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You don’t need a crowd for a communal moment

Paul McCartney headlining the Pyramid Stage on Saturday night at Glastonbury © Getty Images

Is it bad that I turned down tickets to see the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park last weekend and watched Paul McCartney on the television instead? “Yolo” my daughter muttered sarcastically on finding me rocking out with Bruce Springsteen and Dave Grohl over a nice glass of chilled rosé, supine on the sofa, as McCartney closed his (arguably, quite patchy) set.

You do indeed only live once, I told her, as the muffled pyrotechnics flashed in the finale. The fact I could enjoy a two-and-a-half-hour concert without the need to queue for a Portaloo struck me as the epitome of a life lived to the full.

Contrary to the post-pandemic narrative which insists that we must all now wish to crowd around each other, I am very much happier enjoying these major cultural events in the comfort of a darkened room. So much has been made of the experiential moment, on the assumption that we must be craving social contact. It now seems disloyal, or even unpatriotic, to slob upon one’s sofa when one could be rushing headlong into the fray.

Glastonbury received a record-breaking number of revellers this weekend, and the summer calendar is now studded with occasions long postponed, rescheduled or delayed. We must be thankful, we are reminded, for every blessed opportunity to throng together: every week is spiked with dinners, launches and events. My calendar is groaning with “thank god we can all be together again” parties. Central London, for so long tinged with a dystopian kind of absence, now heaves with people, tourists, children. So much for thoughtful travel and resets: we seem set on living deep and sucking all the marrow out of life.

I have never needed a government mandate to be persuaded that it remains in my best interests to stay inside. While everyone else is rushing out to soak up this febrile summer season, I’m already yearning for a bit of peace and quiet.

Such a sad existence, you shudder, as you brush the grass stains from another meadow-scented bacchanal. Do I not long to feel a thousand limbs pressed against me? Do I not want to drink in the euphoria of the crowd?

“I prefer festivals with you, on faraway sofas,” I WhatsApped a friend with whom I have watched Glastonbury for many years and with whom the text chat is now as much a summer ritual as for the real-life attendees. I couldn’t imagine wanting to be there, drinking soupy pints in cardboard. “Even if we were,” came back the message, “we’d need to be texting each other from opposite ends of the crowd.”

Naturally, like you, I love a cultural moment: but my favoured communal experience is to watch real-life events while texting or checking Twitter on my phone. I had about three concurrent threads going through Glasto: likewise “must-see television dramas”, general elections and this week’s Sewing Bee. The group chat “2020 election special” has been bleeping intermittently since the Biden/Trump debacle, and picks up for parliamentary votes of confidence, by-elections and sieges on the White House. It’s the ideal forum for interactions — all the brains and no BO.

You don’t need a crowd to have a communal moment. To that end it’s been especially gratifying to discover Netflix hopping on the zeitgeist and slowing things right down. In a bold move for Netflix, fans of Stranger Things have been made to wait a full five weeks for the final episodes of this last series, as the binge-watch model has been declared obsolete. True, the decision has followed a vast slump in subscribers and a stock price that, since November, has fallen 73 per cent. The savour and share mode once considered so old-fashioned has been brought back to halt subscriber churn. No longer quite so captive, the streamers are now competing for their audiences within a busy, distracted world. The weekly episodic model diffuses hype on social media and, ultimately, they hope, sees the audience return.

The roll out seems to be working: the five-week vacuum between Stranger Things episodes has allowed a vast online community to build. TikTok is currently a screed of ST fan theories as subscribers rewatch old episodes to comb the show for clues. The death of binge watch makes total economic sense. It also makes for a far more enriching experience to watch things in real time.

With episodic television, as with live performance, the value in waiting cannot be overlooked. Glastonbury, which missed two editions because of Covid, has now been streamed on BBC iPlayer a record 34.1mn times. Paul McCartney’s performance had a peak audience of 3.9mn while Diana Ross scored an average audience of 3.1mn. Bingeing is OK in the moment, but nothing beats seeing something as a gang. And no matter whether you’re in the field, or watching along with millions of others on a sofa, the moment is always more magical when it’s happening in real time.

Email Jo at [email protected]

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