The misery backlash

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Stylist Team
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We’ve been obsessed with gory TV dramas and misery memoirs, but now we’ve decided it’s time to get happy

It’s dark when you wake up, the sky is grey and the news reports yet more doom and gloom. You endure 11 hours of work then make your way home via grimy, puddle-strewn streets. It’s been a terrible day but you know exactly what will cheer you up: that’s right, three straight hours of a gruesome Scandinavian drama. Because this is the thing; the country may be on its knees, the winter may be coming, but us Brits seem to take pleasure in wallowing in misery.

More than 10 million of us “had to watch” the finale of Broadchurch earlier this year to find out who strangled an 11-year-old boy. French zombie series The Returned was heralded as the greatest TV show ever made by select members of the Stylist team, and then The Fall, BBC Two’s most successful drama series in over a decade with an average audience of 4.3 million, made us all develop a major crush on a seriously warped serial killer. Here’s looking at you, Jamie Dornan.

But it’s not just what fills up the TV schedules; literature, too, has taken a turn for the positively bleak. Misery literature (or mis-lit to the moping masses) now qualifies as everyday bedtime reading. Recollections of abuse like Please Daddy No, Don’t Ever Tell and Damaged have stormed the bestseller charts (they’re even filed in a new ‘Painful Lives’ section at Waterstones). And research shows that more often than not, it’s women choosing to indulge in such grim tomes – a survey by Harper Non-Fiction suggests 85% of the genre’s readers are female. Cathy Rentzenbrink, a fiction previewer at The Bookseller magazine says, “I’ve definitely noticed this dark sub-genre emerge for strong female narrators.” Ann Cleeves, the author of the Vera crime novels, agrees, arguing that violence, particularly against women, had become “much more embedded” in Scandi books and dramas, and claimed writers were in competition with each other to be the most gruesome.

''[[[ Click here for nine ways to banish misery]]], from award-winning comedy to uplifting new TV''

But this obsession with misery is losing its stronghold and women are now finding tales of abuse and suffering no longer fit with their outlook. Cassie Elliott, 34, a publisher from London says, “I loved The Wire, I was obsessed with every CSI but enough’s enough. My husband has banned me from gritty thrillers and gory books because it’s just so depressing and it makes me go a bit weird. We spend every night watching rape, murder and other gruesome crimes. Now I need an alternative and I don’t know where to go. I need some happy back in my evenings.”

32-year-old Sarah-Jane Horner agrees. “We have Southcliffe and Top Of The Lake waiting on catch-up but I just can’t quite face them right now,” she admits. “As the nights get darker and we get closer to Christmas, I just want to keep my emphasis on keeping upbeat and positive. I have little enough sleep as it is; give me something frivolous and easy any day. I’m hanging on for the new series of Call The Midwife.”

This new mood explains why Glee, The Big Bang Theory and the relatively genteel Downton Abbey have recently found a foothold in Amazon’s top 10 boxset chart; female cop caper The Heat and Wizard Of Oz prequel Oz The Great And Powerful are firmly settled in the top 10 box office ratings for 2013(alongside two superhero films and three cartoons); and the third Bridget Jones and JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy are our preferred commuter reads. The backlash has begun.

Move over misery

The socio-political climate may be the reason for this mood change. One theory is our attraction to misery had a direct correlation to the credit crunch. Figures released in the spring of 2008 revealed that after 16 solid years of stability or growth, the UK’s economy was shrinking – and it impacted on our TV viewing. A study by Deloitte a year later predicted that the average time we spent in front of the television would shift from 30 minutes to four hours a week as the recession took hold, simply because we’d have less money to go out. And it wasn’t as if our moods were improving with extended hours sat in the living room; a survey by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Working and Living Conditions found that happiness and optimism levels in the UK fell in the three years following the financial crash.

So why, when we’ve been nursing a blue mood and an empty bank account, have we chosen to indulge in horror, pain and misery? Well, it’s not a new phenomenon. Dolf Zillmann, widely recognised as the founder of entertainment psychology, began developing his ‘excitation-transfer theory’ in the late Sixties. In it, he argued that while the stress we experience while absorbing harrowing films and television might not feel very pleasurable, the intensity of it can boost positive emotions when storylines end on a happy note. That’s all well and good for storylines where the villains face retribution, but it doesn’t explain our obsession with shows like The Fall, which ended with the killer (still handsome) still at large.

Over the past year, slowly, inconspicuously, tiny green shoots of positivity have started to push their way through the thick grey Tarmac of credit crunch Britain. First of all, we’re no longer in recession. Even though the recovery is fragile (the Office of National Statistics has stated that the UK economy grew 0.7% in the second quarter of 2013), we can look to a less financially strapped future with some confidence. And that’s having a knock-on effect on our entertainment choices.

''[[[ Click here for nine ways to banish misery]]], from award-winning comedy to uplifting new TV''

Happiness is spreading across the nation. Last year’s first national happiness index from the Office of National Statistics threw up some startling results. As the end of the recession came into sight, three quarters of all Britons declared they were satisfied or very satisfied with their lives. And women, somewhat surprisingly considering our evident love of bleak stories, turned out to be statistically happier than men. And as we’ve cheered up as a nation, our desire to submerge ourselves in misery has dissipated.

“We don’t necessarily seek out TV to reflect the mood of the nation,” says Polly Hill, head of independent drama commissioning at the BBC. “We know that people love watching great drama because it takes them out of where they are, but we actually take our leads from the writers. We have The Great Train Robbery coming up next, from the writer behind Broadchurch, and it’s nowhere near as dark.”

Joseph Knobbs, crime fiction buyer at Waterstones, says it’s a similar scenario in literature. “The writers are the real tastemakers, so what comes out depends on what’s going on in their worlds. There’s definitely been a darkness in the air for the last few years but there are some cheery reads creeping through now,” he says. “Last year there was the heart-warming The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry, and this year The Little Coffee Shop Of Kabul which we described as ‘Maeve Binchy meets The Kite Runner’. Both authors have similar books coming out soon because publishers are slowly seeing that there’s an emerging appetite for these new dependable voices, away from all the doom and gloom we’ve been used to.”

And it’s not just books and television; theatre, film and radio are all responding to the groundswell of opinion that we’ve had our current fill of pain. So, for all of you looking for a little light in your life, here’s Stylist’s guide to the best and most upbeat entertainment for autumn 2013.

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Stylist Team