It’s fair to say that the past few weeks have been some of the toughest that the majority of the population has lived through. With the UK death toll rising on a daily basis, it’s proving extremely difficult to maintain the British stiff upper lip, keep calm and carry on. The daily briefings by the Prime Minister and health officials remind us that Covid-19 isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. For many of us, this is the first time that we’ve been put under strict measures of social distancing and have been forced to consider the wartime concept of rationing. Such a bleak time has put a substantial halt to all aspects of British life in a surreal experience only to be compared to the social consequences of the Second World War.
This worldwide pandemic has severe consequences for every aspect of our lives and it’s not for entertainment writers such as myself to contribute to the political dialogue surrounding the ongoing effects of this wide ranging illness. Yet at a pivotal time when all forms of entertainment are being put under question, it’s difficult to know what the future will hold for performing arts. The only possible thing to do is look at past events to assess the cultural implications of an event of this global importance and the Second World War still remains the only comparable circumstance. Obviously here viral infection was replaced with physical and mental damage which saw Britain in a state of rebuilding for the next twenty years. Theatrical impresario Vivian Van-Damn’s Windmill Theatre came to prominence as the only entertainment establishment which didn’t close and in turn helped to create a brand new generation of performers.
It’s difficult to overlook the pivotal contribution that The Windmill made to the direction of Light Entertainment both during and directly after the war. Beyond the controversial female nudity and adult entertainment, The Windmill was also responsible for offering a platform to a generation of performers who would go on to define British entertainment for years to come. Soon to be beloved entertainers including Bruce Forsyth, Morecambe and Wise, Tony Hancock, Frankie Howerd and Barry Cryer all made career defining performances at this formidable theatre. The Windmill was unique in being the only theatre in London where you could have an audition in the morning and find yourself on stage performing to a full house merely hours later. Such grounding provided the perfect grounding for a lifetime in showbiz.
If Light Entertainment surged after the war then public service broadcasting came of age during it as the BBC Home Service upheld the corporation’s trinity to inform, educate and entertain. Pioneering journalists such as Richard Dimbleby reported from right at the very heart of the action and set the standard for the BBC’s unbiased, neutral tone. Unbeknown to the broadcasting titan, beyond paving the way for television journalism, Dimbleby was also creating a long lasting dynasty which still remains to this day in the guise of his two sons David and Jonathan. This early attempt at frontline journalism encouraged the corporation to realise its mass influence on everyday life and shaped its position in the national psyche.
It’s pertinent here to note that even after the end of the Second World War, the BBC hereafter still enjoyed a decade of televisual supremacy until ATV launched in September 1955 and thus began a formidable battle of competition which remains to this day. For the next thirty years, these two broadcasting outlets entered into a fierce battle for television dominance only to be overshadowed by multi platform streaming services of the twenty-first century. Arguably, Covid-19 is the single biggest pandemic to hit the world in over seventy five years and despite having reported each and every international event hereafter, no other story has been so instantly harrowing. In this time, television has covered stories from all four corners of the globe; it’s been to war zones, documented the overthrow of dictators and responded to international famines. Yet never has it been at the centre of a worldwide pandemic and this is set to test the very medium which has become a vital part of our cultural identity.
The post millennial technology revolution has brought us closer than ever to the latest news and current affairs. No longer is it necessary for the audience to wait for periodic news bulletins as its available twenty four hours per day seven days per week at the simple touch of a button. Rolling news has too changed the way that we glean the latest national and international stories. Coupled with the rise of news websites such as Buzz and Yahoo, the way in which current affairs is presented has dramatically changed to reflect the multi platform generation. Yet finding ourselves in a severe medical pandemic has interestingly encouraged us to rely upon tried and tested discourses including the scheduled daily press conference by the prime minister. This would have been completely unthinkable up to two weeks ago and many of the younger demographic probably have never relied upon the old fashioned art of scheduled programming. However, each evening at 5pm over 27.1 million of us find ourselves sitting down to watch the daily briefing – that’s almost as many as The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show 1977. If this isn’t public service broadcasting at its very best I don’t know what is.
So beyond broadcasting and politics, how can entertainment fight back? The fantastic news is that it already is…just not necessarily where you might expect it. As the old saying goes, ‘the show must go on’ and many of our best loved stars are taking to Twitter to create a different kind of content. Who would ever think a video of Liam Gallagher merely washing his hands could be a viral sensation?! Or that we would ever see the Queen of Pop; Madonna singing in the bath? It’s clear that this bizarre time has brought the creativity back into our best loved stars and long may they maintain our morale.
This isn’t the only entertainment medium to adjust their output to continue delighting audiences. Richard II at London’s RSC starring David Tennant will now be available for viewers to watch online at www.digitaltheatre.com. The website also contains a whole selection of other theatrical performances which are available at the touch of your mouse, proving that people might not be able to frequent the theatre but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t witness the stage shows you enjoy all from the comfort of your sofa.
So in such uncertain, unprecedented times, it’s easy for us to concentrate on the bleakness staring back at us. But as history tells us, wherever there’s hardship, our national resilience automatically kicks in and fights back in extraordinary ways. There’s no doubt that there’s going to be tough times ahead but if entertainment is able to continue to be the vital light relief, we shall beat the Coronavirus and arise stronger and more enriched than ever before.