Alexei Sayle: Britain's gone to the dogs since Jake went out for a bagel

'I wonder if the country is like cable TV: no one's in charge and the machines are running unattended'
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The Independent Online

At the moment, I am in the middle of filming one of my short stories for the BBC, and I must say it's nice to be working among a group of people again. For the last three years I have spent a large part of my working week alone, because I have primarily been working as a writer, and the only company I have had in my office has been my collection of artistic, limited-edition pottery figurines, and they are not much company at all (though the naughty china clown does occasionally whisper suggestions to me about setting fire to orphanages, but nine times out of 10 I ignore him.)

When I say that this film is being made for the BBC, I am being a bit grandiose; what I mean is that it is in fact being produced for a channel you may not have heard of, called BBC Choice, which I think will be re- named BBC 3 in the autumn, even though it will still only be available on digital, satellite and cable services. This is the world we live in now, a world of proliferating channels aimed at tiny audiences. It is a disturbing vision, though not for the reasons you might suppose.

I have cable myself, and one of the things you come to notice as you surf round the multifarious channels is how often they break down, and how long they go on being broke down before anybody notices and comes to fix them. The music station The Box, for example, is often stuck for hours on one image. Only last night The Performance Channel was frozen on a picture of Sylvester Stallone in mid-blink, making him look even more dumb and lopsided than usual. I would watch some other programme for a bit, flip back and there he'd still be, immobile, slack-mouthed, sleepy-eyed on The Non Performance Channel. As I write this, I notice that MTV, which I have on, has gone to black for perhaps 30 seconds.

In the old days of only, two, three or four terrestrial channels, my memory is that TV channels very rarely froze or went off the air, and if they did you got the feeling that technicians in unfashionable knitwear were frantically scrabbling to restore the signal, and when it came back there would also, instantly, be an explanation of the reason for the break, and a grovelling apology. Sometimes this would be followed by the on-screen suicide of the technician responsible.

There is none of that now in the fragmented world of cable TV. At some point the jammed picture grinds back into action and the transmission goes on with no explanation or apology.

I deduce two things from this: firstly, that nobody much is watching. In the old terrestrial days, the broken-down TV channel would be flooded with phone calls from viewers in seconds, telling them that there was a crash, but those calls would be generally superfluous because the interruption would have already been spotted by personnel whose job was to monitor transmission every second of the day.

These days, you get the feeling that a lot of the satellite and cable channels are relayed to your screen from a bank of slightly not state-of-the-art Sony tape machines stacked up in a dusty room somewhere in the tangle of streets north of Oxford Street.

When one of them breaks down, maybe a light flashes somewhere in another room and a boy called Jake, who wears baggy trousers with pockets in the leg and bright orange trainers, is supposed to do something about it, but he's out at a sandwich bar buying a tandoori chicken burrito and a large cappuccino, then on the way back from the sandwich bar he gets a call on his mobo from his mate Simeon who wants to tell him about a new kind of Brazilian bikini wax he's heard of, where they let you watch, so that when Jake gets back to the dusty room it's been half an hour. He sees the light flashing, languidly he presses the reset button, Sly Stallone jerks out of his coma, TV life resumes and nobody much notices or cares.

See, here's what I wonder: I wonder if our country is like the cable TV stations, that really there is nobody in charge, that the machines run on their own, unattended.

We're all voting on Thursday because we're pretending to ourselves that those people we are voting for control things, but the truth is that our lives are governed by forces well outside the control of puny little men in Westminster.

If there ever was a Jake, he's gone out for a bagel, been knocked over by a bike messenger and he's not coming back; the machines are running unattended and it's chaos out there.