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More or Less Gurning

Simon Pitt | Radio | Sunday 22nd August 2010

I've recently started listening to the BBC's podcast of More or Less.

More or Less Podcast Page

It's a really good example of intelligent current affairs broadcasting. Each episode takes a few news stories that contain an extravagant claim like, "94% of people have a pencil up their nose" or "only 15% of men can hop". From this they identify the original source of the statistic, and interview whoever wrote it, along with other statisticians and experts in the field.

What's alarming is the number of times the writer of an original report says that the newspaper has completed misrepresented his findings. Of course, this won't come as any surprise to regular readers of this site (or indeed, regular thinkers of common sense), but the frequency is truly astounding. Almost every report about a study or investigation in the news misrepresents the findings.

More or Less is sort of like an audio version of Freakanomics. (In fact the two Stephens behind Freakonomics even appear in one edition.) It's hosted by Tim Harford, inevitably referred to as "the Independent's Undercover Economist", something that must be in his contract since Radio 4 refer to him as such with the obsession of a legal obligation.


As well as being an interesting, intelligent programme, More or Less is an example of the possibility of radio on the internet. It's podcasted, and you can download every episode of it going back to 2003.

Unfortunately, the website suffers from BBC style changes. The most recent pages look modern and snazzy:

Complete with ridiculous (and unpreventable) video duplication.

While they do look quite nice, these pages demonstrate the problem of forcing content creators to stick to a rigid and limiting template. The layout is strange: why is there a small thumbnail telling you a video is attached before you actually reach the video? It's a mix of automatically generated content and content added by the production team. The video clip seems tacked on and since not all episodes have extra content on the description page, you'd only ever come across it by accident.

Moreover, the pages lack functionality. Sure you can listen to the programme here (via the big, Web 2.0-style "Listen Now" button). But you can't actually download it. (Although it is possible to download it from elsewhere on the BBC site).

Dig back into the More or Less archive and you'll come across other pages that look like something out of the stone age:

Look how narrow this page is! It looks like its designed to be projected onto a postbox! It even has a stream of the programme via Real Player!

Browsing through More or Less is sort of like a stratigraphy of the BBC website. You can dig through the layers of grime to view the history of the site, and imagine how primitive man grunted and moaned as he waited for the Real stream to buffer.

Top marks to the show for putting so much content online and creating such a rich back catalogue, but you can really see here how limited they are by the BBC restrictive templates. I'm reminded of attempts by Radio Drama to podcast Postcards from a Cataclysm (a series of linked short plays). They found that they couldn't because the podcasting system was set up in such a way that only weekly shows could be podcast. Of course, this is something that large companies like the BBC face, but they do need to do something to stop content being held ransom by arbitrary decisions made in designing the website.

None of this is the fault of More or Less, though, which is intelligent, witty and trustworthy, in a way that many programmes aren't. As I said, it really is a great example of a programme genuinely trying to find out the truth, regardless of whether that truth fits in. It does what the news claims to do. Journalists may say the news embodies the BBC values, but the news has largely become a sensationalist freakshow. More or Less is what the news wishes it were.


However, the show is not without its problems, and chief among these is one that plagues a number of radio, TV programmes and novels. That is: too much gurning.

Charlie Brooker talks about'gurning' in Doctor Who as the Doctor farting about in shock faux-comic sequences. A similar thing that happens here.

As a working definition of gurning, I see it as:
Gurning is adding over the top, comedic elements into your programme where they don't belong. Generally they're embarrassing, cringe-worthy, or just pointless. And are added in because the creators feel they need a joke.
In More Or Less the two main 'gurns' are:
  1. A 'humorous' debate about whether to call listeners "loyal listeners" or not.
  2. An awful 'joke' about the "More or Less 5000". A computer so annoying it makes me want to set off an EM Pulse over London.
Of course, More or Less isn't the only show to have a massive gurning mock-robot as a joke. Ironically Screenwipe itself featured the Truthbot 2000. And, similarly, it featured a parody scene where Brooker pretended to cry when Truthbot exploded. Compare that with the episode of More or Less where Tim Harford performs a parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey and shuts the More or Less 5000 down.

What both of the sections have in common (as well as a very poor standard of acting) is that they are attempts to add comedic, fictional sketches into factual shows.

Of course, the reason for this is to inject some comedy into a serious topic. In More or Less, neither show is entirely serious but these 'gurns' imply a lack of faith in their ability to entertain the listeners. In Charlie Brooker's case, a show which is largely comedic, it's simply another joke, but the humour is quite at odds with the tone of the programme. It's another reminder of the important law that no joke is better than a bad joke.
David Tennant Gurning for Charity

In Doctor Who, something different is going on. The gurning is to is to create an abrupt change of tone when the action and danger arises. No doubt part of the gurning is to keep younger children entertained and to give a knowing laugh to the adults. Unfortunately, it again falls into the trap of trying to create a joke because a joke is needed, and ends up with a poor attempt at humour.

Fundamentally, gurning is adding in a joke because you feel it's needed structurally, rather than because it fits in. It shows a lack of confidence on the part of the creator. It's one of those things that no doubt seemed like a good idea at the time, but looking back, I'm willing to bet, most creators will wish they'd left it out.



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