As a matter of fact, for the first time, our streets are walked by fiction
Are we the first generation in history among whom fictional characters live and move?
The Deirdre Rachid story last week gen- erated a good deal of amused comment, some of it wrong. Rachid, as Spectator readers will know, is a character in a televi- sion soap opera called Coronation Street, As the drama's plot will have it, she has just been given a prison sentence for a crime which the story so far leads us to believe she did not commit. The tabloid newspa- pers, followed by a handful of bemused but canny politicians, have leapt to protest. Next into battle go columnists such as I, ready to be wise, whimsical or indignant, as our talents or our publishers direct. The phenomenon is seen as indicative of the spirit of the era.
But the mistake most columnists have made so far is to suppose there is some- thing new in this. That fiction could assume so important a role in the lives of ordinary people — so important that they have come half to believe in the existence of fic- tional characters — is said to be a melan- choly reflection on our age. It would be truer to call it a melancholy reflection on the snobbery of the commentators. The same columnists would never suggest that upper-middle-class concern about develop- ments in the plot of The Archers or the broadcasting of some cricket Test match in a faraway place, proved that BBC Radio Four listeners lived sad or empty lives. Crit- ics prepared to entertain serious debate about Winnie the Pooh, the shipping fore- cast or the use by newscasters of split infini- tives have the gall to complain that the cul- tural imagination of the working classes is debased or trivial.
Besides, the assumption of noveltyis wrong. There is nothing novel about the liv- ing out of fantasy through fiction, nor about public concern for the fates of fic- tional creatures. It used to be one of the marks of a well-bred lady that the lives of the dramatis personae of sentimental nov- els touched her more deeply than the lives of those who worked in her own kitchen. Today, cultural snobs, when they are not bemoaning the predominance of soap opera, like to complain that modern people devote so little time to reading. But read- ing, like watching EastEnders, is mostly a means of escape. Odd that the boy or girl whose waking hours are spent absorbed in the worlds created by their books are
regarded as sensitive and clever, while those who gawp at a screen are dismissed as little couch potatoes. All children love stories, and all adults are children.
There used to be great concern among the newspaper readers who followed Charles Dickens's serialised novels — instalment by instalment, as he wrote them — at the twists and turns of the plots, and the fates of his characters. Where the outcome to a finished story strikes readers as unsatisfactory or incomplete there has always been popular demand that this should not be accepted as the last word. Conan Doyle was forced to revive Sherlock Holmes after killing him in a serial story. The writing of a sequel to a suc- cessful novel, in which new things happen to old and familiar fictional characters, is as well-established as the English novel, Trol- lope's Palliser novels are, in essence, a case in point.
Nor need it be the original author who revisits an established character. The Mar- riage of Figaro sends Cherubino off to war. More than a century later, Massenet con- trives new adventures for Cherubino, start- ing a little after where Mozart left him. So let none suggest that it was only at the end of the 20th century that the creatures of fiction began to engage the sympathies of this real-life audience so deeply that authors were implored to resume or revise the record. In any age this is simply a sign that the author — be he Anthony Trollope or a Coronation Street scriptwriter — is writing well.
But something new is happening, some- thing which commentators, in their excite- ment about Deirdre Rachid, may have missed. It is when Rachid is invited (as she will have been; all celebrity soap stars are) to open a fete as Deirdre Rachid, that stu- dents of cultural history should raise an interested eyebrow. Throughout the ages fictional beings have lived and breathed, loved, suffered and died, but within the covers of their books (or between the open- ing and closing credits of their film or tele- vision programme).
Our age has gone further. This may be almost the first time in which characters have stepped out of their stories and begun to live and move among us, talking to us, dealing with us, listening to us and answer- ing back. Unscripted encounters with fic- tional beings are, I believe, almost a novel- ty. In the past, if you wanted a fictional person to live on after the end of the book,
you wrote another book. Today the charac- ter can emerge from the literary pond in which he was born, and take wings like a dragonfly in our own world.
Not long ago I heard Dame Edna Ever- age interviewed by a lady called Winifred on the Today programme. Only Winifred exists (`Such a pretty name,' said Edna. `You don't hear it much these days.') The interview was live. Everage has also been interviewed for television in ter' suite at the Savoy. She has been seen with Jeffrey Archer — who is almost real. Barry Humphries's other alter ego, Sir Les Pat- terson (the Australian cultural attaché), gives interviews too.
What used to be called the Method school of acting, in which actors try to get inside the characters they play, has always had as its logical conclusion the possibility that such characters might leap from the stage and 'be' Hamlet, Lady Bracknell or Hyacinth Bucket, no longer confined to the play. Margaret Thatcher so grew into and enjoyed a role in which we cast her (and she cast herself) that eventually she became the thing she at first only contrived.
It happened to her by accident. It is hap- pening to Barry Humphries by design. He need never write another script — and yet his creatures continue living their lives in the real world, with us. When he dies, another actor may take over the Everage persona.
I call this idea 'almost' new because its roots are not. Folk entertainment has long created near-identities like Punch and Judy, the Widow Twankey or Father Christmas who, because their defining natures are part of the popular culture, can thereafter be played by actors not only in scripted perfor- mance but ad lib with their audiences. As a child, I used to wonder whether it was 'the same' Father Christmas I met in different stores, the same Punch or Judy at different stalls. My mum said it sort-of was — and sort-of wasn't. But these personae were crude and limited, primitive forerunners, if you like, of a Deirdre or an Edna.
The observation is at the same time arcane and significant. For the first time in history, fictions are walking among us in the streets, not as frauds, impostors, or fan- tasists — these we have always with us but as self-confessed fictions, whom we yet entertain as equals, even superiors.
Matthew Parris is parliamentary sketchwriter and a columnist of the Times.