Big screen

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.


12 Responses to “Big screen”

  1. B. Miller Says:

    Alex, I loved this post. I feel just the same way. Thanks for this entry. It was great!

  2. I’ve been meaning to write it every time I’ve gone through London in the last few months – so procrastination over! Actually wondering now whether I could pivot a piece of short fiction off that sensation… hmm…

  3. AlexJ Says:

    Alex, I think you could craft something interesting out of all that!

  4. Old Kitty Says:


    I used to enjoy watching these big screens at Liverpool Street station when they had the BBC on. I remember waiting for a friend who was running late but I didn;t mind because these screens were showing a clip from the BBC’s planet earth series and it was the clip where the snow leopard was chasing the mountain goat and it was amazing watching it on the screen as big as that.

    Then the BBC were ousted and in came Sky TV. BLEAGH!!!!!

    Definitely two weird kids standing behind me with inscrutable expressions as I try not to look at the latest Cheryl Cole saga a la Sky tv.


    Take care

  5. Actually what always seems to be on them when I go past is weather. Nothing too cataclysmic, nothing too inclement, just weather…

    The BBC does still do the city centre ones, though (I think it must be an Olympic thing):

  6. I agree with Alex J. There is definitely in story in this post.

  7. Aimee Says:

    aah so true. loves it.

  8. Hi Rebecca, welcome!

    Typical – I get my best idea of the entire Easter break at 10 pm on Easter Monday, and now it’s back to work tomorrow šŸ™‚

  9. But you must write it. I got chills as I read that post. I always feel like I’m in a Dr. Who episode when I travel through London, because MY London is the London of the 1970s. Everything new–that wonderfully silly ferris wheel, the pickle building–all seems to be seeping through from some other dimension.

    BTW, thanks much for your comment on libelous fictional names. I’ve posted the link in the main body of my blog.

  10. Welcome as well, Anne!

    Now I don’t know whether the kids come in at the end or the beginning. (Both ways have their advantages. At the beginning, and I stop myself writing a shaggy dog story. At the end, and I stop myself writing The Sarah Jane Adventures.) And somehow it has suddenly turned into half past midnight… šŸ™‚

  11. Karen Gowen Says:

    I would never have dreamed that I would be alive in 2010, it always seemed so far away in the 1960’s. I figured the world would be blown up by now, giant screens and all.

  12. […] 6 April 2010 One more reason why a blog is a village, as Karen Gowen has been saying: thanks to all the commenters who joined in the brainstorming on yesterday’s post. […]

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