Sunday, 29 July 2012

Panem et Circenses: Boyle's Bicycles

I remember the first time I heard that old joke - you know the one - about the guy smuggling bicycles. Typical of almost every subsequent retelling of this gag that I have been privy to, it was not in a joke book or the live set of some stand-up comic; it was not tittered over in a school playground or shared and liked on Facebook. 

It must have ben about ten years ago. I was still an undergraduate at Goldsmiths College. And Todd Gitlin, former Students for a Democratic Society president turned public intellectual and media theorist, was giving a free talk in the Ian Gulland Lecture Theatre on the college's New Cross campus. 

How is it, Gitlin pondered, that right wing television networks like Fox and CBS will show liberal / left-leaning programming like The Simpsons and The Mary Tyler Moore Show? The answer, he assured us, could be found in an old joke about a border guard. 

Everyday the same guy crosses the border on his bicycle. The guard is convinced the guy is smuggling something. But each time he searches him from head to foot and finds nothing. 

Years later, the cyclist and the border guard meet again under changed circumstances. Tell me, says the now ex-border guard, you were smuggling something, weren't you?

Of course, replies the cyclist, I was smuggling bicycles.

Gitlin's contention - with its obvious debt to Marshall McLuhan - was that the networks were, so to speak, smuggling bicycles. The apparently liberal content of their shows was irrelevant, what was important was to smuggle into the viewers' daily lives the very form of TV itself. 

I can't remember whether Gitlin brought up Raymond Williams's notion of TV programming as "flow", that is, as a structured attempt to hold an audience's attention over a whole night's broadcasting. In fact, I don't think he did. But it seems relevant to bring it up in this context. Nobody - or at least, hardly anyone - turns on the telly at a specific time for a particular show, watches a single programme and then switches the thing off (actually, in an age of Tivo and iPlayer and so forth this is probably not so much the case anymore, but then it is arguably true that television, as traditionally understood, does not really exist anymore).

I was reminded of this lecture the other day whilst idly browsing friends' responses to Danny Boyle's Olympic Games opening ceremony. And I came to the conclusion that, as someone who lives in a different country, doesn't own a TV aerial, and made no attempt to watch the ceremony online, I am therefore ideally placed to comment and pass judgement on the spectacle that everybody else watched and I didn't.

Because what I had noticed was a sharp and sudden sea change in opinion. Left-leaning friends (and , y'know, people I follow on Twitter but don't actually know) who had displayed nothing but contempt and cynicism towards the games, its brand-policing, heavy-handed security, and anachronistic jingoism, up to this point, had abruptly switched to declaring how proud they were to be British and how they fed up they were of other people's cynicism and contempt for the games and everything it stood for. Yes, the very same cynicism and contempt that they had themselves been expressing just a few hours earlier. 

Suddenly, everyone was all: anyone who criticises this will be unfollowed and struck off my Christmas card list (evidently a large bounty of Christmas cards has never been my highest priority in life - either that or I'm relying on the reduced memory spans of habitual internet users). Boyle's ceremony had, in short, achieved everything that the London Olympic Games Organising Committee could have hoped for. More, even. It had won over some of its staunchest critics - even as their friends were being arrested and imprisoned for having the temerity to go on a bike ride through London on the same day as the ceremony.

Which is why I can't help but think that for all its Sex-Pistols-and-dancing-nurses-and-Dizzee-Rascal-and-skydiving-Her-Majesties, the actual content of the opening ceremony remains irrelevant. Olympics enthusiasm had been smuggled into the viewers minds - even as the bicycles were being held under Section 12 of the Public Order Act.