Ali G Before He Was Massiv

Wednesday, March 27, 2002 by

Cheaply made unlicensed cash-in merchandise has existed pretty much since the dawn of celebrity, but the shoddy “100% Unauthorised” video is a more recent innovation.

Such titles began to appear in the shops at the tail end of the 1990s, taking the likes of Madonna and Hollywood stars as their subjects, but lacking the “official” status that would have allowed them to include material that members of the public would actually want to see. To counteract this while remaining just about on the right side of legality, they employed the services of the invariably small amount of (usually thoroughly uninteresting and irrelevant) footage of the subject that was free of all copyright clearance problems, and bumped this up to video release length with discursive links from journalists, “style gurus” and minor celebrities – most of whom had no relation to the individual they were talking about and had never really been heard of by the audience anyway.

Reaction to such tapes was initially hostile, with Smash Hits magazine in particular urging their readers not to buy shoddy rubbish that was designed to make money out without offering anything substantial in return. However, people continued to buy them in sufficient quantities to persuade the manufacturers that it was worth producing further examples of the genre. Well-founded opposition to the idea of the “Completely Unofficial” video was brushed aside by sales figures, and no matter how disappointed purchasers may have been with the tapes once they got them home, their existence became accepted instead of questioned, and in fact somehow they managed to grow in popularity. The end result of this is that similarly inclined “documentary” programmes that were barely of sufficient quality to warrant a video release now have a home on terrestrial television.

Channel 5′s Ali G Before He Was Massiv is merely the latest example in a long line of such programmes to pollute the channel (and, increasingly, other channels), scraping the bottom of the barrel to find early non-copyright material by the latest teen sensation. In this case the subject was Ali G, or to be more accurate his creator Sacha Baron-Cohen. It’s fair to say that even dedicated comedy enthusiasts had barely heard of Baron-Cohen before he made his first appearances as Ali G on Channel 4′s The 11 O’clock Show, and so the casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that there is hardly likely to be a treasure trove of undiscovered early performances gathering dust in the archives. On this occasion, the casual observer would be correct. All that the researchers could unearth for this were an early student video, stints as a presenter on local cable channels and Granada Men and Motors, and a handful of contributions to BBC2′s Comedy Nation before having to move onto more obvious fare like The 11 O’clock Show and Da Ali G Show. The fact that someone felt the need to cobble together an entire programme from such a small amount of material speaks volumes about this venture – it was never intended as an opportunity to celebrate Baron-Cohen’s little-known early work, but an exercise in trying to push up the viewing figures as much as possible in the wake of the hype surrounding the new Ali G film. In fact, the basic title of the programme was thoroughly deceptive – although it was billed as Ali G Before He Was Massiv, it did not in fact feature any footage of Ali G before he was”massiv” (hardly surprising, as the character was created for The 11 O’clock Show). The only pre-fame footage was of Baron-Cohen in other comic guises, but putting his name in the title was hardly likely to attract as many viewers.

So was this early material worth digging out and dusting down? Well, not if you were looking for something interesting and entertaining. The only remotely amusing section was the student video project, which curiously was given a sneering dismissal by the programme’s voice-over. The footage of Baron-Cohen as a presenter was nondescript, run of the mill fare, practically indistinguishable from any of the other similar programmes you might find while flicking through cable channels. The Comedy Nation segments seemed laboured and uninspired (although admittedly they were shown in short broken up sections, which can’t have helped), and had barely anything to offer anyone that might have tuned in because of their love of Ali G. In that sense, this programme was the televisual equivalent of those endless “The Beatles Live In Hamburg Playing Uninspired Cover Versions” and “Scott Walker From Before He Was Any Good” compilations, gathering together inferior and inessential early material under the pretence of being something “rare”, and doubtless disappointing anyone who buys them.

If the “unofficial” nature of the programme wasn’t obvious to viewers from the outset, then it would have become so thanks to the picture quality of much of the material raided for clips. That many of the early presenting appearances appeared to be taken from VHS copies is probably down to the fact that they presumably only exist in that format now, but it was also obvious that the clips from The 11 O’clock Show and Da Ali G Show were taken from a VHS tape and the commercial DVD respectively. The masters of both of those series most definitely do still exist. The makers were clearly unable to afford or simply refused permission to use any footage of Baron-Cohen from after he became “massiv”, and compensated for this with a quick trip to HMV.

By now, anyone who didn’t see the programme will no doubt be feeling puzzled about why it featured footage from either programme in the first place. After all, wasn’t it supposed to be a look at Baron-Cohen’s career from the days before he started talking about marijuana and saying “bo” a lot? Well, as suggested earlier, the small amount of pre-fame footage that could be used was barely enough to sustain an entire programme, and so it was padded out with suspiciously lengthy extracts of Ali G in action, and further time was wasted with the addition of the predictable say-nothing celebrity interviews. This was not a wholehearted look at what Baron-Cohen got up to before creating Ali G, nor was it a compilation of clips of Ali G. Instead, it was an uneasy compromise between the two approaches, making sure to crowbar in enough familiar footage in the hope of preventing restless viewers from becoming bored with the genuinely very boring early material and changing channels. And as might have been expected from a programme with such a meandering point of focus, it felt hastily and cheaply assembled, and generally all over the place.

Although it’s debatable whether Ali G Before He Was Massiv could actually have been a truly entertaining or diverting programme in any form (its scope is far too narrow for that to have been possible), it did manage to achieve something truly astounding. It took a cheap television-by-numbers character as its subject, applied the production values of cheap television-by-numbers, and made both look cheaper and more thoroughly pointless than ever.


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