on board Edward's laconic warning that dwindling oil reserves will soon cause food prices to spiral upwards, this all seemed sensible.
OK, so Simon's specialist barrels of dried food that keep for 25 years were a bit much. In any case, as Edward irritably pointed out, naifs like Noreen and Simon would, come the darkness, be murdered for their powdered egg almost instantly. "That house will just be raided within days," he promised, possibly musing on which karate chop or death grip would work best on a cheery couple from Stockport.
It wasn't all doom. Like most hobbies, prepping is a way to meet like-minded people. Annie, a bubbly American singleton in east London, had a Koran in case the local Muslim community ended up in charge but also, most importantly, "lots of condoms and various lubes. Even in times of hardship, people have sex. Perhaps more so!"
Mike ended the programme exchanging wisdom with Pete, a fellow prepper he'd met via online dating - I mean, the network of survivalists sharing how-to videos on YouTube. Mike let Pete come to his secret hide-out in Wales, and even allowed him to try the deadly catapult and steel-tipped arrows with which Mike can and will kill livestock and territorial rivals. Pete clumsily missed the tree stump the first few times. They laughed, bromantically. Mike and Pete had gone camping.
Social networks always angrily announce that each new TV comedy is a hateful waste of airtime whose creators' cameras should be confiscated. Eventually, they were right. The justly derided Kookyville (Sunday C4) used the constructed reality format of The Only Way Is Essex – real people having real conversations, but clearly prompted, marshalled and heavily edited by the producers – and found a way to make it twenty times more grubby. TOWIE, Made in Chelsea, Geordie Shore and the rest might have plenty of comic moments, but the audience normally like and take an interest in the participants, even if the programme-makers view them as tacky/posh/lairy scum.
Kookyville lost any pretence of following people's lives and presented the most ignorant and uncouth volunteers it could find around the country, carefully showing them in snippets at their worst, for smug laughs. It was presented as a comedy but relied on its stars not thinking they were in one, so the exploitation was obvious and painful.
This goading was depressingly cynical, but what made Kookyville a stinker for the ages was the frequency of ickily insensitive comments about minorities. Isn't it funny when people think it's OK to, for instance, tell an anecdote about a Thalidomide victim falling and not being able to right himself? As we already told Ricky Gervais: actually, no it isn't, and your decision to focus on this stuff is unfortunate at best. From the lazily awful title down, Kookyville felt like it had been designed to make the world just a little bit worse. Culturally, we were another inch towards armageddon.