Our interest in one of the biggest sectors of the last decade, post-apocalyptic fiction, will dry up now because “we’re living it”, says Lesley Thorne, the film/TV rights director at Aitken Alexander literary agents. When Paramount announced last week that it was making a Michael Bay thriller about a virus that won’t stop mutating, the public reaction was a collective whimper of anxiety. My favourite tweet just reads: “Barf. Go away”.
Captive and traumatised, we’re asking for something sweeter from the arts. Something more predictable. Speaking to me anonymously, one TV agent told me that the unwritten rule for what gets cut versus what gets commissioned in corona times is: “Nothing too depressing; anything with Judi Dench.”
When I watch TV these days I treat myself like a very precious and delicate egg. What I want to feel is blank, but it’s difficult. Anything romantic now makes me piercingly lonely. When I watch Bake Off, I’ve started thinking about how nice it would feel to be the dough. The key is to choose programmes that prevent you from thinking, ever, about the future. One friend explains her obsession with MasterChef – which has been pulling lockdown audiences of nearly 8 million – in terms of trying to stop time: “It’s all set in the studio with no daylight so you have no idea what time it is. The idea of time moving forward is terrifying to me now. The way the cook-off format just repeats and repeats makes me feel happy and numb.”
What will likely happen is that, as commissioners scramble to provide comfort-viewing on dwindling ad revenue, more adventurous work simply won’t get made. John Ridley, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 12 Years A Slave, has had his latest film dropped in the wake of coronavirus. In an interview with the LA Times, Ridley explained that the objection to the project was that it was a story about race that was morally ambiguous, with no clear hero and victim: “There is no bad guy … But if we can’t tell this story, I don’t know how you get into something that is more complicated, showing people of colour suffering in a different way.” If the point of art is to make people feel things – difficult, contradictory things – what happens to that art when people just want to feel nothing? “People want happiness and escapism – of course they do,” said Ridley. “But … it breaks my heart that most people won’t have the wherewithal to go after something more complicated.”
Moral uncertainty is difficult to stomach now. One commissioner at a major broadcaster tells me that since the crisis, the priority has been “small-scale stories, nice people, comfort and warmth”. Antiques Roadshow and Countryfile ratings are up 20% in lockdown, according to Enders Analysis. Channel 4 is launching a DIY series called Dick & Angel’s Make, Do & Mend. The picture of Britain you get from these shows is nostalgic: greenfingered, kind-hearted, thrifty. With the UK set to enter its biggest recession for 300 years and we record the highest per capita death rate of any country in which high-quality data exists, we want to escape into onscreen worlds that are clear, ordered – and anodyne.
Costume drama, too, can be a coping mechanism. I rewatched Pride and Prejudice, which the BBC will repeat later this year, because every face, every field, in it was familiar to me. I felt things, but only cosy echoes of things I had felt before. The British screenwriter Sophie Petzal tells me of her worries about the lure of familiarity: “The concern is that the industry will revert to: who are the big names? Who can we get on Zoom? Who’s the big director who owes me a favour? Because of our historic lack of diversity amongst legacy names – that means men and that means white people.”
Other writers are feeling more hopeful. The BBC issued a statement redoubling its commitment to diversity last week, and Jerome Bucchan-Nelson, a screenwriter who worked on Bulletproof, tells me his latest project is in development with the broadcaster. “I’m a young black man who doesn’t write about gangs. I write about witches and aliens. That confuses commissioners at the best of times. For a pandemic to hit and everything to shut down and for the BBC to still be committed to my sci-fi, quite trippy idea – I was really encouraged by that.”
Bucchan-Nelson says he spent the first weeks of lockdown trying not to feel much of anything at all. “I watched Avatar: the Last Airbender and that’s all I watched because I needed relief.” But his viewing habits are starting to edge back to normal. “When this is over we will still need stories that move us. We’ll need them more. Watching the news every day and knowing that people of colour suffer more than anyone: when I have political statements to make in my writing I want them to be stronger.”
Empathy – the dislocating, painful glimpse TV and film can give you into another person’s life – is more daunting when your own life is alien to you. The work that comes out of this time may be difficult to watch. But it may also be richer. Writers are sheltering in place, trying to make sense of what’s happened to us. When we finally emerge from our snail shells, we could be met by a new wave of art. And to help us cope while we build up the strength: MasterChef.
• Kitty Drake is a writer and editor based in London