The Covid cultural wasteland

So long as social distancing continues, art and culture will suffer.

Robert Jackman


Back in 2017, I watched an up-and-coming comic called Lauren Pattison perform her first full-length show in Soho. Pattison was good – really good, in fact – and I left the theatre wondering if I’d just had a close-up encounter with someone destined for bigger things.

This week, I heard Pattison again – this time on a podcast discussing how lockdown had affected her career. Having taken the plunge to go full-time last year, Pattison was now staring at an empty diary and the very real prospect of not gigging again until next summer. Her income slashed, the 25-year-old is now living with her parents and working in a supermarket.

While I don’t doubt she’ll bounce back in time, Pattison’s story still makes me worry about the wider cultural devastation caused by the lockdown (and the equally dismal ‘new normal’). In putting her comedy career on hold, I suspect she’s actually the tip of a much bigger iceberg. Our cultural industries are being squeezed to extinction.

What makes it worse is that we were promised it wouldn’t be like this. In the early days of the lockdown, the creative establishment rushed to assure us that the live arts would shift online. Broadsheet newspapers predicted a surge of lockdown masterpieces written by frustrated novelists liberated from their desk jobs. This could even be Britain’s most creative period ever, predicted one researcher.

Yet four months since the country closed down (and one month into its partial reopening), those predictions haven’t come to pass. What can we honestly say have been the cultural highlights of lockdown? The collective snigger-fest at Netflix’s Tiger King? Daydreaming along with the BBC’s adaptation of Normal People? The National Theatre’s live-streaming of One Man, Two Guvnors? Those are the only three I recall.

But even these were recorded well before lockdown itself. This is why the full artistic devastation of lockdown isn’t evident yet: because we’re still living on our cultural fat supplies. Take the BBC’s A Suitable Boy – though broadcast in July, it was actually recorded months before lockdown. So if you think it’s slim pickings on iPlayer right now, just wait until Christmas. That’s when we’ll see the real drought.

None of this is to say that some individual artists haven’t tried their best. As a theatre critic, I tried to enjoy a mini-wave of plays recorded via video conferencing. (One enterprising company in New Zealand even managed to reimagine Chekhov’s The Seagull as a family Zoom call.) But I couldn’t get away from the fact that the essential premise just reminded me of the depressing lockdown itself. Theatre should be escapism, not consolation.

Then there were those moments that only served to rub in what we’d lost in the first place. On what would have been Glastonbury weekend, the BBC unveiled its ‘Glastonbury Experience’: an archive of recordings of previous performances. But as good as they were, every single one just underlined what makes live music so exciting: the immediacy and immersion of actually being there.

Watching the carefree crowds of yesteryear in the same month that beach-goers were being harangued for socialising, and when police had broken up an impromptu garden concert, felt like a sick joke. I couldn’t help but think of Joe Arpaio, the sadistic sheriff of Arizona, who reportedly let hungry inmates watch the food channels on television, just to remind them what they were missing.

Hang on, you might be thinking, isn’t lockdown over? Well, technically yes – in as much as our free movement has been restored and businesses have been allowed to reopen. But this compromise is predicated on an extremely strict social-distancing regime that can only hinder the creative industries. Just look at the obstacles encountered by EastEnders in attempting to make its filming procedures Covid-compliant. Do you really think indie filmmakers will be able to meet that standard?

Then there’s the fact that the government has repeatedly stated that some lockdown restrictions might be reimposed – at a moment’s notice – should there be a rise in cases (note cases – not deaths). Can we really expect theatres to risk money preparing productions that might be closed down overnight? Or producers to commission films that might never see the light of day?

This is perhaps the most dangerous illusion of the so-called ‘new normal’. Too many in Downing Street seemingly believe not only that human interactions must be tightly controlled to eliminate any Covid risk, but also that this monumental task can be done in a way that won’t hurt us in much bigger ways. If our current cultural wasteland proves one thing, it’s the sheer futility of that assumption.

Robert Jackman is a writer and critic with the Spectator.

Picture by: Getty.

Let’s cancel cancel culture

Free speech is under attack from all sides – from illiberal laws, from a stifling climate of conformity, and from a powerful, prevailing fear of being outed as a heretic online, in the workplace, or even among friends, for uttering a dissenting thought. This is why we at spiked are stepping up our fight for speech, expanding our output and remaking the case for this most foundational liberty. But to do that we need your help. spiked – unlike so many things these days – is free. We rely on our loyal readers to fund our journalism. So if you want to support us, please do consider becoming a regular donor. Even £5 per month can be a huge help. You can find out more and sign up here. Thank you! And keep speaking freely.

Donate now

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


James Knight

1st August 2020 at 3:12 pm

The question arises as to what “life” we are protecting with the lockdown? Setting aside the people who will likely be killed as a side effect of the lockdown, the “life” we are protecting seems to be biological existence. I hear from biologist that the definition of “death” is not so clear cut as you might think. You could be a vegetable and technically still alive. That is not what most people would call “life”.

The lockdowns are not saving life, they are destroying it. Keeping people in a persistent vegetative state.

Vivian Darkbloom

3rd August 2020 at 11:27 pm

James, you’re on point. When my mum was confined to a private old people’s home in Spain after she’d had a fall and lost her mobility I would visit her and she would ask, in her confusion, why I had put her in a home. Well, I didn’t put her in a home; the state did – they took her into care and there was nothing I could do. I went through so many agencies to get her released and back to her house but to no avail.

Well, with an increasing sense of horror I realised that they wanted her in the home because of the money she was paying from her savings; after the savings had been drained they then decanted her into a state-run public care home which was actually much better. The things I saw in the private care home belong in a horror film. My mother’s room companion was essentially dead and only kept functional by a ventilator. This seemed to suit the staff; she was fed by a drip and her lungs were cleared twice a day and her nappy was changed by rota. And this is the thing; they kept her alive not because of compassion or the Hippocratic oath but because they could be assured of a steady income for little work. €3000 a month for keeping a virtual corpse alive.

What a world.

Vivian Darkbloom

31st July 2020 at 10:45 pm

Anyway. Protests around the UK tomorrow, August 1st 2020.

London, Hyde Park, Speakers Corner, 1:00


Keep Britain Free

Angela Towers

1st August 2020 at 12:47 am

Most Brits won’t be there.

My retired, Brexit voting relatives (it’s important you understand they voted Brexit so that you can’t accuse them of not being like the rest of the general population, or of being out of touch liberal elites or woke lefties ) will tell you to ‘F.O. you idiots”.

Jolly Roger

31st July 2020 at 10:02 pm

But Robert – ths maes me laugh not cry!!
Lauren might be a middle of the road person, or centre right – but she is most likely left, far left and/or woke. Because that’s showbiz!!!
The lefty woke luvies were absolutely up for lockdown – a good chance to trash the economy and maybe even unseat Boris – or even force another election -and, wait for it -perhaps even STOP BREXIT.
When Cummings house was smobbed a few months back after his ill fated trip to Barnard Castle – many in the mob were from the entertianmnet industry.
And as for ‘comedians’ you will have more chance of finding the prverbial needle in the haystack then finding one that is a Condervative or even broadly holds with the view of the silent majority.
The fact is, they were up for lockdown, the luvies – but they never dreamed it would affect them. I donlt know what planet these clowns come from, but you can rest assured, they thought lock down would only ruin the jobs of the great unwashed who insist on voting conservatative and for leaving the EU -thick b**tards. They have come a cropper. And I hope Lauren realises she has robbed an impoverished illegal immigrant of a job stacking shelves…

Vivian Darkbloom

31st July 2020 at 10:12 pm

Brilliant and so true! I must admit I’ve gone from depression to outrage and now to taking the absolute piss. Mockery is a great weapon.

Angela Towers

1st August 2020 at 12:44 am

Both of you forget that a pro-Brexit right wing Tory government is in charge of Covid19 policy and lockdowns and not them leftie comedians or musicians in Devon and Dorset you’re determined never to watch or listen to because they make you angry.

Put it this way, divs: I voted remain and enjoy chuckling to some of the comedy on the BBC, true, but I sure as heck don’t get to decide government policy on how long my family must quarantine for if we fly back from a holiday in Spain during a pandemic.

James Conner

1st August 2020 at 8:33 am

Flying to Spain during a pandemic has got to be only marginally more stupid than deciding to take a picnic on the fast lane of the M6. I larf my socks off at these morons bleating now they discover they’ll be stuck at home for 2 weeks on their return.


1st August 2020 at 10:42 am

Totally agree. There was a brilliant article by Julie Burchill a few years ago on how the left leaning middle classes have taken the entertainment profession away from the working classes. What is left is mainly a hobby rather than a job for most of them. Ents people always had to travel to where the work is, David Harewood was complaining he had to go to America to find work, and put this down to racism. However numerous Brits from Chaplin , Cary Grant etc have gone to America. If Latvians find your jokes hilarious , thats where you go ,sometimes not literally but via internet.

Vivian Darkbloom

31st July 2020 at 8:34 pm

One of the positives about the lockdown is that we can watch old films which put to shame more recent offerings. I’ve been going through the Hitchcock filmography, the Chaplin features, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut, Golden Age Hollywood and old British films from Ealing Studios and Powell & Pressburger. With so many riches to sift through there’s little reason to waste time on contemporary output.

Angela Towers

1st August 2020 at 12:54 am

Pretty sure people could watch old movies in the days before a pandemic.

As an example, I can remember watching Laurel and Hardy films just before Christmas 2019. I’m going to take a wild guess that I wasn’t the only person in England with access to old films back in the day (last year).

Maybe you should think a bit more before posting online?

Mark Beal

31st July 2020 at 6:37 pm

Much as I sympathize with the point that the lockdown restrictions are being extended in absurdum, I return to the point I’ve made before, that many people involved in The Arts, have an equally absurd belief in the importance of what they do (and by extension themselves).

A lack of new programmes from the BBC? All that means is a few fewer woke narratives, which can only be a good thing.

There’s still time for those lockdown novels to appear, though. Expect huge lashings of onanistic navel-gazing from a publisher near you any month now.

Angela Towers

1st August 2020 at 12:37 am

Ah yeah – the pitiful logic of “my television can’t get ITV or Sky but that’s good news because it means I’m exposed to less woke rubbish”

I can imagine you welcoming the day a thief steals your phone.

jamie murray

1st August 2020 at 8:46 am

You silly sausage, the bbc, sky, channel 4 and itv only air regressive, identity politics ridden, feminist pro pc propaganda, where have you been? As for the current government being right wing or even slightly conservative, no i have missed that, they’re as pc conformist as any other cultural institution. And don’t worry about Brexit, the plebs may have voted for it but the establishment wont let it happen in any real sense, so your safe there.
And the previous posters who you’ve ridiculed talk more sense in one line than your whole output together.

Vivian Darkbloom

31st July 2020 at 5:48 pm

“Hang on, you might be thinking, isn’t lockdown over? Well, technically yes – in as much as our free movement has been restored and businesses have been allowed to reopen.”

Lockdown most certainly is not over. Two hours before 12:00 last night Matt Hancock announced areas of Northern England would be subject to lockdown. This is couched as law but is actually guidance. There have been no parliamentary debates; this is rule by decree. Don’t forget that this was supposed to last three weeks so the NHS wouldn’t be overwhelmed. Muzzle-wearing will be extended to indoor venues in August as Johnson states: “We now recommend face coverings are worn in these settings, and this will become enforceable in law from August 8.” Welcome to the New Bizarre. Sure, it’s uncanny, but you’ll get used to it even if it takes a few years of readjustment. You might even grow to love it.

Jerry Owen

31st July 2020 at 4:40 pm

We nearly always watch pre recorded catch-up tv. Most of it is pre covid, and yes a good point, there will be a void of new programmes come Christmas.
I haven’t heard the BBC offer any rebates because of their lack of programme making, indeed they are now charging over 75s for.. well stuff they’ve seen before.

Angela Towers

1st August 2020 at 12:51 am

Charging over 75s how much? How much per day?

Brexit will make our mortgage free over 75s a lot richer, right? And many right wingers/brexiters/Tories would remind you that there is no such thing as poverty in the U.K. anyway.

So my advice to the home owning, BMW owning pensioners round my way is: put down your wine and go pay the license because it’s peanuts, you tight gits.

jamie murray

1st August 2020 at 8:57 am

Yes there are a lot of wealthy pensioners pleading poverty, there’s also a lot of hard up pensioners. Neither of these points has any relevance to the main issue of why should a huge percentage of the population be forced [on pain of fine/imprisonment] to pay for a service they no longer want or use? It’s beyond argument [though i’m sure you’ll try] that the bbc is beyond biased and in thrall to every pc dogma going and that’s fine, people and/or organisations should be free to have any opinion or agenda they like, but why should i pay for it.
From the tone of your comments i believe you and i would disagree on pretty much everything, a position we’re both entitled to hold, equally we can ignore each other without being made to pay for the privilege of doing so! How can anyone justify the licence fee?

Jerry Owen

1st August 2020 at 3:10 pm

Bitter today aren’t you !!

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to comment. Log in or Register now.

Deplorables — a spiked film