This week, I would like to tell you about three colourful phrases that have become part of modern culture; one of which I learned only weeks ago. The first is from my world of television and print journalism, the second, from a TV series, and the third from politics.
Drop The Dead Donkey
Very relevant to this week’s newscasting, ‘Drop the dead donkey’ refers to the last item on a news programme, often amusing or quirky, or, indeed, sentimental. However, if a serious story develops, the command goes in: ‘Drop the dead donkey!’ – the aforementioned lighthearted item.
There will certainly be no such pieces in the news this side of the Queen’s funeral, and if the Beeb had planned one for Thursday’s news on the day of her death, it would have been quickly shelved. What’s more, there will be no comedy on the BBC for the next week, marking a time of mourning for the British people.
I digress however…
One of the most celebrated newscasters was Reginald Bosenquet; a rather eccentric character in the 1970s, a time we all watched the news and weren’t distracted by 901 TV stations, and social media platforms.
In 1978, the last item on the ITN News concerned an elderly lady who invited fire-fighters into her home for tea and scones after they rescued her cat from up a tree. Alas, on leaving, they ran over the cat in their fire-engine. Unfortunately, Reginald smiled as he delivered the story, and the station was inundated by thousands of viewers’ complaints.
Bet he wished they had dropped the dead donkey that night!
The expression also lent its name to a fabulous situation comedy on Channel 4 between 1990 and 1998.
‘Drop the Dead Donkey’ was set in the offices of ‘Globelink News’, a fictional TV news company, with a cast which included Ballykissangel star, Stephen Tompkinson. It won a host of awards, and hilariously depicted news being manipulated to make it more sensational… As if that would happen!
Throw The Dead Cat On The Table
The dead cat strategy, also known as ‘dead cating’, is the political practice of deliberately making a shocking announcement to divert media attention away from problems or failures in other areas. The expression has been associated with Boris Johnson’s former advisor, Lynton Crosby, from Australia.
As Mayor of London in 2013, Johnson wrote a column in The Telegraph in which he described the ‘dead cat’ as a piece of political strategy about what to do in a situation in which the argument is being lost, and ‘the facts are overwhelmingly against you’.
Self-explanatory, really, folk will be outraged, alarmed and disgusted when the proverbial dead cat is thrown on the dining room table, and will not be talking about the issue that has been causing so much grief.
It was a strategy at which Johnson was cynically adept. One of the many cats he threw on the table was on April 12 this year, when the Metropolitan Police served fixed notices on the then Prime Minister and his wife, Carrie Johnson, for a Covid rule-breaking event in the Cabinet Office to celebrate Boris’ birthday in June 2020.
Within 48 hours, the headlines were focused on the obnoxious ‘Rwanda Plan’, which pledged to send people arriving in the UK on small boats to seek asylum more than 4,000 miles away to East Africa. Dead cat!
Johnston wasn’t as clever as he thought. Academics propose that repeated use of the dead cat strategy cannot go unnoticed over time. And so it came to pass; to paraphrase a real statesman, President Abraham Lincoln, “…you can’t fool all the people all of the time”.
The very obvious DUP policy of constantly referring back to IRA activities from decades ago, has all the hallmarks of a dead cat on the table; thus diverting attention away from the economic crisis, and refusal to serve with a Sinn Féin First Minister.
Jump The shark
This was a new one to me just weeks ago. It refers, in the main, to a television series that is tired, loses popularity, and has decreased in quality so a stunt or ridiculous plot is incorporated to re-inignite it.
Recently, I watched a fantastic series on Netflix – I won’t spoil it – that seemed to have reached a brilliant conclusion.
As I wondered how this could drag on with 20 more episodes, I was warned, “It jumps the shark!” Yikes!
So it did, and I gave up soon after.
The phrase comes from a scene in the long-running 1970s sitcom, ‘Happy Days’, in which its comically- cool main character, Arthur Fonzarelli, aka The Fonz, literally jumped over a caged shark on water skis. That stunt was so unlike The Fonz, and away from the Happy Days gang at the café, with our hero starting the jootbox with a side fist, that it was seen as a cheap stunt. It was ridiculous, so unfunny, and uncool from the Fonz we’d come to know and love. It is an occupational hazard, especially among American scriptwriters, who can’t seem to accept, ‘It’s over, man’.
Take the sitcom, ‘The Office’, which ran for two seasons, with a total of 14 episodes in the UK. The American version was all of 201 episodes over nine seasons. In our parlance, they ‘tore the ass out it’, when it was well past its sell-by date.
Now you know, or perhaps you already did! No doubt, modern life will continue to throw up many more wonderful cultural phrases.
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