Death has become the latest fashion

It has mysteriously become a matter of fascination and voyeuristic awe
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The Independent Online

Opportunities for the untrained amateur to star in a theatrical production on the London fringe, with major press coverage guaranteed, are relatively rare, so the zanily-named 1157 performance group may well already have had applications for the central role in their new production. The job, after all, is open to any adult, irrespective of age, sex, appearance and background.

Opportunities for the untrained amateur to star in a theatrical production on the London fringe, with major press coverage guaranteed, are relatively rare, so the zanily-named 1157 performance group may well already have had applications for the central role in their new production. The job, after all, is open to any adult, irrespective of age, sex, appearance and background.

Oh, but there was one other thing. The star will not be able to enjoy this moment of celebrity on account of the most important criterion of selection. He or she will have to be dead - freshly deceased on the play's first night in May, rather less freshly, one assumes, by the end of its 24-night run.

The artistic directors of the play Dead: You Will Be have put out a casting call to hospices and charities asking for a volunteer who is a) eager to confront social prejudice regarding matters of mortality and b) not at all well. Explaining the creative rationale for this new version of theatrical corpsing, one of them has explained, "We have become desensitised to images of death." The play would address the problem in a bold and direct way.

The argument that, to make an audience more sensitive to death, one should place a dead body on stage, is slightly odd - the equivalent of inveighing against permissiveness by putting on an orgy - but it contains a certain truth. Death, the cliché went, was the last taboo. It was a subject of such social awkwardness that any reference to it made us uneasy. Even the way we mourned and treated the bereaved had an element of furtiveness, as if overt exposure to mortality was not only bad luck but bad form, too.

Now it is all rather different. Far from being shunned as a subject not discussed in polite circles, death has mysteriously become a matter of fascination and voyeuristic awe. It is almost as if the Grim Reaper had hired a PR company to turn around what was frankly a rather negative profile. That reliable weather-vane of social fashion, Britney Spears, has for example recently flirted with necro-chic to considerable effect. Having skilfully exploited her teenage years, from nymphet to anguished virgin to vamp with dykey or SM tendencies, she has now moved from sex to death.

The promotional video for Britney's next single was, as usual, a spin on the press stories about her life. It was to show her as a young star under pressure, having a row with her boyfriend, and finally ending up in a bath, sinking sexily under the water, an empty pill bottle nearby.

It was a stunt too far. When it was pointed out that Britney's core audience of adolescent girls was particularly vulnerable to the seductiveness of self-harm, the scene was re-shot, amid yet more publicity. "Britney does not endorse suicide as a solution to any individual," her record company solemnly announced.

Although faking for promotional value is relatively new, the publicising of any suicide has been problematic for some time. A recent study has revealed that, the month after Marilyn Monroe killed herself, the suicide rate in America rose by 12 per cent, and that, after any major story of someone taking their own life, there is a rise of around 2.5 per cent.

However carefully they were presented, the recent deaths of Dr David Kelly and of the America writer Spalding Gray have confirmed the grim fact that a person's suicide tends to confer on the perpetrator/victim a posthumous gravity and perhaps even nobility.

But necro-chic is, in more subtle ways, all around us. It was distressingly evident in the coverage of the recent Madrid bombing - both in the gory footage that news teams deemed necessary for their reports and, more significantly, in the bizarre decision to send not only reporters but newscasters and presenters to the scene of the tragedy.

The only possible reason for presenting the BBC news or the Today programme from the streets of Madrid was to offer a ghoulish, dramatic immediacy to the entire programme. Perhaps next time, we shall be taken even closer to death, with Huw Edwards reading the news from the bomb site itself, or James Naughtie addressing us from a morgue.

The fact is, death is good for the ratings, whatever excuses may be offered. In anticipation of a Channel Four documentary which, on Thursday, will follow the agonising last months of a man suffering from a rare and horrific skin disease, there have been the usual straight-faced claims of journalistic seriousness. The film will raise awareness of the condition, it has been said; it will help the public to understand how devastating inherited diseases can be.

Really? It seems faintly unlikely that there are millions of people out there who need to be reminded how ghastly disease and death can be. On the other hand, trailed details of the programme suggest a more sensationalist, exploitative agenda: the opening shot of the man's body just after he has died, the running captions which, scene by scene, remind viewers how long he had to live, the programme's come-hither, freak-show title The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off.

Will viewers have been educated and morally improved by Channel Four's invitation to watch this luckless man's painful death? Or will they have simply been offered a tacky thrill, a voyeuristic brush with mortality which makes them feel more alive?

terblacker@aol.com

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