Ian Jack's Notebook: I'll never drink Pepsi or eat a Big Mac again
Saturday 11 September 1999
It was a hot night; the hall was far from full. Both the university's vice-chancellor and the head of the media department made introductory speeches, the thrust of which was that we were lucky to have among us Mr Michael Wolf, the head of the media and entertainment division of Booz- Allen and Hamilton, a New York management consultancy. Mr Wolf oversaw the work of a hundred other consultants. He had advised Disney, Rupert Murdoch and Bertelsmann. According to the programme note, "industry insiders" knew him as "the mogul's secret weapon".
The secret weapon was a small, dark, dapper man who went to the lectern and told us what he was going to tell us; then told us; then told us he'd told us. I wouldn't call him evangelical, but he spoke with the smooth certainty of someone who'd seen the world from a great height, where he'd mixed with the masters of the universe. His message was that entertainment - films, music, books, the Web, video games, theme parks - was now the world's largest engine of economic growth. "Entertainment content" had seeped into every part of the economy. Companies in non-entertaining industries - automobile manufacturers, banks - came to him to ask how they could add "entertainment value" to their products.
He produced some interesting facts and figures ( I have no idea how true they are): when Pepsi-Cola announced that they'd bought the rights to the Star Wars characters and would put them on their cans, Pepsi's stock value rose by $2bn; last year the economy of Las Vegas, a city whose only purpose is to entertain, registered a greater growth than the national economy of China; more people visit Paris Disneyworld every year than make the pilgrimage to Mecca; as a percentage of American consumer spending, entertainment now runs ahead of health care, clothing and household furniture; more content is now available on world television in a single hour than in an entire year 20 years ago.
"We have become a world of fun-focused consumers," Mr Wolf said. We were demanding, we were fickle; what was cool one moment slipped into uncool the next. The "old media" of television faced stiff challenges in the "battle for eyeballs". The question people asked was no longer "What's on television?" but "What else is on television?" The last episode of Seinfeld got an audience of 76 million in the US, whereas the last episode of Cheers got 80.5 million viewers in 1993, and the last episode of M*A*S*H 106 million 20 years before. This showed the way things were heading in the battle for eyeballs.
I can't say that Mr Wolf spoke of this state of affairs as a kind of hedonist's Utopia. There was no hint of hope or regret, praise or blame, of the good or of the bad, in anything he said. He spoke like a kindly policeman; these were the facts and it would be best if we recognised and co-operated with them. As to the future, and perhaps remembering that he was speaking in Europe, he thought that the American hegemony on world entertainment wouldn't last. "Local people want local stories." But he offered no evidence for this coming relief other than Hugh Grant and the increasing number of German-made programmes on German TV.
Finally, said Mr Wolf, turning to an audience that was mainly made up of journalism students, what the mega-media needed was product: "narrative - stories, good stories, great stories, interestingly told".
He spoke for about 20 minutes and limited audience questions to three. He wanted to be out of there. Could this really be described as a lecture? No, it was a book-promotion opportunity for Mr Wolf's new book, copies of which were stacked in the foyer. Perhaps because I have an exaggerated respect for universities, not having attended one, I felt sorry that the vice-chancellor felt that he needed to roll up for this trivial piece of commerce, even though the publisher or Booz-Allen and Hamilton Inc had probably paid for the wine. In its way, it exemplified Mr Wolf's world view: quick and commercial, getting on to the next thing.
Going home, I pledged that my children would never drink Pepsi, never again darken the door of a Burger King (the Teletubbies franchisees) or a McDonald's (Tarzan ditto), that I'd ship them to Saudi Arabia rather than to Disneyworld. But I knew it was hopeless. The great new engine of economic growth is, ultimately, in the hands, eyes and mouths of seven- year-olds. They are the market for the great story, interestingly told. Don't think George Eliot (the instruction should go out in every creative writing school) - think Thomas, and Tinky-Winky and Po.
The Vienna Philharmonic played under the baton of Simon Rattle at the Proms this week. Rattle looked terrific, with the hair and waistcoat of a storybook cobbler, and the BBC cameras in the Albert Hall made the most of him. Whenever they turned to the orchestra, however, I began to notice a strange thing. No women players, not a single one. A musical friend explained that the no-women rule was the well-known policy of the Vienna Philharmonic, though in this he wasn't quite right. Last year, having been leant on by the Austrian Government, the orchestra conceded that it would admit women players, and has now in fact got one on the harp (no harp necessary in Beethoven's Sixth, which is why I didn't see her). As the Vienna Philharmonic is probably the second of Europe's two finest orchestras, next or equal to the Berlin Philharmonic, it seems surprising that such a famous, publicly funded institution had got away with such frank sexism for so long, with so little fuss. According to Charles Kay, a musical consultant in London who managed Sir Georg Solti for more than 20 years, the orchestra justified its stance as "practical". It is a very busy orchestra, whose members play for the Vienna state opera, their paymaster, as well as in its own concert hall and on tour. A woman might get pregnant; there would be maternity leave; an idle oboe; auditions for a temporary replacement. Which decent band needed this level of complexity? Aside from a few demonstrations, not much noticed, in places such as Toronto, nobody seems to have minded apart from Austrian government lawyers with their eye on European discrimination law.
So: one lady harpist among 170 players. The audience didn't complain and neither do I. The orchestra played magnificently. But it was also at the Albert Hall, I seem to remember, that feminists pelted poor Michael Aspel with bags of flour as he tried to superintend some women in high heels and swimsuits. Perhaps post-feminism is now an unarguable fact.
Writing about Bruce and Jeffrey Bernard last week, I described their older brother, Oliver, as the most "conventional" of the three. This was a mistake. Oliver sent a typewritten postcard (these days a typewritten postcard is the hallmark of the true gent, even more so than those written with a fountain pen) with a mild reprimand and a copy of his autobiography, Getting Over It, which anyone interested in frank, well-written and wise accounts of individual lives should try to get hold of.
Oliver Bernard went to Westminster public school. In the 60 years since, he has been variously (very variously) a Communist book-packer, an RAF flyer, a fireman at East Greenwich gasworks (his vivid description of the place should be engraved inside the Millennium Dome, which stands on the gasworks site); a repairer of London tramlines; a rider of freight cars back and forth across Canada; a poet; an advertising copywriter; a peripatetic drama teacher; a published translator of Apollinaire and Rimbaud; a nuclear disarmer; a prisoner convicted of criminal damage to bomber bases; the winner of the Poetry Society's gold medal for verse- speaking; a patient on the analyst's couch ("The Tavistock Clinic can't be blamed for failing to turn me into a normal person, whatever that is"); a convert to Catholicism. All this in one life, plus marriages, children, seductions by merry French widows, and, at least in the early years, a lot of Soho carousing with the likes of the painters Roberts Colquhoun and MacBryde.
To put the record straight: in a close-fought contest, Oliver Bernard is the least conventional of the Bernard brothers.
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