The year is 1995 and the European Union is awakening from history and becoming conscious. It is looking around blearily, with a strained, impatient, early-morning alertness. This consciousness comes to be dispersed across the continent by way of that shibboleth of the 1990s, the low-budget informational videotape. European Videos is the production company and each instalment of its series Quid Pro Euro introduces a particular field of EU policymaking. There are episodes on “Trade,” “Services,” “Movement” and, naturally, “Fish.”
Many people might today remember the informational videotape from school. There was that moment, mostly during science lessons in my school, when the teacher would announce that, “We’re now going to watch a short video.” This would allow everybody to take a breather, both teacher and kids. An exhilarating darkness would fall over the classroom, your body would relax deliciously and you would drink in the grainy, only very moderately interesting footage.
If we were done with the informational videotape, it wasn’t yet done with us. In adulthood it turned out to be waiting in almost every workplace. At some point during any training course, there would be the allocated diversion of the “short video.” Here, instead of showing the school-specific material of red blood cells swarming inside an artery, or moralistic hectoring about gonorrhoea, there would be standard-issue advice on, say, the employer’s fire-safety precautions.
The thing is that the same man, or the same type of man, would always narrate these videos. Sometimes he would actually appear in them, in a blazer and smiling masterfully, to introduce them and to wrap them up. You will all know this man and, when he resumes his customary role within Felix Trench’s whimsical mockumentary, he seems instantly familiar and like an old acquaintance. He has the voice of a civil servant, but one who is, in his own wretchedly prim way, striving to sound informal and heartening. If he was speaking like this in front of you, it would be pure cringe, but somehow he is magically insulated against this reaction within his controlled world of the video.
Throughout this podcast, (which Trench writes and performs) the selfsame narrator remains characteristically anonymous. I assume that he has a name like Peter or Michael. Trench expertly and very lovingly replicates his low-budget informational diction. At times he even adds a certain extra vulnerability to it as well, as if we are being allowed intimate glimpses into the narrator’s true bleakness. But it really is a great performance. One almost feels that Trench is rescuing a marginalised voice that would be otherwise lost to history.
Today we might remember the nineties as being this wonderful, precious era when people wore jeans with lumberjack shirts, contentedly drank Budweiser lager and listened to Sheryl Crow CDs. In truth, everything that was not American was naff in the nineties. At the time this naffness was satirised within English comedy by Steve Coogan, who played the soullessly naff broadcaster Alan Partridge, and by Chris Morris, who presented the parodic current-affairs show The Day Today (1994 –). Quid Pro Euro is greatly more understated than Partridge, though it often recognisably captures the lyricism of Morris’ stern, public-informational gobbledygook.
Its principle device is salvaged intact from the low-budget informational videotape. The narrator will offer some example of a person or people who can illustrate his theme (e.g. the “Family” edition latches onto a random family); he comments alertly over little illustrative panoramas of them in action; and he repeatedly poses questions that, within the video, they shouldn’t be logically able to hear or answer. This is a reliably amusing format and, despite its ancient familiarity from the videotapes of yesteryear, it becomes newly surreal when encountered in a podcast.
There are admittedly somewhat inconsistent results across the gamut of episodes. “Education” falls into parodying exercises in school textbooks, a ruse that didn’t feel very fresh even when stand-up comedians were using it during the nineties. “Art” and “Afterlife,” on the other hand, dish out the most exquisite nonsense. Whenever these shows get slow, they are usually saved by a mention of – or even a thrilling cameo appearance by – the charismatic “leader of Europe,” Barracuda.
Who is Barracuda? He is named after one of the founding fathers of the European Union, Jean Monnet. He also expresses something of Jean-Claude Juncker’s roguish brio, as well as the lounge-lizard sleaziness of Donald Trump in his heyday. Although Barracuda is apparently a first name, if he built a skyscraper it would be doubtless called Barracuda Tower and if he made steaks they would be doubtless called (so to speak) Barracuda Steaks. In addition, Barracuda’s sinister benignness makes my mind increasingly drift in the direction of Sunday, the omniscient mastermind from G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (1908).
All of the absurdism within this version of the EU radiates from Barracuda. It, and he, are so supreme that Europe’s citizens are correspondingly rendered as powerless as flowers that are planted in a garden. This is, of course, an alternate-universe EU, one so surreal that any explanation of the Common Fisheries Policy is liable to quickly resemble the B52s’ “Rock Lobster.” Such a recourse to whimsicality normally signals a cheerful abandonment of politics. The unique historical circumstances that the Quid Pro Euro podcast finds itself in, however, paradoxically render its light-heartedness spicy and dangerous. In an age when most people define themselves foremostly by the stance that they had taken towards Brexit, it seems like an act of radical dissent to put forward an entirely apolitical podcast about this subject.
From start to finish, listeners will have an ear cocked intently for any misstep or straying from this podcast’s path of majestic indifference. You can surely imagine the self-control that must be needed to maintain such indifference. Then again, many podcast listeners in the UK, who are bored beyond endurance by Brexit, might be deterred from giving Quid Pro Euro a spin simply because it has the word “Euro” in its title. Nonetheless, despite its tremendous feats of self-control, one could not ultimately recommend this podcast for providing a smoothly apolitical experience. It cannot avoid becoming implicated in the end. A carefree and whimsical account of the EU is by now an unobtainable nirvana. What is so compelling about Trench’s podcast is that it sets its heart masochistically on achieving this impossible outcome.
If the product is 100% fake news, this might appear to parody the nonsensical accounts of EU regulations that had issued from the UK’s right-wing newspapers (as well as from a young Boris Johnson when he had worked as a Brussels correspondent for the Telegraph). Still, the depths of the podcast’s absurdism also amount to a considerable concession. Were even a moderate quantity of realism to be added to its mix, it would rapidly become indistinguishable from a regular documentary. That the EU’s parliament shuttles between Brussels and Strasbourg every month is a detail that should surely belong in Barracuda’s Europe rather than our own.
This show’s absurdism also appears to pool an important raw material with the reality of the EU. The citizens of Barracuda’s EU are basically serfs, who are basking gratefully in his benign despotism. This is largely synonymous with citizenship within the real EU, maybe with a couple of polite fictions stripped away. In a genuine democracy, such as the USA, they don’t need to issue low-budget videos that explain to adults how the political institutions around them work. In a genuine democracy, people pick up this knowledge fairly quickly by themselves.
There is possibly a more sophisticated kind of commentary available here than just merrymaking at the expense of Eurocrats. A certain nostalgia flutters around this podcast that feels very noble and sad. (Incidentally, this whole podcast would be never able to take a first step without its theme music. Nothing can more encapsulate how cool the EU was in 1995 than Nikas Drude’s remix of Ode to Joy.) Listeners to Quid Pro Euro are today disconnected from its utopian vision of the EU in the most literal sense, because all of its pictures have gone. We are left with an amputated soundtrack, the vision of a perfect Europe having since slipped away somewhere between then and now.