Wednesday, 16 June 2010

On the trail of comets' tails: Mary, Queen of Shops

At one time there was a nameplate on a door in BBC Broadcasting House which said: “Head of the Spoken Word.” Dylan Thomas, apparently, walked past and murmured: “but just think of the power of the Head of the Unspoken Word.”
That’s not just a good gag, it’s a truth, and one worth flagging up while the BBC, and ITV, Channels 4 and 5, Sky and Virgin, behave as if no factual programme passes the quality test unless every piece of information is recycled every fifteen minutes, with each clue or inference signalled several times more and explicitly spelled out.
Which is why Mary, Queen of Shops (BBC 2, Monday’s., 21:00) is probably the best show around – the stories it really tells are the ones it leaves unsaid.
Here’s the pitch: Mary Portas – “I made my life in high end designer retail” – is on a mission, because the local high street is under assault from the big stores, who are “killing” Britain’s small retailers. Five hundred village shops close every year. “We’ll miss our neighbourhood shops when they’re gone, and I don’t want to live in as Britain that bland.” So Portas is going to “work out a survival plan for our local shopkeepers.”
Only, this is not the programme's main subject at all. The establishments to which she brings her retail triage aren’t run by valiant little businessfolk besieged by superstores; they’re owned by extraordinary individuals or couples who seem to have decided, for reasons which have nothing to do with commercial logic or illogic, and everything to do with some substrate of the psyche that MQoS points to but leaves implicit, to commit financial suicide.
What of the couple who have fled the London “rat race” and bought a general store in a Dorset village? Why do they keep the place as a kind of ramshackle museum of cans, packs and perishables, changing nothing, going nowhere, communicating with nobody, spending thousands more every month than they’re taking? Why the haunted sadness on the woman’s face? Why does she freeze into silence when she encounters the villagers? And why does her husband continually disparage his own tastes and abilities?
Or the woman baker in an affluent London borough. Where is the husband who “hung up his dough hooks” eight years ago? What part in her life is performed by her charming, elegant son, who appears just once in the programme, to tell Mary that his mother no longer wants to play the game? Why does she continuously remind everyone that she’s “been in this business for 36 years”? And why does she keep on turning out the same food that she first turned out 36 years ago? The canteen bread, the cakes and fancies smeared with sticky chocolate or coffee or vanilla? The smiley faces with lop-sided cherry-eyes or chocolate smiles which are symbolically, as it were, iced skulls on her ancient counter?
Here, the real stories are all in the questions that are cleverly left in the air and on the air, for us to argue about and speculate upon as the credits fade.
Nietzsche described in Greek tragedy “something incommensurable in every feature and every line, a certain deceptive distinctness and enigmatic depth, indeed an infinitude, in the background. Even the clearest figure always had a comet’s tail attached to it which seemed to suggest the uncertain, that which could never be illuminated.”
And this, in the cameo of each programme, is what we have here in miniature: the hint of a little comet’s tail of tragedy, of the suffering which is the precipitate of piled up experience and sorrow, and which goes, of course, to make up human drama. Praise to the programme makers for acknowledging, in their work, the “power of the unspoken word.”
If you’re out of the UK, or you’ve missed the show so far, catch it here on the BBC iPlayer.

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