Television is a thoroughly artifical medium by its very nature, says Peter Fincham. So why worry about a bit of fake crowd noise?
About ten years ago, there was a flurry of concern about what became known as ‘fakery in television’. Television producers – never quite as trusted as say, heart surgeons – were suddenly suspected of using underhand methods to deliver the results they wanted. Some of the concern was reasonable. For example, were the votes of Pop Idol-style entertainment programmes properly counted or did the producers just wave through the contestants they favoured? Since viewers paid good money on premium phone lines to register their votes, it was hardly surprising that they didn’t expect them to be metaphorically dumped in a bin.
Some of the fuss, though, was frankly a bit silly. Suppose Planet Earth spliced together a narrative about a giraffe being attacked by a pack of hyenas, would it matter if they used footage featuring different giraffes, culled from different attacks? Some thought it would, some thought it wouldn’t. Some thought that it would be OK as long as you somehow admitted the deceit, though of course this risked destroying the magic of the illusion created by editing. Whereas some had a more puritanical belief in honesty and authenticity, even it meant the giraffe disappearing round a corner at the key moment and viewers left unsure whether the hyenas got their lunch.
Around this time, viewers developed a taste for the ten-minute ‘behind the scenes’ compilations that are now routine at the end of natural history programmes. This went some way to satisfying our interest not just in the ‘what’ but also in the ‘how’. It made heroes out of camera operators who spent weeks hunkered down in the frozen wastes in the hope of catching a glimpse of a polar bear floating on a ice floe, but didn’t in itself prevent creativity in the edit suite. One of the most common words when editing is ‘cheat’, as in ‘we haven’t got a shot of the baby penguin being reunited with its mother after the long Arctic winter, but don’t worry, this baby penguin looks pretty similar – let’s cheat it.’ Moist-eyed viewers hopefully won’t notice the difference.
The TV fakery thing came and went, as things do, and in recent years we haven’t given it much thought. This is ironic, because in the past few weeks we’ve embraced a new form of artifice with an enthusiasm that would have caused the cheerleaders of the ‘keep it real’ movement to shudder. I’m referring to the entirely unnecessary dubbing of fictitious crowd noise onto football matches. For some reason, this doesn’t seem to bother us in the least. Faced with a choice between a match played in an empty, echoey stadium with only the sound of the manager chewing gum to create atmosphere, and the blatant absurdity of looking at one thing – rows and rows of empty seats – and hearing its exact opposite, we’ve chosen the latter.
And not just in football – it’s spread to that traditionalists’ game, cricket. England have started playing test matches against West Indies in – you guessed it – empty, echoey stadiums and the producers have chosen to dub the ambient sound of a cricket crowd over the top. The difference is less extreme here since pre-Covid cricket matches often played in empty, echoey stadiums because, sadly, not many people had bothered to turn up.
Where will it all end? This summer the big festivals have all been cancelled, leaving a gap in people’s lives and, for the BBC, a gap in their schedules. But why not get the bands to play on empty stages and simply cut away to audience shots from previous Glastonbury festivals? One audience looks pretty much like another and one rock star asking the question ‘are you feelin’ alright?!’ will elicit the same response as the next. I was watching the Glastonbury 2000 performance by David Bowie the other day and thinking, if it wasn’t for the fact I know he’s dead and that he’s got a particularly bad haircut, it wouldn’t have taken much to convince me that this was a live performance.
Many years ago, when I was working at the BBC and got a lot of free tickets to events, I was enjoying an afternoon at Wimbledon when I had what I thought was a bright idea. A few years earlier, the much-revered commentator Dan Maskell had died, depriving Wimbledon of a voice that was as synonymous with tennis as Peter Allis’ was with golf, or indeed David Attenborough’s with polar bears. My idea – in my defence, m’lud, I had been in the BBC hospitality tent and had probably enjoyed a glass of Pimms at the licence payers’ expense – was that you could go back into the archives and offer viewers a red button service in which Dan Maskell was still commentating on live tennis. Almost any situation would surely be matched by a line he had once delivered in his fruity and reassuring voice – ‘and with that cross court drop volley the plucky Norwegian now has two match points’ – or ‘that second consecutive double fault suggests the pressure is getting to the defending champion’ – or simply, ‘I say!’.
This would have of course been fake, but would it have mattered if it had transported viewers back to an earlier and more innocent era of tennis? Maskell’s voice was as comfortingly English as strawberries and cream – we don’t mind watching period drama, so what’s wrong with period commentary?
Besides, you might well ask, what does fake mean any more? Since Donald Trump invented the concept of fake news, i.e. news that is inconvenient but true, the word has slipped its moorings and sailed off into the fog. My children shout ‘fake news!’ at each other when exchanging gossip about their friends. Actors, whose job consists of pretending to be other people, are increasingly uncomfortable when called upon to assume the accents or cultural identities of people other than themselves. It’s as if we’re keen to chase artifice out of our lives, like ghostbusters ridding a haunted mansion of poltergeists.
All very admirable, I’m sure, but television is fake through and through. Since the days of the cathode ray it’s only been possible to beam pictures into people’s living rooms through endless layers of pretence. Eastenders is wholly fictitious, and if there were a real-life Albert Square the one thing you can be absolutely sure of is that it wouldn’t be filled with characters who remotely resemble the families of the BBC’s popular soap opera.
Personally, I’m glad to see the arrival of artificial crowd noise. Those of us who are only mildly interested in football and normally watch it on telly are essentially making a decision not to enjoy the full live experience anyway. This simply takes the process one step further. As far I’m concerned, they could knock down all those gleaming new stadiums they’ve built in recent years, play the games on local recreation grounds and create the rest in CGI. It would still be just as real as, say, the latest Marvel movie.
And maybe my idea for the red button Dan Maskell commentary will have its time. I’ve got a personal connection to old treacle-voice – he taught my mother tennis. She later became a good county standard player, winning the Norfolk ladies’ singles in 1939 a few days before World War II broke out. At the time, would you believe it, Dan was an oh-cor-blimey cockney from Fulham. Not posh at all! His fruity tones were the result of that forgotten discipline, elocution lessons, much like England football manager Sir Alf Ramsey or the Beatles’ producer George Martin. Back in the 1950s, if you weren’t happy with your ever-so-‘umble accent, you had your vowel sounds painstakingly replaced, Pygmalion-like, with the rounded tones of received pronunciation.
So it turns out that England’s most successful football manager and greatest ever record producer were both, on one level, irredeemably inauthentic. Imagine if, in 1966, they’d been rumbled by the anti-fake brigade – we might have been deprived of England’s only triumph at the World Cup, and Revolver.
We live in a world both fake and real. And the world is adjusting, as we’re constantly being told, to the ‘new normal’. Along the way, a few deceptions shouldn’t bother us. As we emerge from lockdown and are reunited with our families and friends, we’re a bit like the baby penguin being rediscovered by his mother after months of separation. Let’s not spoil the moment by worrying too much whether we’ve actually found the right relatives.
Peter Fincham was MD at Talkback until 2005. He then became Controller of BBC One and from 2008 to 2016 was Director of Television at ITV. In 2017 he co-founded independent production company Expectation.