Comment: The moment when we could no longer suspend belief in the unbelievable
Tuesday 28 December 1999
We are watching A Touch of Frost. It may not be Only Fools and Horses, but at least it has Delboy in it. For some of our party, that is enough. Not for Will, though. For some minutes now he has been repeating every line uttered by the two participants in a particularly emotional scene. "I can do that," he tells us. "I can play both parts. They can't act." We all shift uncomfortably at this slur on David Jason, who for years formed the very core of our festive entertainment, but feel a little happier when Will addresses the television with some words we know to be true. "You're a comic actor, David. Play to your strengths. Don't just chuck it all in and become just another boring old telly detective. You're worth more than this." But it's too late. We have all suspended the suspension of our disbelief, and our attention drifts away from the programme.
We are watching Auntie's Bloomers presented by Terry Wogan. Some of it is quite funny. Now, immediately afterwards, we are watching Emmerdale. When a man goes into the attic, I know it is only a matter of time before his foot comes through the ceiling. It duly does. I am astounded when the "clip" keeps running. I am still in Auntie's Bloomers land. Later, the wife of the man with his foot stuck goes into the attic and sits down beside him. Suddenly she bursts into hysterical laughter, and I wait for the husband to join her, and then for another take to be screened. None of this happens, because it is in the script for the woman to laugh hysterically. My ability to suspend disbelief is now entirely suspended.
We are watching The Vicar of Dibley, and the one who was in Notting Hill is great with child. Will is outraged. We saw an episode only the day before, in which it was only just dawning on her that she was pregnant. Yesterday there was no bump. Today it is huge. Nevertheless, other aspects of yesterday's show are alluded to as if they'd only happened yesterday. It is, Will opines, a grave error of continuity. We continue to watch as the very pregnant woman is cast as Mary in the Nativity play, and try to wonder where on earth all of this may be heading.
We are watching the Royle Family, and have assured Will that it will be alright because this show is just like real life and is even shot in real time. Denise is pregnant, apparently utilising the same artificial bump as was seen earlier in The Vicar of Dibley. We try to wonder where all of this might be heading. We attempt to feel surprised when Denise disappears off to the maternity ward while we are treated to a long and lingering shot of the Royle Family's model of a Nativity scene. We are beginning to feel that the demand for suspension of disbelief makes monkeys of us all.
I resent this thought, though, as it reminds me that the man who is responsible for upsetting our ability to go along with anything that they shove on the telly, just sits around making things up for a living himself. Most annoyingly, in this instance, his last novel required us all to believe that all the humans in the world were instead great apes. Now there's a suspension of disbelief that makes monkeys of us all if ever I saw one. One minute the guy is disparaging our willingness to accept that Dibley is a real place, the next he's asking us to believe that it is a real place and that Dawn French is an orang-utan.
I put it to him that all this cynicism about suspension of disbelief is a bit rich coming from a satirical novelist, and he looks abashed. He mutters that maybe he finds it hard to suspend disbelief himself because he spends all of his time trying to think of metaphors. I parry with an air of some triumph that perhaps it's the other way around, even though I know that this makes no material difference to the situation at all. I remember a stinking review Will got for a short story, in which the reviewer absolutely fulminated that some of the events in the tale were "completely made up". Maybe it's a good thing that truth is stranger than fiction. Or maybe our eagerness to involve ourselves in trite virtual versions of reality in which every baby falls neatly into place, is just evidence of our inability to make sense of the actual world any more.
We are watching the news. The plight of the people on the hijacked Air India plane has become a disturbing part of the furniture of Christmas 1999. But we are appalled to hear that a woman being driven in a police car to a refuge has lost two children in a car crash. Her other child, a two-year-old twin, is in intensive care. The woman had asked for help in escaping from her home because her husband was physically abusive and she feared for the safety of her children. We are silent for some minutes as we consider the layers of everyday nightmare and bitter violent irony that have given this poor woman a Christmas to remember. We all find this story utterly, utterly unbelievable.
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