Friday, 1 May 2015

The Likely Lads Test

No Hiding Place’, broadcast in 1973 as part of the first season of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, is one of the most memorable episodes of a British sitcom. If you have seen it, and have an interest in sport, you are unlikely to have forgotten it. The premise is simple. The English football team is playing Bulgaria in a game that kicks off at midday. The television highlights of the match won’t be shown until 10.00 in the evening. The ‘likely lads’, our Geordie heroes Terry and Bob, try to avoid hearing the result so they can enjoy the full drama of the game when it is shown on TV.
            This is not easy. A hairdresser tells them they’ll ‘never make it . . . there’s the radio, evening papers, television news’. On top of this, their friend Flint gets wind of their media blackout and enters into a bet with them that they won’t escape the score. Terry and Bob make a good go of it. They run for home, so that they can flee Flint and his radio that is broadcasting the game. Home isn’t safe either. The phone rings, but rather than pick it up, out of fear it will be someone wanting to talk about the game, they seek sanctuary in a church. Flint tracks them down there and is about to announce the result when a vicar appears. This intervention provides Terry and Bob with an opportunity to escape. On the run for the rest of the day, they avoid news of the game by giving blood and attending a talk on flower arranging at the local Women’s Institute. Eventually, they settle on their sofa as the TV broadcast is about to begin. But they’ve left the front door unlocked. Flint enters. They let him win the bet, with the proviso that he leave without telling them the score. They then turn on the TV. It is showing ice skating rather than the football. Terry and Bob look dumbfounded. And then a commentator explains that the England v Bulgaria game has been postponed because of a waterlogged pitch.  
            This is the likely lads’ ‘longest day’, one they describe as being ‘endless’. They live in a world where the news is everywhere – on radio, on television, in the papers, on the phone. Avoiding it is like avoiding life itself. ‘No Hiding Place’ is still worth watching, and not only because it’s such an elegantly constructed sitcom. To see it again is to be reminded that media saturation is not a new thing.
But is ‘No Hiding Place’ timeless? The programme has been remade. This century’s most famous Geordie duo, Ant and Dec, assumed the roles of Terry and Bob in a version broadcast in 2002. What’s interesting about this remake is how similar it is to the original. Once again our heroes are told they will ‘never make it . . . there’s the radio, evening papers, television news’.
In some ways there’s been a greater leap between 2002 and 2015 than there was between 1973 and 2002. The world wide web was up and running in 2002, but less than half of UK homes were connected to it, while only 6% had broadband. Wi-Fi barely existed; there were no smart phones. There was no MySpace, let alone Facebook. Twitter was still four years away, and it would be eight years before we had Instagram.
You see where I’m going with this? If ‘No Hiding Place’ were to be remade today, it wouldn’t just be newspapers, TV and radio that Terry and Bob would have to avoid; there would be all manner of social media to escape and all sorts of interconnectivity to unplug. Moreover, if technological futurists are right, 2015 is just about the last time that ‘No Hiding Place’ could be reworked. In a few years time we’ll all have Google glasses wrapped around our faces and we’ll be hardwired to the internet. If we’ve told our machines that we’re interested in football, then avoiding the scores will be impossible.
A side-effect of current levels of mediation is that the story is becoming as important as the game. In Britain, football highlights are still shown in the evenings of a big match day. However, as well as reviewing the game itself, these programmes now feature highlights of the players’ tweets that followed it. Moreover, such is the voracious appetite of social media for content, we’re now weighed down with stories that have nothing to do with the game itself. Gossip rules.
This situation is amplified when it comes to popular music. In sports the results do still matter. In music, it is now difficult to know what the real output of an artist is. Is the gossip there to back up a musical career, or is the musical career there to back up the gossip?
In 1973 it would have been possible to make a version of ‘No Hiding Place’ that focused on pop music rather than football. Flint could have placed a bet with Terry and Bob that they would never make it through a week without knowing what was number one in the charts. This would have been difficult, as the best-selling record was major news at this time. Radio One’s chart show was heard by millions; Top of the Pops, the television equivalent, was watched by even more. The Top 30 was published in the music press, which back then had a vast reach. It was also published in the tabloid newspapers, which in the 1970s were read by the majority of the population.
You couldn’t make this pop version of ‘No Hiding Place’ today. I regularly ask my university students what’s number one in the charts. Despite the repetition of my tests, it is rare that any of them knows the answer. And this is young people who are studying popular music. In the 1970s, most mums and dads would know what was number one. It’s safe to say that hardly any would today.
And yet they may well know what Lady Gaga has been up to, or Rihanna, or Kanye West. Today’s tabloids feature several pages of pop gossip. They don’t feature the charts. And young people aren’t the only ones who use social media. The middle aged and elderly are online. They might not be using the internet to connect to Radio One, but their Twitter feeds may well be telling them about Justin Bieber’s misdemeanours. Have they heard his music? Probably not.
It’s enough to make you want to break out into song. The Likely Lads theme tune will do: Oh, what happened to you, whatever happened to me? What became of the people, we used to be?

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