The Experiment

Wednesday, May 22, 2002 by

Television has been nosing into alien worlds and minds since its birth, and quite rightly never deemed it necessary to apologise. The most unquestioning means of validating its existence, both past and present, has always been to do what is otherwise impossible: to justify its actual presence as a piece of technology by weaving a virtual presence as comedian, teacher and commentator. After all, and like radio, it is a medium that is pointless without a message. The machinery of broadcasting – bolts, wires, transmitters – needs something to carry and play with that’s somehow bigger than all its constituent parts. And what better demonstration of its power than to first take us so far behind a closed door as to leave us pitching between poles of excitement and bewilderment; then to announce that what we thought foreign was merely the familiar flipped over; and to finally call time by reminding us that only television itself has this power to simultaneously strip away, explain and reassure in equal doses.

Bundled out over just nine days, all four episodes of The Experiment packed in the equivalent of probably an entire undergraduate course in political theory and social behaviour, but were infinitely more fun. Although tipping its head to one of the loftiest of antecedents – an internationally famous real-life “experiment” conducted at Stanford University, California in 1971 – the programme made little in the way of clumsy and obvious references to its namesake, and was all the better for it. For rather than assuming the character of retreading a piece of smug, ivory tower pseudism, this series ended up making the case for television as investigator, observer and sentry more strongly than any similar kind of programme for a long time. As for its supposed “reality TV” credentials, The Experiment certainly heralded a major departure from what that familiar label has come to wearily promise of late.

Its simple conceit – 15 volunteers randomly divided into “guards” and “prisoners”, locked up in a fabricated jail, then left to see what happens – came clouded with the inevitable trails of academic hot air. Thankfully, though, what there had to be in the way of earnest verbal exposition and theorising was finely balanced with deftly edited sequences of the more arresting and visual kind. Foresight dictated there would be confrontations, and plenty of them. Those in overall charge – a professor and a doctor – willed controversy and tension from the outset, and tried to build it into every decision they were shown to take. That was, after all, the whole point – and why, rather than leaving their specimens utterly alone banged up within their cavernous glistening Elstree studio, they hassled them for questionnaires and urine samples and provided them with a video booth for solitary testament.

Yet rarely was there that much sense of crude manipulation; perhaps ironic given how the entire set-up was of a synthetic, man-made origin and there were cameras poking into every possible corner. The participants seemed, on the evidence shown, more than willing to accept any amount of contrivance that underpinned their environment – and then go one step further, to the extent of concluding, however subconsciously, that because they were in a giant petri dish they should behave variously in as typical and atypical fashion as they individually saw fit. The programme neatly documented the processes by which the “prisoners” appeared to equate the expectations of their masters – those in ultimate control, the boffins – with a saunter into the most exaggerated kinds of behaviour possible: overreaction, and total inaction, both side by side, and in as unsubtle a way imaginable.

If the company were staging all of this chicanery mostly for the cameras, then their intended audience wasn’t us, the viewer. It was the whitecoats in their lair, who could sanction or disallow plans and schemes on a whim. The pair of scientists in charge, reassuringly stereotyped sociologist-types with rumpled clothes, soft voices and an air of cultivated dithering, sat in judgement in front of a bank of shimmering screens. They played god, decided who came and went, and it was really to them alone that the participants targeted any sort of playacting or manipulation of their own.

This was why, again, as another entry in the “reality” TV canon, The Experiment was unique. It was almost as though it wasn’t actually meant for general wider viewing. It was a closed exercise made open to us retrospectively and long after the shouting had died down, the conclusions had been drawn and everyone gone home. Neither contestants nor ringmasters gave the impression of caring about anybody else except each other – a refreshing change. The viewer was left largely on their own to pick their way through proceedings and to form a personal path through the maze of potential ethical, moral and political dilemmas routinely tossed out minute after minute.

Here was where the one token concession to a TV audience came into its own. David Suchet‘s voice-over was a model exercise in escorting an audience firmly but gently by the arm up one epigrammatic cul-de-sac after another. Like a flamboyant 18th century biologist presiding over a pioneering yet lugubrious dissection of a thumbnail, Suchet brought a sense of the profound and universal to even the tiniest of discoveries. Every incision was a journey into the most fundamental behaviour of human society, opening up a wonderland of textbook theories and revelations. He prefaced each scene with an ominous foretelling; he brought each to a full stop with terse confirmation of how his arch soothsaying had been proved right. Each twist and turn was underscored and contextualised as a classic example of this or that sociological or psychological practice; every outburst, decision or irresolution a staging post on the road to, among others, anarchy, egalitarianism, democracy or tyranny. All the while Suchet combined the vocabulary of an Open University lecturer with the timing of the craftiest of music-hall conjurers (watch carefully as the prisoners seal their own fate – again!) and the dry delivery of a company chief executive who knows all the answers. It was great stuff.

As for the participants themselves, our perceptions of their motives and loyalties were encouraged to shift and squirm as much as their own temperaments. One minute you desperately wanted the walls to carry on tumbling down; the next that the scientists should damn well hurry up and pull the plug. It was by turns compelling, humiliating, outrageous and hilarious; one moment everyone appeared almost embarrassingly likeable, the next you wished upon the whole lot a prolonged bout of very real incarceration.

Crucially, though, and from start to finish, this never once felt like an exercise in voyeurism or intrusion – flippant, pointless or otherwise. And that’s not just because as a concept The Experiment was fashioned from the starchiest of laboratory uniforms. Its greatest triumph was its supremely sure-footed and accomplished utilisation of its very medium. In the end it’s never the source, or any number of ultra-worthy precedents, that secures a legacy. It is the application of genius to bolts and wires and transmitters. As Clive James wrote, television history is made out of television.


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