A battered side street in the old part of Buenos Aires. The tarmac seems pockmarked. Parts of the curb are missing, and the serrated edge of the paving slabs are exposed, like the diseased gums of an old Gaucho.
A modest cafe. It seems rooted to the sidewalk, like the weeds. Other shops have long since shuttered, and their proprietors have escaped to the suburbs. But this establishment persists.
I scrape back one of the metal chairs.
“Un cafe, por favor?” The young waiter rolls his eyes. Is he annoyed that I have not ordered more, or is he casting judgement on my formal, European Spanish? Whatever: He clearly understands, and he slopes inside.
To my left, a croak. “English?”
I turn my head. A man sits alone, his mouth drawn down on one side. A stroke, perhaps?
As an aside, it is amusing that Twitter thinks will.i.am is a URL, but that’s not what set my mental cogs in motion.
Instead, I was struck by the fact that Antony was at the Hackney concert over the weekend, but was still reduced to watching the events on a screen. I am sure that anyone who has ever been to one of the big summer festivals (Glastonbury, &ct) will have experienced the same phenomenon, that of watching an ostensibly ‘live’ event on screen, because the actual performers are too far away.
I was reminded of a scene in The Simpsons (Season 7, Episode 9, Sideshow Bob’s Last Gleaming, thanks Google, thanks Wikipedia) where Homer refuses to crane his neck to watch the jets at an air show, preferring to let the TV decide what he watches.
One might say that there is no conceptual difference between the a festival-goer watching the concert from the back of the crowd, and a viewer tuning in to coverage of the same festival on a TV set. In both cases, the cameras and the broadcast technology magnify the performer. However, this discounts the value of the atmosphere, the sense of communal experience, one gets from being at the event. This explains why people will stand for hours in order to see the Queen’s white coat in the far distance for a few seconds, rather than simply allow the BBC to give us constant, glorious close-ups of the wDuke of Edinburgh developing a bladder problem.
On a lesser scale, it explains why people choose to watch Euro 2012 (and all the other tournaments) in pubs. Communality counts. It also explains why others will actually travel to the tournament host country, merely to sit in a park and watch the match on a Jumbotron outside the stadium. Proximity counts too.
Nevertheless, I do think that it’s an odd sort of culture that prizes the live and the immediate over the transmitted, and yet those attending live, immediate events still find their experience of the show mediated through a square electronic screen. And we haven’t even discussed the second-order oddness of the TV stations broadcasting the sight of other people standing in a field (or on the Mall) watching a screen, as a form of entertainment in itself.
Related: That thing that happens during a lull in a live sporting broadcast, when the director cuts to a shot of the crowd, and the person spots themselves on the screen in the stadium, and waves at it, then realises that the camera is shooting them from another angle, and so they look around for the camera, and the director cuts back to the action…
In a paywalled Times article this time last week, Hugo Rifkind highlighted our loss of the communal Christmas TV moment. EastEnders can never achieve the dizzy ratings heights of the 1980s, Eric and Ernie are dead, and even the numbers for Her Majesty The Queen’s Christmas message are in decline. Rifkind blames the spread of new viewing technologies as the cause of this: A plethora of channels; asynchronous viewing options like Sky+, TiVo, and iPlayer; and the alternatives presented by DVDs and YouTube.
It is interesting that despite this decline, new technology can provide a facsimile of the old, communal TV viewing experience. Instead of discussing an episode over the water-cooler or at the school gates the following morning, we all have a ‘second screen’ and discuss it in real time over Twitter. This is not a particularly original observation, but I mention it because it is Twitter that tells me just how universally popular is Sherlock, the second series of which began last weekend, with Episode 2 to be aired later this evening.
Hilariously, given the above paragraph, I did not actually watch the first episode ‘live’ – instead I caught up later in the week via iPlayer. That doesn’t detract from how popular the show seems to be, at least among the connected Twitterati.
There are plenty of explanations for the success. The writing is excellent and funny. Actor Benedict Cumberbatch exudes an autistic confidence that is true to Conan Doyle’s original character. Mysteries and puzzles are always the most popular stories (c.f. the perennial dominance of detective stories over Lit Fic) and the Sherlock series adheres to the rules of a good detective story, presenting all the clues to the audience as they are presented to the sleuth himself.
However, I think it is the representation of technology, and the visual choices inspired by technology, which make the thing feel so contemporary. Holmes receives text messages and interacts with Lestrade on a mobile phone. Dr Watson has a blog, and the villainess of Series 2, Ep. 1 had her own Twitter account (both of which, as is obligatory these days, also exist in the real world and keep up the conceit). However, it is not just that the characters use technology that makes the show interesting, but how the director integrates that into the visual style. Sherlock employs the popular technique of overlaying motion graphics onto the action. It is method made easy by new digital editing tools (see the opening scene of Stranger Than Fiction with Will Ferrell for an ostentatious example of the genre, as is Fifty Nine Productions’ work in Two Boys at the ENO). In Sherlock, the subtle use of this style makes the technology seem fully integrated into the way the characters view the world. The text messages flow past and through Sherlock, he barely has to look at his handset. I think it mirrors the way most of us live, with our eyes flitting between the screen and reality so quickly that it is sometimes difficult to remember how exactly a particular piece of information came to us. It certainly represents the way a large audience segment are experiencing the show. Are they watching Sherlock, or are they watching #Sherlock? Both.
Last week, a fascinating storyline emerged in Eastenders. It’s all about the weak standing up to the strong.
Bald bully Phil Mitchell (Steve MacFadden) is pursuing a vindictive vendetta against cheery Minute Mart Manager, Patrick Trueman (Rudolph Walker). Patrick saw Phil’s son Ben (Joshua Pascoe) kissing another boy (Monday) which led Ben to try to intimidate Patrick into silence (Tuesday) This led to an argument which Phil interrupted. He asked Patrick to apologise but this was refused. Phil has therefore ostracised Patrick from Shirley’s cafe, and had him sacked from his glass collecting job at the Queen Vic (Thursday).
Phil is not the only nutter on Albert Square. Two other characters, Michael Moon (Steve John Shepherd) and Dr Yousef Khan (Ace Bhati), are currently behaving in a much more dangerous manner, but their agendas are purely personal. Phil’s behaviour, on the other hand, seems to be more about the exercise of power in general, rather than a personality clash. Patrick is being punished only because he challenged the primacy of the Mitchell clan. Phil needs to be seen to prevail, whereas Michael and Yousef prefer subterfuge.
What is interesting about this new storyline is how this power corrupts other characters. The two most amiable characters in the show, Alfie Moon (Shane Ritchie) and Heather Trott (Cheryl Fergison), are both financially dependent on Phil Mitchell, and both are forced to act unfairly towards Patrick. The young Mitchell generation, Ben and Jay (Jamie Borthwick), certainly realise that their father is in the wrong, but have no interest in challenging him, because their own standing in the community is derived from Phil. Perpetual doormat Billy Mitchell (Perry Fenwick) is likewise an enabler.
Phil has been allowed to get away with such appalling behaviour for so long because of his money. He owns four businesses around Albert Square (the pub, the nightclub, the Arches garage, and the cafe) and therefore has economic power over the less financially secure characters (i.e., most people). Therefore he shows little remorse for psychologically damaging his entire family and almost incinerating everyone in the Vic during a drug-induced rage last year.
However, what is so delicious about the emerging storyline is that this power is now being challenged, and may even be shown to be built on thin foundations. Patrick has made a martyr of himself by standing by his principles and refusing to apologise. This dignity in the face of abuse has inspired an unlikely revolutionary in Heather, who has moved out of Phil’s house in a symbolic gesture of solidarity. The next step will be dissent from within the Mitchell regime that undermines Phil’s aura of impunity. Ben has yet to build up the courage to confess his sexuality to Phil, but when he does that will shatter the unity of the family. Power broker Shirley (Linda Henry) may even take sides against Phil when she returns to Walford.
Now Heather and Patrick have shown dissent, let us hope that other citizens of Walford follow suit. Although Phil is well off, his money is geographically tied to Albert Square. A community boycott would therefore be easy to organise and could have quick and far reaching implications for Phil.
The worry is this: If Phil Mitchell falls, who or what will fill his place. Albert Square is an odd sort of community? On the one hand, it is very tightly woven, and one hopes that this would allow a fairer hierarchy to emerge. On the other hand, the residents have an unlikely appetite for conflict. They are quick to make vocal judgements about other people, are happy to engage in public rudeness and humiliation, and rarely choose reconciliation when it is offered. This lack of a culture co-operation could allow another rich tyrant to step into Phil Mitchell’s shoes. Janine (Charlie Brooks) is my best bet to fill this role – she has just come into a large inheritance and is busy building a property empire on Albert Square. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.