The Ubiquity Of Popular Culture

When movies and TV shows are everywhere all the time, they lose the sense of scarcity and importance that originally made them so special.

I stumbled upon The Italian Job (the original 1969 version, naturally – accept no pointless imitations) on TV the other night – midway through, as is often the case with things you accidentally find on TV. Of course, I watched it. If nothing else, this is film as comfort food, a familiar but always entertaining narrative that you can easily dip in and out of because that familiarity allows you to fill in the gaps with your memory of the film. It’s an ideal distraction – never too distracting but good to zone out with when you don’t have the time or inclination for something that requires more concentration.

But… I found myself telling Mrs. R. about how this film appearing on TV used to be a real event back in the 1970s and 1980s. A peak-time, BBC1 big deal that felt like an unmissable moment, the sort that would be discussed in the schoolyard all the next day. If you missed it, you’d really missed it because it might be years before you had another chance to catch the movie. And while The Italian Job was not that old and the very stuff of cult cinema back then, it wasn’t just this film. You could say the same about much older movies. I remember how breathlessly exciting it was to see King Kong in the TV schedules and how people would plan their evening around the rare broadcast of a classic (or even not-so-classic) movie back in the days of three or four TV channels and no home video. Similarly, the re-release of a movie to cinemas – be it one of the regular Disney re-releases that ensured that each generation got to see those movies made decades before they were born or the reissues of Bond films, Jaws, Star Wars and the like, often on double bills of the original film and its sequel – was something that would pull in huge crowds because who knew when you might see these films again. The Bond films feel especially relevant as, like The Italian Job, a Bond film appearing on TV was a Very Big Deal, maybe the first time in years that anyone had been able to see that movie. These shared experiences meant something and were, in their own way, national events.

Those days are over. In a world of multi-channel TV and streaming services, online video (of varying levels of legality) and physical media, it feels as though nothing is very special. The Bond films and The Italian Job are on TV all the time – I know this because the previous time I saw The Italian Job on TV was a month or so ago and I’ve seen bits of From Russia with Love at least three times this year. And that’s not counting their availability from on-demand services and on disc. With TV channels that simply run entire TV series as a loop, starting again from the start once they have reached the final episode, there is no longer the need to wait for anything. Yes, a few movies still wallow in distribution obscurity but for the most part, major films and TV series are all there to watch whenever you want. Even if you don’t want to pay for the privilege, they’ll probably turn up on free TV with alarming frequency.

While this is, in many ways, a great democratising of entertainment, making everything (well, everything mainstream and populist) available to everyone all the time, it does make it all now feel very ordinary. There is no thrill in seeing a Bond film on TV anymore – even if you miss a rare one-off broadcast, there is always a catch-up service for you. There is nothing, aside from major live broadcasts (and maybe not even those events) that absolutely have to be experienced in the moment or during a short window of time. I can’t help but feel that it is this ubiquity that has made our TV broadcasters lazy and generic, at once increasingly desperate to snag the bulk of an ever-diminishing audience and unimaginative, content to pump out mindless pap that means nothing to anyone. Perhaps TV as we knew it was always doomed once alternatives became available – but even so, do you really think that there are shows that get the national tongue wagging in the way they used to? While those with a vested interest would still have you believe that everyone is discussing the events of Strictly Come Dancing over the water cooler, the truth is that these ‘hit’ shows have viewing figures so pitiful that not only would they have been given the immediate chop less than 20 years ago but are also being watched by such a small percentage of the population that there is only a slight chance that your work colleagues have even watched the same thing as you. Even the biggest film releases fail to have the same sort of lasting, continuing impact that the big movies of the 1970s and 1980s had – everything just comes and goes in the blink of an eye.

There is a vast entertainment media that depends on pretending that Event TV and Event Cinema is still a thing, make-believing that we are all still excited about the same things at the same time. But that’s increasingly a myth. We are all our own programmers now and for the most part, that’s a good thing – no one wants a return to the days when our entertainment choices were in the hands of a small group of cultural gatekeepers. But it also means that lazy TV broadcasters will run certain films and TV shows into the ground with constant repetition, robbing them of any value and turning them into visual muzak that renders them unimportant even for those of us that love them. With every gain, there is a loss, and I can’t help but feel that with the abundance of everything, it all ultimately becomes unimportant and disposable.


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  1. Don’t worry – you’re wrong. While it is true that at present culture resembles a huge, churning landfill, the ‘magical’ qualities of a particular film or TV show remain in the eye of the beholder, a relative concept. I simply avoid a showing of a film if I fear I’ve seen it too much lately. However, I chanced upon From Russia With Love this weekend, halfway through – I hadn’t planned on watching it but was immediately drawn in. My appreciation of this film has only grown over the years, and I can’t imagine I’ll go off it for however long I continue to endure.

    You’re correct concerning the sense of occasion TV showings had in days of yore. But this sensation has dimmed, and not completely vanished. Obscurities still show up for those who trawl their TV Choice listings. And I made a point of watching The Color Of Mney every time tlaking Pictures TV showed it. I liked the film already, but multiple viewings made me love it. It’s now dropped out of their schedules so i assume they only licensed it for ‘X’ amount of showings.

    Everything is finite, or seems to be, so you never know if the film ‘Now Showing’ will be the last!!! But these bums who run TV channels are of course cruds who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, so it’s no surprise to see Clockwork Orange factory-farmed, while they don’t have the courage or imagination to even stick on a Walerian Borowczyk film or for heavens sake Bride Of Frankenstein on at 2.00 am. Not obscure films – but TV showings are non-existant.

    If our business is ‘Show’, it must be part of our raison d’etre to transform the mundane, everyday and overworked into the strange, novel and beguiling. look again and see anew! If the Majickal Wars the Guardian insists are raging is more than a product of a few self-promoting careerists fevered imaginings, then we could speculate that the rotten magicians of MediaKorp want to systematically strip cultural totems of their power by factory farming them. The ‘Photocopier Ritual’ – xeroxing a nemesis’ image from an umage from an image ad infintum until they fade to nothing. Granted, digital fudges that, since there is no degradation … Or is there? Maybe the ritual places too much primacy in the notion of an ‘authentic original’ … Only Piers Morgan will be left! That cockroach

  2. The days of TV being a genuinely communal viewing experience finished long ago; last weekend’s Coronation doesn’t especially count as this was a constitutional event that happened to be televised by the major channels, with around 20million watching according to various sources, but spread over what was certainly more than the five main terrestrial stations, and most probably didn’t watch the whole service the entire way through.

    Perhaps the last real communal occasion of a nationally televised programme, or rather series in this case, were the Only Fools and Horses Xmas trilogy in 1996, when Del and Rodney finally became millionaires, with if memory serves rightly, viewing figures between 20-30 million, which would have been the perfect way to end the series as a whole, but the BBC, concerned at declining viewing figures in the Christmases afterwards, asked John Sullivan to write a few more Xmas specials again, which actually weren’t too bad, but it seemed an unnecessary and superfluous coda from a few years before that had ended so perfectly anyway.

    The equivalent decades before this was obviously The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Shows in the 70’s, ending in the 1977 show which had viewers of 21, 26 or 28m watching whichever source you believe, with me being one of those watching at the time, but the top ten Xmas viewing figures from last year make for very stark reading indeed; the new monarch’s Xmas message inevitably topped at 10.72 m, but these again were spread over many channels, with Strictly Come Dancing coming in second with a rather paltry 5.44m. At 8 and 9 came the country’s best known soaps, EastEnders and Coronation Street at 3.17 and 2.85m (combined together little more than Strictly), with Ant and Dec’s Limitless Win bring up the rear at 2.69m.

    The top ten figures combined were actually a slight improvement on the previous year, but this was certainly due to the previous monarch’s passing and her son taking over the Xmas message duties more than anything else. Being excited at watching premieres of Bond Movies, Jaws, and Star Wars on the box, and 20-30m watching Del, Rodney, Eric and Ernie after a family Xmas meal are now merely pleasant, and also historically important, long gone memories.

  3. There are plenty of films that I wish they would show. Bonnie & Clyde (the 1967 version naturally), Barbarella, the Ma & Pa Kettle series, Mae West and many others. I get quite frustrated when Sky Arts show clips from many films that I would like to see, in their anthology series, such as Discovering Film or The Directors. Thankfully TPTV have shown quite a lot of Laurel and Hardy shorts. I keep hoping (in vain I fear) for Ben Turpin, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton shorts.

  4. There was a time though when ‘less was more’ you could be exposed to film noir, Cary grant films, and I think as Kim Newman pointed out even diania duerbin films not necessary a horror/sci fi persons bag but it gave a film education finally getting to see OHMSS and seeing how Good it was was indeed a major event. Now the tyranny of multichoice oh look that remake of last house on the left on amazon prime ..nah leave it.. Oh that film inserts on talking pictures TV not seen it should I set the timer…did get a bit sick of The Heros of telemark always being on…

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