Sir John Betjeman (Photo by Graham Wood/Evening Standard/Getty Images)


Against the flattened world of modern popular culture

Artillery Row

It is surprising to learn that J.R.R. Tolkien drew maps of the imaginary landscape of Middle Earth before he developed the plots in his books. We expect him to work the other way round, with the maps being drawn after the stories, in the same way a real landscape always precedes attempts to map it out and chart its contours and features.

I’ve recently begun noticing the frequency with which contemporary TV dramas are set in imaginary places, particularly on Netflix. These places are hardly Middle Earth, but strangely depleted amalgams of typical features of everyday places — a host of “Anywheresvilles” or “Everywherelands”, like the imaginary town and suburb of Ridgewood and Livingstone in Stay Close, or the town of Tambury in Ricky Gervais’ Afterlife. Dramas purportedly in London are often filmed elsewhere, taking images of one-place that can be seamlessly transposed into another, like Witness Number Three (Ireland) and Deadline (Budapest).

You can’t map somewhere where anywhere is everywhere

If someone drew a map of the imaginary Netflix landscape, what sort of world would it portray? Obvious deviations from reality include the incredibly high frequency of murders and kidnappings. The significant players are almost entirely in their 20s or 30s. Each place would have at least one highly skilled and well-educated top-ranking professional female from an ethnic minority, with a host of unpleasant proletarian white males. It would be a strange world where you’re often one step ahead of the developing narrative, knowing what’s likely to happen next and why, silently deducing how things will unfold at the hands of predictable screenwriters.

Such impressions combine to give a saturatedly beige tenor to everything — the sense of an unreal, placeless place. You can’t map somewhere where anywhere is everywhere and everywhere is anywhere. Maps provide orientation, but here there’s no possibility of genuine disorientation. There’s no getting lost, no exploring of new and different territories that suddenly show things in a new light; no surprising panoramas, no awe or genuine fear. This is a pasteurised world, without any rugged territory or uneven ground.

TV is by definition a flattening of three dimensions into two. Yet one needn’t strain too hard to consider how classic British TV was often closely linked to real places, in all their untidy dimensions. The Guardian’s Top 50 British dramas of all time includes things like Cracker (Manchester) and Inspector Morse (Oxford). Then there are the soaps, which once portrayed local peculiarities, albeit in a superficial fashion. Portraying real places means taking into account real people. People always awkwardly resist an overly curated framework, because real people have many dimensions.

In the genre of classic British TV, John Betjeman’s 1973 documentary Metroland occupies a special place. Watching it now, it is striking how closely tethered it is to very real places, and notoriously boring places at that. Betjeman works his way up the Metropolitan Line from Baker Street to Amersham, telling stories about those unremarkable suburbs along the way. These suburbs were branded as Metroland in the 1920s, a name meant to signify a newly futuristic Anywheresville.

Betjeman’s observations about places like Neasden, Pinner and Ruislip completely disrupt that common narrative. He reveals a host of weird particularities and eccentricities, like a religious minister who believed he was the Christ whilst living in St John’s Wood, or the inept attempt to build a rival to the Eiffel Tower (“Watkin’s Folly”) in Wembley in 1894.

Comparing Metroland’s stories to that world of Netflix dramas gives a marked impression of depth: a multitude of reality’s dimensions that completely disappear in places like “Livingstone” or “Tambury”. Primarily, there is of course history. The past doesn’t seem to have existed in many contemporary TV dramas, except perhaps for occasional conceited eye-rolls about the tiresome way things used to be. Real places are always saturated by a history that lives on in some way.

Betjeman sits in the Chiltern Court Restaurant at Baker Street, imagining when wives waited after shopping in Liberty’s or Whiteley’s to meet their husbands travelling back from the City. The sound of chinking cutlery and soft big-band music eerily sounds amongst tables that were deserted by the 1970s.

There is an uncanny sense that a preconceived narrative is unfolding

Some of us know this venue is now a Wetherspoons, but this doesn’t detract anything from the scene. This is because Metroland is also saturated with a sense of the future’s strangeness. All along the way to Amersham, bold hopes for a better future are portrayed — sometimes absurdly (like Watkin’s Folly); sometimes more complexly, like the discussion of the British Empire Exhibition on St George’s Day 1924. This portrays a scene of unreflective national self-confidence that was unthinkable five decades later. There are also the hopes of the original suburban dream — of petit bourgeois city-workers having their own little country manors, tending to their privet hedges and rose bushes in the shadow of their mock-tudor gables.

Even here Betjeman doesn’t lapse into smugness about suburbia. He shows how the architecture of these semi-detached houses did indeed derive from the original mansions around which they were built. He does this whilst employing a dimension of deep familiarity that is incredibly difficult to achieve on screen: affectionate teasing. There are few more intimate interactions than the affectionate tease — the softly shared delight in another’s foibles and weaknesses, in their silly untidiness of character, things that are as unfathomable to them as they are to you. Affectionate teasing is where the inextricable combination of esteem and frustration with another person meet — where the inscrutable whole of someone’s character is acknowledged seamlessly in one moment.

Returning to Netflix after watching Metroland is jarring. It is even more jarring to find oneself living in a society where it feels like dimensions of reality are disappearing. The denial of the past is often commented on, as is the strange feeling that everywhere increasingly looks the same. As put by Patrick Deneen, liberal modernity leaves us living in a “flattened world”. Now there are overly curated interactions with people for whom difference of opinion is forbidden, and teasing is outright aggression. Now that the powers-that-be have lost a presumption of integrity, there is an uncanny sense that a preconceived narrative is unfolding. People guess what is about to happen on the political stage so the narrative might remain in the tight control of hidden forces.

You come away wondering if reality isn’t more like Tolkien’s approach to Middle Earth after all. Maybe that map of Netflixland is already drawn — and our parts are playing out in placeless places, with features already set in one-dimensional stone.

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