During lockdown we understandably turned to our devices for relief from the increasingly worrying news of more deaths, wider infections and curtailed movement. This escape was on a massive scale, akin to Kurt Russell’s epic battle to leave a post-apocalyptic 1997 New York in the 1981 film, ‘Escape for New York. (“Hey!, 1997, meet 2020!”)
Netflix added in 10 million subscriptions between April and June of 2020, exceeding its own forecasts and those of Wall Street. In the UK over 10 million people watched the National Theatre stream hits from its repertoire, including Antony & Cleopatra with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo. The Metropolitan Opera’s free ‘At Home Gala’ was watched by three-quarters of a million people.
Less prosaically, in an attempt to escape the boredom of furlough or the stress of working long days from home, many looked to television reruns. At the start of lockdown, old episodes of ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ proved popular, its pappy diet of rural life providing an ideal treat for gummy, elderly viewers. I like to think that any popularity of the show among younger viewers may have been because it spoke to deep fears that the booze would indeed run out.
Later in the summer, the BBC’s long-running ‘Gardeners’ World’ attracted its largest audiences in over a decade, no doubt driven by the good weather and all that spare time at home staring at neglected flower beds. Although seasoned host Monty Don’s earthy insistence that viewers seed their winter vegetables as usual provided some reassurance that the world might not end after all.
So reassuring is Monty’s television presence that, if he was the face of the Government’s test and trace programme, I would drive to Inverness for a test with a smile on my face, in teary-eyed raptures as my increasingly worried eldest child fulfilled my commands to read a well-known Government Advisor’s 20,000-word blogs about creative destruction to keep my fever at bay, and eyes on the road.
All in the best possible taste
Escapism is a tricky business though, and whether it is athletic, chemical, sexual or televisual, the temporary relief it provides often comes at a high price. In seeking to escape a world that increasingly mirrored the well-trodden A to B plotline of a made-for-TV show about apocalyptic ruin, we may have left our critical faculties behind: what else can explain the success of ‘Tiger King’ on Netflix?
Given the show first aired when a loss of taste and smell had emerged as a symptom of COVID-19, the way ‘Tiger King’ successfully evoked the high stench of a neglected beast’s cage may have served as a de facto COVID test at a time when actual tests were few and far between. Which may mean that most of the 34 million US viewers that watched the TV show in its first ten days were showing symptoms and probably infected.
I, too, worried that I had left any critical reasoning at the door during lockdown when, in a five-day-old shorts and T-shirt combo, and having found arthouse film app Mubi too taxing for early evening viewing, I sat down to watch ‘Four in a Bed.’ A UK daytime TV favourite, the show follows four bed and breakfast owners as they visit and grade each other’s premises. Each week they visit one place a day, regrouping in the fifth and final show to air grievances, find out who paid the most, and learn which among them has won.
Each venue is marked on the friendliness of the welcome, the cleanliness of the room, and the quality of the night’s sleep. Oh, and the standard of breakfast. Breakfast is very important. I never tire of watching grown men boast about the quality of their sausages as if anyone actually cares. At the end of each week all the men learn that, as in real life, it’s all about the eggs.
Four in a Bed may sound terrible but it is, in fact, really rather good. And, before the inevitable, but I hope successful, attempt to explain my like — no love — for this show in terms of its appeal during a time of curtailed freedom and great uncertainty, a detour into the show would be useful. So, having watched a few episodes on catch-up now, read my guide to winning at Four in a Bed. B&B owners among you (hello?…) should take particular note. Those who are simply here for the clunky cultural theory should just read on.
Windows on the world
At the height of lockdown, ‘Four in a Bed’ talked of another age, when a road trip up the M1 wasn’t the equivalent of The Odyssey, and the very concept of jumping in a car and heading up North was not unimaginable or prohibited. (For most.)
I used to ‘put’ 20,000 miles on my car each year before lockdown. Now mobile again, I’m not sure I have left third gear in months. In anticipation of the next extended lockdown, I imagine Germany’s finest engineers are already hard at work developing anti-spider infestation packs as optional extras, while window frames will no doubt be made moss-proof at additional cost. All to prepare their cars for a life now spent parked up on a drive, not blasting along autoroutes.
No, a view into another person’s world — any world — has particular resonance when you’re locked down in your own home. And while all those self-help, moral-improvement streams we watched at the start of lockdown soon went the same way as home-baked bread, that's no bad thing, in my opinion.
If escape means a crappy daytime TV show, then so be it. For me, ‘Four in a Bed’ captured a world outside as perfectly as Michael Palin’s many global expeditions (which I also watched). Or Eric Newby’s thrilling tales of adventure, which I used to read in a bedsit at University, in a similar attempt to escape my surroundings. Freedom isn't necessarily a hot air balloon trip across the savannah. It can also be a disappointing stopover at a B&B in Daventry.
Bend like the reed
I will leave the final words to Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, who seems to be onto something. Imagine if the lockdown we have endured had been caused by a computer virus, not COVID-19, and that we had been left without the internet while everything else was open, but disconnected? How free would that have felt?
“Covid could have been an internet virus taking down all the routers of the world and our business would be out, and restaurants would be in,” Hastings said. “And instead, tragically, it is a biological one, so everybody is locked up and we had the greatest growth in the first half of this year that we ever had.”
Now, who’s got the remote?