Putting the world in chains

All the hip entertainment places these days are 'themed' for exotic impact. The effect is to destroy authentic local culture
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The Independent Online
"People", says Robert Earl, founder of the Planet Hollywood chain of restaurants, "don't eat themes." Mr Earl, as one would expect of any founder of a "chain" of restaurants, is completely wrong. People eat themes as if their lives depended on it.

At his own Planet Hollywood, hideously in residence between central London's Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus, people queue up to eat "American" hamburgers, "Mexican" fajitas and "Italian" pizzas in a setting of loud music and movie memorabilia. Here, the food is at one with the theme. This is what deracinated Californians eat because, to them, cultures are simply further opportunities for consumption, further occasions for the limitless change and choice. At the Planet you watch and hear Hollywood and then you eat and drink it.

Now, two more themed restaurants are planned nearby. Capital Radio is opening a place with a radio theme and Dream Factory is to take on Planet Hollywood with another film-themed restaurant. This a week after the announcement that Time-Warner and MAI are trying to build a movie "theme" park in Hillingdon to augment our already huge, though apparently inadequate stock.

The British are peculiarly vulnerable to this type of trash. As I have noted before, we have a national talent for embracing all that is bad in the modern world and disavowing all that is good - the National Lottery as opposed to the Channel tunnel. In the case of food, our enthusiasm for the themed probably stems from our feeling that we have little to offer of our own. One forlorn, fluorescent Union Jack unconvincingly advertises a fish and chip shop on one corner of Leicester Square. The very idea of an English restaurant has become an upmarket fad and almost entirely incomprehensible to the masses.

But in truth, we like everything to be themed - our houses to be vaguely Georgian, our villages to be dimly medieval and our pubs to be spuriously Victorian. These things are themes because they are dead and, therefore, instantly recognised and infinitely serviceable. A live tradition - say, architectural Classicism - would be the opposite of such a theme: it would require thought, an investment in knowledge, a degree of engagement with the culture. Far easier to go with a few instant stylistic cues.

And, as even plasticised categories such as "Georgian" or "medieval" become too much of a strain on the cultural resources of the young, the salesmen are obliged to seek out less demanding themes, such as cinema or rock 'n' roll. One false, enfeebled identity is replaced by another, even falser, even feebler.

In all this we may be the most abject of nations, but we are not alone. The whole world is being systematically themed. Increasingly a hamburger requires an accompanying narrative of American rock 'n' roll. And every steel and glass shopping mall requires an "Italian" restaurant with rough- hewn fibre-glass beams, Chianti bottles and mottled plastic plaster. Everything must be signed, flagged, visually and acoustically explained, as if unmediated experience is no longer enough to convince the modern self that it is alive. This is not a healthy cosmopolitanism, it is a sick stimulant for jaded palates.

The chain, the repeated unit, is what does the damage. The one-off shop or restaurant can still sustain its authenticity. But the globalised world needs repetition. Increasingly, as every local culture trades and communicates with every other, the logic of locality has become distorted. Once restaurants and shops were the way they were because they fulfilled certain indigenous needs and sprang from a specific tradition. But globalisation means that you can do, eat, build whatever you want, wherever you want.

There is no limit to our competence, yet equally, there are no rules as to how it should be applied. Nothing about the contemporary West End suggests how a restaurant should be and the mass clientele is either low- life multinational or culture-free British. So you give them what they know best - radio, television, rock, the movies; or you offer them the illusion of unlimited choice - chains of self-consciously faked-up trattorias or abysmal bistros like Cafe Rouge.

Smart people like to call this PostModernism. We have lost our innocence, we know the world too well to invest our loyalty or our selves in one style or system. Physical locality is meaningless when television, films and the Internet swamp us with knowledge of everywhere but here. The self that chooses where to eat may be psychically fragmented but it is electronically free.

Both the freedom and the choice are illusions. If all you can do is choose between themes, then you are plainly incapable of choosing between realities. Indeed, the whole phenomenon of theming has happened as a way of luring a widely but not well-travelled young audience that is suffering from a kind of permanent hallucination. Surface, for them, is all there is, and that surface is constantly changing into something else. What is America today may be China tomorrow.

Ultimately, of course, there will be no reason to go anywhere. The theme-makers, the designers, Disney's "imagineers", will bring what passes for experience of the world to your doorstep. Everywhere will become Las Vegas, a collection of lopped-off local meanings - pyramids, palaces, riverboats - dumped in a desert. To the fully globalised tourist, "London" will be a themed package like any other, a place to be judged by the quality of its branch of Planet Hollywood or the convenience of its white-knuckle rides. As for the history - well, who is to say that the Tower Bridge over the Thames is more real than the one that decorates an English-themed restaurant in New York or Tokyo?

But the themers are in the fashion business. One day even American movie restaurants will bore the punters. Something new will have to be found, but by then the range of cultural references will be desperately narrow. Will the future young know that certain Italian wines are traditionally encased in straw? The theming of the world will have stripped it of real context, there will be no reality left to plunder.

I have, I think, seen the future of theming, on American TV, of course. One Gulf state has been running a promotion for a new local festival. The theme is shopping. Not shopping for local Arab stuff, but for globalised trinkets sold in every airport. The deal is that you fly 5,000 miles to bliss out buying Rolex, Gucci and Chanel in shopping malls in the midst of the Arabian desert.

This is the ultimate theme. Insofar as globalised people do anything, they shop. If the globalised world has a theme, it is shopping. Somewhere in a gleaming white mall in the Middle East, the modern self has found its absolute, the perfect theme, free of content, culture or meaning, and very, very expensive.