But for anyone born in the mid-20th century onwards, TV has been the soundtrack of their lives. Commercial jingles are as familiar as pop songs. It’s a point neatly played on in End of TV, a piece from Chicago based Edinburgh fringe favourites Manual Cinema, which is available on the Manipulate Festival website over the weekend.
Part of the pleasure of watching Manual Cinema live is seeing the cunning way in which the show is put together in front of your eyes using old technologies including shadow puppetry, overhead projectors and screens. End of TV also throws in an orchestra. Of course, watching on your laptop you don’t get the same excitement of actually seeing a movie being made by live performers and puppets in front of you but there is quite enough content and complexity in End of TV to mitigate that loss. In fact, the danger in past shows has sometimes been that the way the show is constructed has outweighed the show itself. But this one has real ballast.
Set in the 1990s and told through visuals and music, including re-created TV ads and QVC shopping channel segments, it tells of two women thrown together by circumstance and rising globalisation and changing patterns of consumption. One is an elderly white woman with indications of dementia who spends her lonely days watching the shopping channel, ordering things she doesn’t need and can’t afford as the mortgage arrears pile up. As dementia grips, she increasingly cannot distinguish between reality and the make believe of the canned corn world of the Jolly Green Giant. The other is an African-American woman who, after the factory in which she works closes down, becomes a meals-on-wheels delivery driver.
Like Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, End of TV points to the loss of dignity that accompanies the loss of manufacturing. It points to the no lesser loss of community and friendship and the aching loneliness that brings. It makes you wonder whether all the American Dream ever really amounted to was the opportunity to buy a tacky embroidered baseball cap for $13.95. TV was one of the tools that turned everyone from the late 1950s onwards into the rampant consumers that capitalism needed. It created world to aspire to: worlds that seemed more alluring than drab reality.
Manual Cinema handle all this with delicacy and considerable ingenuity, putting the human story of the two women’s burgeoning relationship centre stage with a well-judged emotional restraint that makes it all the more moving. The TV segments utilise deft comedy, daft wigs and real ingenuity and smart use of colour and monochrome. It’s a clever show, but it is one that touches the heart too.