Having started the pandemic storyline, God, or perhaps the scriptwriters working on the world’s stories, have lost the plot. By Linda Burgess.
Even my internal monologue is boring. Even reliving old fights with my sister, old crushes, old ideas for stories, is like trudging along a street where all the houses are meanly built and all on the verge of dilapidation; where the curtains are just beginning to come off their hooks. Where the footpath isn’t even properly broken, just on the edge of rupturing so that it might, one day soon, trip you up.
I used to love listening to BBC’s Radio 4 at night. A comfortable bed with good sheets, a duvet that’s just the right weight, little earpods plugged in, just listening. Even Gardeners’ Question Time used to be fascinating. Desert Island Discs, Front Row, The News Quiz, they all had informed, curious, witty participants. A couple of years after Brexit, a year before Covid-19, that radio station becoming boring started with just a tiny lethal click; the click that was the death of Jeremy Hardy. If you don’t know who he was, then you don’t know the funniest man in the entire world. He died before it was commonly known he was dying, so here, so far away, the shock was a primal punch. He had cancer and his very funny friend Jack Dee spoke, after Hardy’s death, of driving him to an appointment at the oncology ward. Hardy asked him if he would come in with him. Touched to be asked, Dee did. As they approached the ward, a nurse came forward to greet them and Hardy said, “This is my friend Jack. He’s here on work experience, for when he gets cancer.”
Nobody on Radio 4 is that funny any more. Perhaps because what makes comedy essential is telling the truth, world-wide the truth is just too bleak to raise the slightest smirk. Now they record from their bedrooms, not the studio, and there’s that disassociating slight echo, and they joke about hoping that the puppy won’t interrupt them.
The night before the final day for voting, I listened for a few hours when it was neither night nor morning, that interminable time between midnight and sunrise, my intermittent dreams getting entangled with what was on the radio. The plane I was in suddenly started to fly just above a street, the sort of street you get in Scottish dramas set in the 50s, little boys in fair isle jerseys, women in headscarves carrying baskets, and the odd thing was, no one noticed our plane, just above their heads. Then a man started to drone on about Brexit.
I want to laugh, I desperately do. The modest success I had with boys in my youth was loosely linked to my cracking up at their witticisms. But nothing much has amused me lately. Or made me cross. Or want to cry. The world it seems is draining away emotions.
Other than the brief thrill, the one that still feels as if it might not be true, when Labour so thoroughly won the election, there doesn’t seem much to talk about. Driving down from Auckland recently, my husband broke the silence to wonder for the zillionth time why you can go 110kph on one side of Hamilton, but not the other? Droning on meaninglessly is international. Having started the pandemic storyline, God, or perhaps the scriptwriters working on the world’s stories, have lost the plot.
Brexit. Still not happening. That overburdened fool who runs the place – even a game of Snakes and Ladders would overburden him. Why did his scriptwriters let him get so hopeless in an unlikeable way? He started as sort of quaint, a Wodehouse character, but now they’ve run out of expostulations and they’re a bit strapped when it comes to ancient Greek. He’s unremittingly dorkish. They concentrate on setting, and get that wrong too, the country shutting down, opening up, on-a-bit, off-a-bit, some kids at school, some not, some cities being allowed to eat in cafes, not others, everyone being sent home at 9pm. The writers know the local audience hates it: the ongoing dreariness, the stultifying nature of the now, without even a hun strafing them in the street to alleviate the boredom. Captain Tom such a brief respite. Meghan Markle tedious. Archie not cute enough. You can’t keep relying on David Attenborough explaining how thoroughly we’ve mucked things up to freshen the story. If only they’d hired Jed Mercurio who wrote Line of Duty, or Sally Wainwright, who’s always so good. But no go. They’re both in isolation, working on Germany and Sweden’s stories.
Over in the US the team writing the story are still working out whether their anti-hero is a gift or a freakish liability. Is it comedy or tragedy? Or a lunchtime soap? Should they be using David Chase, or Larry David? The Coen brothers? They’ve gone too far with the anti-hero: he makes all other Americans look sane. Boring in America moves more quickly, they know the cliff-hanger has to be resolved at the beginning of the next episode and now you don’t even have to wait a week. Everyone’s binge-watching and the plot is a runaway train: he might get the virus, he does get the virus, he’s on the helicopter, in the hospital, out again, in again, back in the helicopter, cured, immune, TWEETING, all between your breakfast toast and your evening wine.
The series has gone on too long, the plot is stretched, the characters showing no sign of development at all. People change sides for no reason. White cops keep killing black men. The president’s wife’s scriptwriter crafts a speech in which there’s a hint of redemption, reflection, but nah, Sorkin’s off his game, we don’t believe those words came from that character’s lips. Or even if that character is a body double for the real thing,
For us viewers, adrenaline gives up even attempting to bother us. Plod plod plod goes our pulse. Like Mme Defarge in the French revolution, we look up the stats in the Washington Post when they drop into the e-letterbox, and have a little bet with ourselves before scrolling down and clicking on “Track deaths and confirmed cases in the US”. Yep. Another 1000. Another head in the basket. And the worst thing is, all the heads are starting to look the same.