The first readily-identifiable pre-packaged cult to arrive on British TV from abroad must be Twin Peaks. When the BBC bought it up in 1990, the broadsheets were filled with ballyhoo about the show. Earnest discussions on whether the show was Isabel Allende-style magic realism or po-mo soap opera predictably abounded. But the colour supplements also carried a new kind of puff piece – the do-it-yourself cult kit. Stateside stringers were packed off to Twin Peaks parties in Boston and Frisco, noting the communal aspect of the Twin Peaks party circuit, the Rocky Horror-esque penchant for in-character fancy dress, and the regulation chow provided: doughnuts, cherry pie and, of course, “damn fine coffee”.
What had (presumably) grown spontaneously in America was now being imposed over here: this is how you should watch. From the start, it was suggested, you would either be a demented Twin Peaks fan or a curmudgeonly dissenter. Any middle ground option – quite liking it, watching a few and then tailing off, watching the first half hour just to kill time before Paradise Club with Leslie Grantham – was vetoed. You couldn’t “take it or leave it”. You must Take It or Leave It.
Fortunately, Twin Peaks was easy to take for a lot of people. Lynch’s slow, brooding sense of unease combined with a revolving cast of grotesques to create a properly new style of TV drama, suspended midway between an early Werner Herzog film and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In – a neat, if painful, trick. Unlike an increasing amount of television even back then, it had the commendable arrogance to stride off into a wilderness of its own devising without once looking back to check if anyone was following.
To push them gently along in the right direction, there was a slightly more conventional detective story element to the programme, which, MacGuffinlike as it clearly was from the outset, kept a lot of non-Lynchian viewers watching past the first episode. And in those days it could remain largely mysterious to the end. The pre-Internet television world was “region safe” in the true sense, with only the odd rogue blabbermouth with relatives in Florida to spoil the party. (I vividly remember the howls of derision when an over-excited sixth former at a school end-of-term show smugly gave away the identity of Laura Palmer’s killer a few weeks early. Shortly afterwards, a member of the rugby team who got his arse out on stage was cheered to the rafters, before being suspended for six weeks.)
Twin Peaks was, everyone agreed, a one-off. The problem was that it was a massively popular one-off, and that sort of thing makes executives wake up sweating in the night, after hideous nightmares about a mass cull of golden geese. The BBC, and soon Channel Four, tried desperately to keep the meter running. For a short while, they tried to force the issue, plugging every new US drama import with a “weird” sheen as a cult waiting to happen, before coming horribly unstuck with Oliver Stone’s risible virtual reality series Wild Palms. (Look, TP-heads, even the name’s rather similar! Wait, where are you going?) The Beeb were left looking like a flailing clown struggling with a blocked water pistol in front of a party of hostile, jelly-deprived children – a loss of dignity for everyone involved.
>The millennial return of science fantasy to cinemas, and later TV, brought cults back out of the closet. The insane amounts of money generated by George Lucas, Peter Jackson and Russell T Davies sent commissioning editors scurrying back to their business models with Gold Rush glee. These weren’t merely franchises, they were magic money trees. Let’s plant some more! The singular history of their biggest asset, Doctor Who, should have told them something about the ungovernable nature of this sort of enterprise, but the top brass stopped their ears. The organic farm was drenched in fertiliser in the hope of raising a forest. Cults were, once again, being willed into existence.
Seeking a slice of the spoils, the rest of the media willingly leapt in. Broadsheet websites now thrive on a lucrative stream of clicks from easily-assembled “live blogs”, and talk up evenings of “communal viewing” for upmarket shows via Twitter, neglecting to mention that 30% of Twitter conversation in the UK is based on whatever’s showing on the main terrestrial channels at any time, be it Homes Under the Hammer or an emergency showing of Futtock’s End when Kempton Park’s flooded out. Such pomp can arouse suspicion. The more Downton Abbey is talked up as a cult, the more the sceptical viewer with a working memory is inclined to compare it with Upstairs, Downstairs, the show from which Fellowes’s folderol is a chip off the old block in all senses, especially relative scale.
The message is – or should be – that cult status, of the tangible, dress-up, readily monetised variety, is generally only available to a handful of select programmes within a few dramatic genres. The second message, even less likely to be heard, is that with a programme’s worthiness of cult status, as with pretty much everything else, the audience will be the judge. If they wear the jumpers and parrot the lines, fine. If they don’t, but still watch and quietly approve, that’s just as good. With most television programmes, the only marketable asset you’re buying is the programme itself. Not terribly long ago, if the programme was good, that used to be more than enough. It still should be.