If we lose the sense of shared experience we get from television, we lose a cultural bond

Please leave us to our water-cooler moments, Kevin Spacey
  • @davidlister1

I have never knowingly stood by the water-cooler. But I know from legend that the water-cooler is a hugely desirable place, where co-workers gather to gossip and, more pertinently, exchange opinions of current cultural fare.

For both of those laudable aspirations - cultural opinion sharing and gossip - I have always been a big fan of the water-cooler. In reality if there is one about, but even in theory if austerity and a desperate work ethic mean that it is no longer part of the office furniture.

So I’m alarmed that the most important television talk of the year, the MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh television festival, may have signalled the end of the water-cooler. The lecture was gvien by the estimable Kevin Spacey, artistic director of The Old Vic theatre in London, actor, film star and lead in the TV remake of House of Cards, broadcast by the on-demand streaming service Netflix.

As Spacey explained, a key part of the appeal of Netflix is that it streams an entire series at once, and the viewer can decide how much to watch and when. Spacey sees this as TV nirvana. He told his Edinburgh audience: “They (viewers) want freedom. If they want to binge – as they’ve been doing on House of Cards – then we should let them binge. Through this new form of distribution I think we have demonstrated that we have learned the lesson that the music industry didn’t learn – give people what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it, at a reasonable price, and they’ll more likely pay for it rather than steal it.”

Mr Spacey is clearly not a water-cooler sort of guy. Which is surprising as he is a man of the theatre and one of theatre’s greatest characteristics is the sense of community it gives to an audience, the sense of shared experience. If we lose that from television, we lose a cultural bond.

Yes, of course, most of us watch numerous dramas on box sets anyway. But those series still have their first airings episode by episode on TV, with subsequent discussion at the water cooler, and the word of mouth spreads. If Mr Spacey has his dream of the viewer binge, there will be no initial, communal reaction to new drama, comedy or documentary. And that vital cultural bond will be lost.

A Richard III record attempt

The Leicester Curve theatre is commemorating the discovery of the remains of Richard III in Leicester in unusual style. It will be attempting to break the Guinness World Record for ‘The Most Number of People Wearing Paper Crowns’. I kid you not. The record apparently stands at 749 people. The Leicester theatre is hoping to hit over 1,000. The criterion required to break the existing record is for participants to wear a paper crown for a full five minutes. To ensure this, the Curve will be staging Leicester’s largest ever mass reading of the opening speech to Shakespeare’s play, which starts “Now is the winter of our discontent.” I suspect that the people who run the Leicester Curve may not recall a celebrated Monty Python sketch, which featured The Royal Hospital for Overacting. Its tragic inmates spent their days declaiming Richard’s final words “A horse, a horse, My kingdom for a horse.” Having a thousand citizens of Leicester do that may not break any records, but it would be a lot funnier.

Dubbing vs subtitles: it's got us all a-Twitter

David Blunkett makes an understandable point in calling for dubbing rather than sub-titles when it comes to foreign TV drama imports. He says that dubbing would make these dramas accessible to blind and partially-sighted people. But I think we would lose an awful lot, not least the voice and with it some of the personality of Sarah Lund in The Killing. Where I do agree with Blunkett is on another point he makes about how error prone the subtitling for the deaf and hard-of-hearing is. Why in this hi-tech era is it so full of mistakes? Blunkett cites a football commentary which read: “The Arsenal player has been fouled by a zebra.” It was actually a garbled transcription for Patrice Evra, the Manchester United defender. My own recent favourite came when I was watching Sky News. The novelist Kathy Lette was talking about Twitter abuse and said that all that women wanted was a button, which would report abuse. “All women want is a button on twitter” flashed up on screen as “All women want is a bottom on twitter.” Not what she had in mind at all.