Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Intruding on the unsophisticates

Old sitcoms from the 1970s have such a gentle demeanour. When I was seven or eight, I used to love 'On The Buses' - so much so that when I grew up I wanted to be either a policeman, an astronaut or a bus conductor - like Jack. I would squirrel away all the used paper tickets I could find on the floor of the green and cream Devon General buses that took me to school. Once, a kindly clippy gave me a whole reel of the things and I vividly remember running around the square playground of Newtown School, stopping every few yards to tear off a ticket for an imaginary passenger. Only when the imaginary bell rang twice in my head would I go running off again, towards the next pretend stop. Like every kid, I had a great imagination.

Fast forward to 2009, and digital TV repeats mean the adventures of Stan, Jack, Arthur, Olive, Blakey and Mum are viewable pretty much on demand. It's a non-stop rerun through a happy childhood! What a happy man I should be!

But something has tarnished this comedy gold. The knockabout fun seems a little silly today. The pranks seem unsophisticated and obvious, the dialogue stifled and amateurish. How can this be? Is it possible to grow out of 'On The Buses'?

Thinking hard about it, this sitcom - successful as it was - was surely not intended to last well into the 21st century. There was a gentle demeanour to its format and style that just doesn't sit well in this advanced year. We are living in the future and modern life, as we were taught before Blur, is rubbish. 'On The Buses', in outliving its actors Doris Hare, Bob Grant and Reg Varney, has aged very badly. It was intended as a gentle antidote to the misery of the Three Day Week, the power cuts, the strikes, union rumpus, and piles of uncollected rubbish on the streets - and without the context of outside turbulence, it's been reduced to a curious artefact.

And why not? Most popular culture is not intended to have any great future. There's a reason why records are made out of plastic and housed in paper jackets.

But this modern age has put paid to all that. Transient trends are no longer allowed to slip away, gracefully. 'On The Buses' will not be allowed to rest in peace and nor will anything from the past. YouTube, digital downloads and other archive systems mean these disposable heroes of history can be recalled, on demand, for us to love or deride as we see fit.

I feel a little guilty watching 'On The Buses'. I feel like an intruder. I cannot laugh along with the studio audience track, because those laughs were for the seven year old boy I used to know, not the 45-year-old man that flicks through FreeView channels. It's like rifling through someone's drawers and reading their private correspondence. I love nostalgia as much as the next man - but at heart I know this 21st century adult should not be qualified to engage in such cultural voyeurism.

The late, great poet and singer Rob Tyner once wrote: "People of tomorrow! From the deep past we salute you!" I often think we should accept these salutations, gratefully, then move on.

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