TELEVISION / All the sin of the fair

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The Independent Culture
THE poignancy of old photographs has been much remarked upon - that crowd of people, each with his or her immeasurably vivid experiences and invisible thoughts squeezed, in the blink of a shutter, on to a sepia- stained piece of card. When you're being photographed there's no contest between what you are feeling and what the camera can capture; 70 years later, the frail durability of the snapshot may have triumphed.

But for some reason the gap between the photographic residue and the transient reality seems even more melancholy when those being photographed are at play. Ric Burns's documentary Coney Island (C 4) was full of such ghosts - long-dead New Yorkers in Victorian bathing costumes, larking about for Mr Edison's new machine, briefly liberated from the ghettos of Manhattan.

Burns' film traced the transformation of Coney Island from a spit of windswept land inhabited only by rabbits into a new wonder of the world - in its heyday Freud, Shaw and Gorky were among those who came to gawp, though they did it in a slightly more cerebral form. It was denounced as a new Sodom by the New York Times (in an article that bore the intriguing headline 'Outgrowth of Tweedism in Brooklyn'), but hymned by another contemporary observer because of its democratic crush - 'When you bathe at Coney Island,' she gushed, 'you bathe in America's Jordan.' It was, above all, a fascinatingly efficient machine by which the new technologies of electricity and engineering were applied to extract money from the public.

Their appetite for thrills was at first easily satisfied; an early roller-coaster consisted of a single downhill run with two mild bumps in the middle. But soon the competition between various park-owners had spawned wonders - you could watch elephants slide down waterslides, could drop from a tower on a giant parachute, loop the loop, see Galveston flooded or a Boer War battle reconstructed by its original combatants. The showmen were nothing if not enterprising - Tilyous, who built Steeplechase Park, started with nothing more than a signboard promising the largest Ferris wheel in the world (it wasn't), but by the time it was completed he had sold enough concessions to pay for it.

At a rival park the biggest draw was a show called 'Infant Incubators', in which a doctor who had been unable to persuade hospitals to adopt his new methods saved premature babies under the gaze of the public. What powered Coney Island, it seems, was an innocence of the world that couldn't survive the 20th century. When Manhattan's towers outstripped those at the beach and shone just as bright, it was only a matter of time before Coney Island survived only in snapshots.