Allegria

Well, Mike Bongiorno’s dead. If you’ve never heard of him you don’t live in Italy; if you do and still haven’t heard of him, you were walled into a television-free zone many decades ago and have since been denied all contact with popular culture. Either way, you’ve missed very little. Bongiorno was poached from state tv by Berlusconi when he set up his first private channels, and worked for him uninterruptedly until last year, when his ratings fell and Papi disburdened himself of the 84-year-old hasbeen with an alacrity that surprised no one except, possibly, Bongiorno himself. During his long career, Bongiorno presented a host of quiz shows and not much else, though he’d recently acquired a pinch of semi-yoof credibility by making himself ridiculous in cellphone ads with Fiorello, Italy’s current favourite showman (and a man of far greater talent than Bongiorno). He’d also reacted to his dismissal from commercial and state tv with a touching sense of hurt, which made him more likeable than he had often been on his own shows. A few months ago, he’d been picked up and dusted down by Sky, and was working on a revival of his most successful show, an Italian clone of the $64,000 Question. We’ll never know how successful this might have been, but, as has been said about so many people, his unexpected death was probably a wise career move.


Umberto Eco wrote a famous essay about him, many years ago, entitled The Phenomonology of Mike Bongiorno, which still pretty much sums up the man’s appeal. Eco said:

Idolized by millions of people, this man owes his success to the fact that from every act, from every word of the persona that he presents to the telecameras there emanates an absolute mediocrity along with […] an immediate and spontaneous allure, which is explicable by the fact that he betrays no sign of theatrical artifice or pretence. He seems to be selling himself as precisely what he is, and what he is cannot create in a spectator, even the most ignorant, any sense of inferiority. Indeed, the spectator sees his own limitations glorified and supported by national authority.

Today, three days after Bongiorno’s sudden death, national authority, in the form of Bongiorno’s ex-boss, has decreed that the quizmaster receive a state funeral, naturally broadcast live on RAI 1. These ceremonies are normally saved for soldiers or the victims of national tragedies of some osrt, but it’s not the first time a popular entertainer has been honoured in this way. Some years ago, Alberto Sordi, one of Italy’s most important film actors, also had a state funeral, though I don’t remember it being televised. Mario Luzi, the poet, was another. I have nothing against Bongiorno, who struck me as being an ingenuous, rather vulnerable man, particularly in recent years, more easily wounded than was sensible. But I can’t help feeling that we’re getting something wrong when an entertainer like Bongiorno is treated with this much respect. Because what we are celebrating is not, as it was with Sordi, a career, conflictual, ambiguous, self-congratulatory and self-accusing in equal measure, a body of work that interrogates the nature of what it means to be Italian and produces no easy answers. What Bongiorno did was contribute to the commodification of Italian culture, the wholesale adoption of easy answers, to such an extent that he became its representative, as Simon Cowell might be said to be ours, where we embody the notion of commodity as ‘talent’ rather than its reverse.

I wonder what the national authority will do when Umberto Eco dies.

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This entry was posted in berlusconi, mike bongiorno, umberto eco. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Allegria

  1. IZ says:

    Here's what I've been thinking all along ever since knowing about the state funeral, and couldn't express. (Otherwise I'd have my own brilliant blog, now wouldn't I?) Thanks, Charles. (Isa)

  2. Well thank you, Isa! It's an honour for me to find the words you need!

  3. valentina says:

    Charles.. always a pleasure to read such perfect summaries of what I have left (temporarily) behind. Isn't it funny that there is no better way of being transported back to Italy than reading an Englishman's blog? I hope to see you soon (I'll be back home for a few weeks…)xxValentina

  4. Thank you, Valentina! I hope to see you too…xx

  5. Rob says:

    "[…] what he is cannot create in a spectator, even the most ignorant, any sense of inferiority. Indeed, the spectator sees his own limitations glorified and supported by national authority."Change "spectator" to "voter" and who comes to mind?

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