Personal proof from watching Margaret Thatcher’s funeral: the time of passive, captive, media-gazing has passed
In our age of pixels, one versatile midget-screen is worth more than cable television with two thousand and one channels on a hulking, high-definition display. This dawned on us as we said a silent, heartfelt thank-you to the BBC last week for the banner at the top of every frame of its ‘red button’ broadcast of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral: BBC LIVE. NO COMMENTARY.
Post-Gutenberg has not owned a working TV set for decades, by choice. But we were grateful to be lent one last Wednesday, hoping for deep absorption by London’s farewell to the steely, scrappy baroness, and the chance to imagine why people insist that Winston Churchill’s funeral was the most sublime, moving event in British public life in recent history. As she was accorded the military honours he was – in spite of a clinching argument against doing so by the right-wing political journalist Peter Oborne – we knew we would be observing similar, if not identical, rites of homage.
No sooner had we begun to watch the large screen than we felt irritable, as if we had ants crawling up our sleeves, anticipating the artificial voices of commentators bent on pre-digesting everything we saw. Because of these maddening intermediaries, the Beeb’s religion correspondent, Robert Pigott, would ordinarily have been quite right to say as he did – after the service in St. Paul’s – that no one outside the cathedral’s walls could have experienced the extraordinary ‘sense of occasion’ there. Yes, the talking heads have always had an annoying habit of proclaiming, ‘You really have to be here to know what the atmosphere is like’ – never acknowledging that this is at least in part because their chirping gets in the way. This time, Pigott was wrong. Possibly because his employer was savaged for its commentary on the last royal wedding, there were no all-knowing chirps at all.
In the great hush broken only by music and ceremonial words, occasional shouts of protestors, clumping horses, saluting guns, crunching military boots and church bells, any viewer of the BBC feed was free to get lost in personal trains of association — verses of hymns remembered from school assembly halls; watching someone close and dear on a parade ground when tiny; other memories and imagery. Just like anyone in the congregation. Bliss! … When we found the definition on our tablet screen crisper and truer to life than the one on the television display, we switched to viewing only the small screen.
This also had something to do with seeing the procession skirt the edge of our old London neighbourhood, a street ten minutes away on foot from the flat that was home – and in a flash, realising that we could take a screen shot on the tablet computer for a personal reminder of grey spring mornings in Holborn. After that, we captured images from every angle, of every scene in the funeral service that interested us – and except for the frustration of being constrained by the exclusively horizontal orientation of the feed, were delighted by the perspectives Auntie offered us from her staggering twenty-four cameras inside St. Paul’s, alone.
We loved the active watching on the small screen, so much better for noticing. We love having our own visual records to inspect at leisure, blowing up details for closer deconstruction.
Other people probably listened to the drone of interpreters in war paint and plastic styled hair, switching back and forth between their TVs and laptops; followed the textual explanations of what we were looking at, on the BBC site, even as they tweeted reactions to their friends, and updated pages on social networking sites throughout the ceremony. And why shouldn’t they have done what suited them?
We only listened to a single stream of sounds; reflected; and made a scrapbook, from which this idiosyncratic selection of images comes – each screen re-touched to remove the BBC logo. At the funeral of Britain’s first and only woman prime minister, it was chiefly women’s faces that we found most engaging.