In 1980, one of the TV shows that the biggest impact on my class at school was called The Golden Turkey Awards. It was a spoof ceremony to honour the world’s worst films, many of them dating from the 50s and 60s, mostly low-budget sci-fi or inept creature-features. Such was its impact that Channel 4 followed up with a series on The World’s Worst Movies. Clive James devoted a show to bad films. A mini-industry sprang up around risible celluloid disasters.
As a student, I spent an evening in a packed cinema watching a double-bill of Plan 9 From Outer Space – long regarded as the worst film ever made – and a film called Robot Monster, which, famously, lacked the budget for an alien costume, so the director hired a gorilla suit but replaced the head with a deep-sea diving helmet.
The craze – coming as it did in my late teens – left me fascinated for life by the power of bad stuff to entertain us, sometimes just as much as good stuff does. Around the same time, the late Kenny Everett devoted one of his radio shows to a rundown of The Bottom 30, the worst singles ever made. I don’t think I had ever laughed so much in my life.
Later, studying for an English degree, I realised that the joy of bad art has always been with us. My father introduced me to the poetry of William McGonagall, the “world’s worst poet”, a terrible Victorian writer whose work is probably more widely known than almost any of his high-minded contemporaries. Spike Milligan was a big fan of his. Another bad Victorian writer, Amanda McKittrick Ros, numbered Mark Twain and Aldous Huxley along her fans, and JRR Tolkien and his friends would reportedly read her works out loud to see how long they could go without laughing.
Good writers have long been fans of bad writers, paying tribute in the form of parody to their less able peers. Shakespeare’s Hamlet gives us a neat picture of bad Elizabethan drama, as the prince advises the Player King not to “saw the air with his hand” or bellow so loudly that “I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines”. The whole final act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a spoof on bad amateur theatricals, complete with the comments of an amused audience, as they listen to lines such as “O night, which ever art when day is not”. These parodies of bad writing have survived, whereas their targets often haven’t. Jane Austen’s spoof of gothic melodrama, Northanger Abbey, is now read by far more people than the novels it was spoofing. The same is true of Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm.
As always with humour, the higher the stakes, the bigger the laughs. The true story of the bad opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins – subject of the 2016 film with Hugh Grant and Meryl Streep – is funnier because opera is so inherently highbrow. Art galleries are also highbrow places, which is why the Museum of Bad Art, in Massachusetts in the US, tickles me as well. It exhibits terrible paintings, but without any sneering or criticism. It works on the basis that bad artists may have something to say, just like good ones. They just aren’t very good at saying it.
Bad art, whether visual, musical or verbal, is essentially a failure of technique to match ambition. The attitude to failure, though, is perhaps slightly different on the other side of the Atlantic. Americans tend to see failure either as a stepping-stone to triumphant redemption, or an embarrassment to be quickly forgotten – as Donald Trump’s assorted bankruptcies remind us.
Here in Britain, we embrace failure as something endearing and character-building. Much of our humour is based on it. You know that the movie Eddie the Eagle (2016) is British, because if it had been made in Hollywood, he would have ended up winning the gold medal. It is certainly not a bad movie, of course; but it does show how much we love people who are not very good at things. Amateurism is OK with us, just as it was for the audience of the inept amateur actors in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream
But is there a certain amount of snobbery involved in being a fan of “badness”? The answer is probably yes. Topping online polls of worst authors recently, you invariably find EL James, of Fifty Shades of Grey fame, and Stephenie Meyer of the Twilight trilogy – both vastly successful writers with millions of fans. It is a similar story in television, where the most critically loathed shows are often the most popular. Pop music has long had me wondering who on earth buys some of the musical horrors that make the Top 10. But this is just personal taste. This isn’t really where you find the joy of truly bad stuff.
Truly bad stuff, in my book, is funny. It isn’t boring or annoying. There is a joy to it. Additionally, it needs to be sincere. If it is knowing or tongue-in-cheek, it just becomes a comedy, which is why modern-day shlock such as Sharknado and its ilk don’t count. It’s a spoof of a bad film, not a bad film.
Probably the best-known latter-day bad movie is The Room, an extraordinarily inept melodrama that is funny precisely because it is entirely sincere. It came out in 2003 and is still doing the circuit 17 years later. A UK student in 2020 is more likely to have seen The Room than the winner of the 2003 best picture Oscar, Chicago. That is the power of bad.
Steve Punt presents So Bad It’s Good on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Sounds from Saturday 23 May, 8pm