Not all the world’s a stage

Stephen+J+Cannell

Those of us who grew up watching American television in the 1980s know exactly how scripts are written.

Mr Stephen J Cannell showed us. You sit in a wood-panelled study, banging them out on a typewriter, and as you hit the final full-stop you whip the sheet off the roller, fling it into the air, and it curls down onto a pile of pages, forming a clunkily animated C.

That’s what I thought until I actually started writing scripts, at which point I began to suspect that television might have lied to me. Instead of the study there was a pavement deli. Instead of the typewriter there was a laptop delicately lacquered with bacon fat. And instead of a lone writer there was another bloke, sitting across from me, exclaiming, “Yes! I’ve got it! We open on the vast, cold, emptiness of space and . wait, what’s the budget? Fifteen rand a minute? Okay, we open on the vast, cold, emptiness of Sandton. Oh, we can’t afford to shoot outside? Okay, we open on a cardboard room, illuminated by the bonfire of our artistic ambitions .”

These conversations can get loud: think of two six-year-olds playing with toy cars and plastic dinosaurs in a sandpit, each explaining why their Batmobile is invulnerable to Tyrannosaur teeth, except add caffeine and sleep deprivation. I have sometimes been aware of annoyed glances from people at nearby tables; but the moment the onlookers realise a television script is being written, well! How glamorous! You’re not a prat, you’re a Creative!

And yet, despite this overly respectful response, the fact remains that we are imposing ourselves – our aesthetics, our ideas, our noise – on people who didn’t ask to be imposed upon. But that, it turns out, is how television works.

The more I learned about television, the more I realised that, instead of being a mirror reflecting an amalgamation of the sensibilities of millions of people, it is, in fact, a mass-medium created in the image of a startlingly small number of people. In the US, for example, just a few hundred bright young things (and slightly creaky middle-aged things) dictate, whether through force of will or the seductiveness of their talents, the tastes of hundreds of millions.

This is not a conspiracy. It is simply what happens when compulsively creative, healthily narcissistic people compete for the spotlight. But it does give us a distorted version of reality, because we begin to assume that a process of natural selection has happened; that hundreds of millions of people with a specific sense of humour or the same creative vision started in a vast race, and that these few score have survived because they are the fittest. We extrapolate backwards, forgetting one essential difference between the people on our screens and the people not on our screens: desire.

It is easy to forget that everything we see on television, or hear on the radio, or read in our favourite books or newspapers or websites, was created by a person with a very particular psychological quirk: the desire to share his or her sensibilities with strangers. For some, that sharing is gentle and unobtrusive. Others wrench out their brains and hearts and thrust them at you. But all of these people share the compulsion to share.

I am going to try to hold onto that thought this week as the compulsive sharers get really loud. Some of them will be politicians, adjusting their expressions and tweaking their lines to suit the outcome of the election. Most will be writers and talkers, either gently or assertively imposing their vision on us. But I will try to remember that I am hearing only those people who suffer from this strange compulsion, and that the great hullabaloo they kick up is not necessarily a reflection of any kind of collective truth.

I will try to remember that those who pour out their rage and bile on the internet are not all of us, but rather a small subspecies who have lots of free time, impotent rage and an internet connection. I will try to remember that for every outlandish promise made by busking politicians, or every self-aggrandising analysis written by a pundit, there are a thousand quiet South Africans, keeping their own counsel, conversing only with their own consciences.

The world is not as funny as its best television comedies, but it is also not as stupid as its worst ones. Our true selves are never adequately reflected by those few people who are compelled to become our societies’ performers. So this week I’m going to try to look past the harshly lit cardboard set where politicians, academics and journalists recite their lines, and I’m just going to listen to the soft breathing of 50million people, sitting up there in the gallery, quietly.

*

First published in The Times and TimesLive

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