What Christmas present to get for the spy who has everything? Why, an Enigma machine of course. [Actually, a Nema machine, the Swiss knock-off, but still. Contents may settle in transit.]
Elsewhere, I am clearly going to have to start a ‘goalkeepers’ category, if only to properly capture this delicious winter anecdote about the goalkeeper booked for building a snowman.
Recent research sheds new light on the attention spans of babies on long car journeys, particularly on return from unexpectedly balmy weekends in the south west of the country. A number of distractions were tested for effectiveness in preventing crying.
1) The trees and the sky: extremely effective for up to one hour at the start of journey
2) Sleep: 100% effective for up to 90 minutes, thereafter unobtainable
3) Singing: Excellent, if tiring for the singer, for up to half an hour. Rounds are particularly recommended, as the repetitions make everything sound like a round in the end regardless
4) Toys: Ten minutes each, no more
5) Loud baroque music: Mesmerisingly effective in small doses. Would have been better if they could have beeen turned into rounds.
6) Mobile phone ringtones: Five minutes before irritation sets in (adults, not baby)
7) Video camera footage of baby taken that day at the beach: Almost limitless enjoyment.
This last proved a peculiar experience, stepping the whole research team eight hours back in time. Existential discomfort also produced by the cheerless postmodernism of the procedure. Concern expressed that nothing should be so entertaining to the subject as footage of the same being entertained.
“Just remember this one golden rule,” he said. “It’s all soap opera. They may say its a classic serial, they may call it a cutting-edge drama, they may bill it as cops, they may set it in deep space, but actually it’s all just soap, soap, soap.”
Mark Ravenhill’s lament over the sudsing up of contemporary television drama is, to my sorrow, very right. He offers the words of a bored scriptwriter annoyed that “what they really want is a little half-hour or 50-minute morality play”.
Ravenhill even offers a few of the commandments of the new soap morality: “Be true to yourself”; “talk about your feelings”; “learn to forgive and move on”; “accept difference”; and “you’re still family even after the murder/arson/substance abuse”. He’s right, though he might add that emotional displays are more virtuous than stoicism.
What I find interesting is that Ravenhill, a playwright himself, identifies these values as a perniciously homogenous liberal orthodoxy. The worst thing here, by far, is that lack of variety, the lack of dissent, the lack of angry engagement with a world. This is a morality of withdrawal from the larger world, a focus instead on the self-aggrandising individualism of the post-sixties middle classes.
And yet, what I see here is not in fact an echo chamber for the incorrigibly empty self-interested, the reverberating clamour of which drowns out legitimate, different voices. No, what leaps out at me is that this ultra-liberal porridge is a perfect fit for the requirements of soap, of any kind of regular drama.
Let’s look at those commandments again.
“Be true to yourself”: drama not only needs strong and readily identifiable (even caricatured) characters, it needs characters who will pursue their beliefs beyond the point of reasonable disagreement, necessarily causing conflict.
“Talk about your feelings”: Television drama is based on talk, no two ways about it. Inarticulate, reticent or inexpressive characters need not apply. I remember well leaving Mike Leigh’s (excellent, emotionally articulate, Palme d’Or winning, and very soapy) film “Secrets & Lies” thinking that all it lacked was Bob Hoskins popping up at the end telling us, on behalf of BT, that “it’s good to talk”. Leigh, a proper artist, managed to do this with a story essentially about characters who were variously bad at talking. Soaps and TV dramas cannot afford such subtlety with the basic mechanisms of the genre. The least of the cast must be gabbier than the most annoying person you ever sat next to on the train.
“Learn to forgive and move on”: You can’t, as you would in real life, endlessly rehash the same problems and complaints in minutely differentiated forms over the course of weeks, months, years. You have half an hour or 50 minutes at most to state, develop and resolve the problem. Next week we need to be onto the forgiveness and the next problem, so you’d better forgive him/her/them/it now and scrub the slate clean in order to be disappointed and angered afresh next week.
“Accept difference”: Ah, the greatest liberal nostrum of all. A Good Thing, particularly if you’re a drama writer seeking to set up odd couples, cultural conflicts, and misunderstandings galore.
“You’re still family”: Blood and marriage are the two clearest ways to keep warring characters in close proximity.
The warmly liberal values produced by this orrthodoxy, are, I think, more to do with the shapes required by regularised drama, and less to do with an political or sociological intent.
I walked into my kitchen the other day to hear the end of a conversation. I caught only the phrase “…in a fridge, with her handbag”.
I was rather proud of myself for guessing correctly that this was a recollection of the rumour, back in September 2001, that the Queen Mother had inhaled her last G&T, but that the news was being held back on account of all the September 11th business.
These things always set my idling mind spinning at the origin of these rumour tropes. Who first was alleged to be kept on ice; gone, if you like, but not defrosted?
To me, it sounds terribly Cold War: I recall the fate of more than one Soviet leader (Brezhnev, the fleeting Andropov) being speculated upon while they failed to make any public appearances for a while. Popes also seem to be favourite targets for this rumour, hence, I suppose the sad malarkey this year with the late John Paul II having to put in reassuring appearances at his hospital window.
The movie ‘Dave’, a presidential version of The Prince and the Pauper, using a life support machine to keep the President of the USA technically alive and governing for its mainspring, but this is comparatively recent, and I don’t know of any other American instances.
I suspect that the assumption that the Russians would flash-freeze their leaders is a slightly shocked reaction to the mummification of Lenin, with all of its confusing intimations of saintliness. Otherwise, the trope seems to operate on the ancient assumption of some kind of connection between king and land: even a wounded king is better than a dead one. It could hardly express more clearly the common belief amongst the rest of us that it’s the possession of power that counts, not the ability to use it. The practical mess that a frozen leader would mean for the government of any country should make us dismiss the idea out of hand, but there’s no denying the power of the symbol of the indestructible leader.
Finally, I wonder if the myth of the frozen leader isn’t, at heart, a consolatory fantasy as seen in the myth of Avalon. Although Arthur is gone, we hold onto the slightest promise of a return should things really require it. I wonder if every apparently callous rumour of a frozen, unburied, aristocrat or politician is really our fear of letting them go. Does anyone these days depend on the Once and Future Queen Mum?