5 April 2010
The indubitable sign in BBC children’s television dramas when I was growing up that the characters had stepped into the future: a public space or station concourse looking just as you’d remember it, except for the huge flat screen broadcasting some horrifying, worldbuilding, ticker-taping news.
The fast-food kiosks would have their sharpened 1980s logos, not their postmodern rounded cheery ones. The trains would all be run by British Rail. The extras would be incongruously dressed in eighties fashions – or not so incongruously, as it turned out, except that we could hardly have expected the producers to predict that, for a few brief months in springtime 2010, every art student from a university in southern England would want to be Grace Jones.
But there would always be a screen. The time machine had spat our protagonists out just as the Queen died. It was a parallel universe where there was no Queen. Sometimes, for a change, we hadn’t won the Second World War, which meant the trains wouldn’t belong to British Rail after all and their insignia would suddenly seem ominously hooked. Or the screens would be reporting some implausible catastrophe which, to our anxious parents, symbolised nuclear war.
I think they must have come from Blade Runner. We were too young to see it, but it was in our consciousness (I remember an absorbing playground fantasy about an evil corporation called Tyrell), so it must have been in the adult set designers’ all the more.
Then the screens came from somewhere. At first they only occupied the largest public squares for football tournaments or the most popular Proms, anywhere where the audience wouldn’t be complete without people in Union Jack hats waving flags. The screens said Come on England! Come on Tim!
And then they stayed. Every London rail terminal ended up with one, and even certain terminals’ shopping centres. I have to walk under one every time I use Waterloo, Euston or Victoria. The conglomerate that sponsors them is tentacular, Tyrellian enough in itself, and the headlines are as dreadful in their implications (or their banality) as they ought to be if I’d just stepped out of my eighties-issue time machine. I simply fail to notice because I see them every day.
I’m living in the future, which makes one childhood ambition it was ridiculously easy to fulfil. But, when I walk up through the ticket gates, I’m still frightened of what I’m going to see on the big screen. I’m still frightened of the day I’ll crane my neck along with everybody else and look up to the screen to see the Queen has died, or the ice-caps this, or the volcano that. Behind me will be two small self-assured children holding hands, the girl’s hair strangely wavy, the boy’s hair strangely long, the pair both dressed in non-ironic sportswear or their duffel coats.