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Toby Young
Sunday 2nd January 2005

Reality is the cult of the decade--but will it last?


What are the big cultural trends of the first decade of the 21st Century? Plenty of pundits have already weighed in on this topic, but it's usually only when the mid-point of a decade has been reached that its true character begins to emerge. So, now that 2005 has begun, do we have a clearer idea of what the Noughties will be remembered for?

To my mind, the most significant trend, at least in the cultural arena, is the cult of verisimilitude. By that I mean a preference for "reality" over alternative forms of entertainment.

The most obvious example of this is the runaway success of reality TV. Formats like Big Brother and I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here have taken over from sitcoms and drama serials as the tent-poles of the television schedule. For better or worse, the viewing public are becoming increasingly fed up with watching actors being put through their paces by clever script writers and want to see real people being forced to jump through hoops by clever producers.

But this phenomenon is by no means confined to the small screen. In cinema, the only significant trend of the Noughties has been the emergence of the documentary feature as a profitable genre. The first ever films to be shown in cinemas were documentaries of sorts--such as the short clip of a locomotive steaming towards the audience that was a massive hit in 1897-- but in the intervening 100-year period documentaries were considered commercial suicide. Not any more. The box office success of films like Fahrenheit 911 and Super Size Me has spawned a documentary boom that has inspired a new generation of filmmakers.

The theatre, too, is beginning to succumb to this cult. I've been working as a drama critic since 2001 and some of the most impressive things I've seen have been "documentary plays", ie, plays in which the dialogue is based on the actual words of real people. I'm thinking of things like Life After Life, The Laramie Project and--easily the most exciting new play of 2004--Stuff Happens. I confidently predict that we'll be seeing many more "documentary plays" this year.

So is the cult of verisimilitude a good thing? Not according to novelists, it isn't. Another way of looking at is that people seem increasingly uninterested in fiction--and that spells doom for the novel. In the Noughties, people aren't willing to suspend disbelief long enough to discover the deeper truths that fiction writers are trying to tell us.

Yet novelists can take some comfort from the fact that this trend is unlikely to last. One of my favourite books of the past year was The Plot Against America, Philip Roth's fictional account of the Nazification of America. It's a far more powerful indictment of George W Bush's administration than Fahrenheit 911. I have no doubt that in a few years time the public will rediscover the power of metaphor.

NEW YEAR'S REVOLUTION

In the past, I've never been able to stick to my New Year's resolutions. The year before last, for instance, I resolved to give up all alcoholic beverages apart from wine and beer. The fatal flaw in this plan, as I soon discovered, was that as soon as I'd consumed more than four glasses of wine or two pints of beer all my willpower went out the window and it was straight on to the hard stuff.

Last year, I vowed not to drink more than two glasses of wine or one pint of beer. At least if I stopped at that point, I thought, I might be able to resist the lure of anything stronger. Unfortunately, I always say to myself, "Well, if I just have two more glasses of wine or one more pint of beer, that won't be so bad..." and, before you know it, I'm back to square one.

So this year I've decided to make resolutions I have a fighting chance of sticking to. I've resolved to drink more liquor, exercise less and take up smoking.

ALL DOLLED UP

As I write this, my head is aching, I've got a streaming cold and my belly is protruding so far over the top of my trousers I'm reminded of Clive James's saying that becoming fat isn't a gradual process, you just wake up one day to discover that your entire body has turned to fat. Nevertheless, I'm not entirely downcast. There are some things to look forward to in 2005.

In the cinema, for instance, I can't wait to see Sideways, Alexander Payne's bittersweet comedy about a fat, middle-aged writer who finds sexual happiness in the arms of Virginia Madsen. Not that I identify with the lead character in any way, of course.

In the theatre, the production I'm most looking forward to is Guys & Dolls, a collaboration between the Donmar Warehouse and the Ambassadors Group. There's nothing I like more than a good musical and Guys & Dolls, which I've never seen, is supposed to be one of the best.

Finally, on television, I have to confess I'm madly excited about the prospect of Celebrity Big Brother. If the rumour mill is to be believed, one of the housemates is Germaine Greer and watching the author of The Female Eunuch make mincemeat of a bunch of cosmetically enhanced D-list celebrities promises to be one of the most entertaining spectacles of the year.

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

I can't close this column without mentioning what's destined to be the happiest event of 2005, namely, the birth of my son who's due on March 1. Having already discovered the gender of the unborn child, my wife and I have also given him a name: Ludo. I know, I know, it sounds awfully German, but, in fact, it's short for Ludovic, which is Polish. So far, I've had to explain this distinction approximately a hundred times to my friends and relatives and I fully anticipate having to explain it at least a hundred times more. But the decision has been made. Ludo it is.

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Twitter My essay in Intelligence about the left’s difficulty with behavioural genetics, evolutionary psychology, etc. link  (2 hours ago)

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