Allie Cresswell’s Game Show, first published in 2013, is a terrifying take on power and the speed with which social constraints and personal responsibility might be abandoned if the rules are removed.
The setting of the novel in 1992 is significant. We hadn’t yet seen the rise of ‘Reality TV’ in the form of Big Brother and co., but the likes of Chris Tarrant were already showing us clips from a Japanese programme in which contestants were putting themselves through increasingly horrible situations in order to win. The scale of the prizes on offer in game shows was changing and so too, it seemed, were the lengths contestants were prepared to go to.
It is in this context that Cresswell creates her own ‘Game Show’, a highly popular programme which invites contestants to ‘come as a stranger and meet yourself’ – contestants are actively encourage to shrug off the constraints of their lives and embrace the anarchic possibilities available. Of course, at this very same time, British televisions were relaying images of refugees streaming away from the horrific fighting and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. A parallel narrative, running through the first section, concerns a family caught up in this conflict, and this element, seen through the eyes of the young Gustav, provided some of the most heart-breaking scenes I’ve read. This is a very powerful tale in itself, and its inclusion serves to throw the tawdry behaviour of some of the British Game Show contestants into further terrible relief.
The contestants, eager to take part in a filmed episode of ‘Game Show’, are naïve to the ruthless planning and intended manipulations of the programme’s crew. The management are all too quick to justify their decisions: ‘we can’t make cutting-edge television unless we’re prepared to push the boundaries.’ Only one research administrator, Tammy, has something approaching a conscience, it seems, that is great enough to overcome the atmosphere of collusion and fear. She recognises that, and here Creswell’s reading of Zimbardo’s Stanford University experiment comes into play, ‘as a rule people will take on the roles you assign them.’ However, she is something of a lone voice and the programme seems to have a frightening agency all its own – those involved in its construction are either too afraid or too caught up in their own struggle for power to check their behaviour.
Game Show builds towards a startling denouement carefully, examining human behaviours as she goes. The connections between Cresswell’s two narrative strands becomes more obvious as the novel progresses, but there are many subtle links too – both examine the vulnerability of the individual during times of collective unrest and, in many various ways, it is women who are shown to bear the brunt. The clothing, or costumes, her characters need or adopt is also a fascinating theme running through Game Show – clothes are used to hide, to shield, and also to project and to assert. In Bosnia, a mother dresses her children to make them seem as young as possible in order to protect them. The ‘Game Show’ contestants choose clothes to make them visible, successful. A young ‘Game Show’ employee, Poppy, ‘loved to watch the audience strip itself down to the bone, almost, to reveal the blood and guts of its personality.’ The programme will exact a terrible price for participation, it seems, and there is no room for the weak.
Cresswell, writing in the first decade of the millennium, captures many of our concerns about and reactions to public and private responsibility. Admittedly, Big Brother is no longer what it was in our public consciousness. Back in 2000, I remember being glued to the screen whilst ‘Nasty Nick’ and Craig had a stand-up argument about vote rigging. This was exciting stuff and we were gripped by what might happen in such a constructed environment. Later shows seemed to be designed to push people further, to forget the rules and the cameras. But Reality TV has not, in the end, produced the monster it might have done – the winners and losers have, largely, sunk back into anonymity. It turns out that the real monsters, those choosing to reject regulation and turn on anyone who opposes them or is simply in the way, are with us in real life, and it most certainly is not a game. The republication of this novel, with its examination of what we are capable of when in faced with unsettling times and imbalances in power, is very timely indeed.
Game Show – Blurb
It is 1992, and in a Bosnian town a small family cowers in their basement. The Serbian militia is coming – an assorted rabble of malcontents given authority by a uniform and inflamed by the idea that they’re owed something, big-time, and the Bosnians are going to pay. When they get to the town they will ransack the houses, round up the men and rape the women. Who’s to stop them? Who’s to accuse them? Who will be left, to tell the tale?
Meanwhile, in a nondescript northern UK town a group of contestants make their way to the TV studios to take part in a radical new Game Show. There’s money to be won, and fun to be had. They’ll be able to throw off their inhibitions and do what they want because they’ll all be in disguise and no-one will ever know.
In a disturbing denouement, war and game meld into each other as action and consequence are divided, the words ‘blame’ and ‘fault’ have no meaning and impunity reigns .
Game Show asks whether the situation which fostered the Bosnian war, the genocide in Rwanda, the rise of so-called Islamic State in Syria and the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar could ever happen in the West. The answer will shock you.
Purchase from Amazon UK – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Game-Show-easy-people-things-ebook/dp/B00D8LS3O8/
About Allie Cresswell
I have been writing stories since I could hold a pencil and by the time I was in Junior School I was writing copiously and sometimes almost legibly.
I did, however, manage a BA in English and Drama from Birmingham University and an MA in English from Queen Mary College, London. Marriage and motherhood put my writing career on hold for some years until 1992 when I began work on Game Show.
In the meantime I worked as a production manager for an educational publishing company, an educational resources copywriter, a bookkeeper for a small printing firm, and was the landlady of a country pub in Yorkshire, a small guest house in Cheshire and the proprietor of a group of boutique holiday cottages in Cumbria. Most recently I taught English Literature to Lifelong learners. Nowadays I write as full time as three grandchildren, a husband, two Cockapoos and a large garden will permit.
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/alliescribbler/
Website – http://www.allie-cresswell.com
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