Accosting total strangers in glowering provincial shopping centres for comments on news stories or local issues – usually something to do with a bypass – was my own hell. These were and indeed still are known as vox pops.
If you’re as shy as I was when I worked on local newspapers (and I still am, can’t you spot me hiding behind my 18th-century tortoiseshell fan?), being sent by the newsdesk to do vox pops was torture. No one sensible ever had time to talk, so I got stuck with the deranged and the lonely.
When I left local papers to move to London to work on Radio Times, I exhaled a long sigh that sounded very much like “I’ll never have to do another vox pop again. And aren’t the streets of London paved with goat’s cheese and sun-blushed tomatoes?” (No, they are not, they are paved with sick and squashed pellets of black chewing gum.)
To this day, in my darkest moments, my subconscious will tap me on the shoulder and sit down for a little chat, opening with “Things look bad now, but just remember, they could be worse: you could be doing vox pops in Hartlepool.”
There’s nothing wrong with Hartlepool. But I could be doing vox pops from my beachside villa in Santa Monica and I’d still be in torment. So when Theresa May called her snap general election, I went into freefall. “Oh no, every news bulletin will be pointlessly extended by at least 15 minutes and there will be so many vox pops to fill up the empty oceans of time. I must instantly hide for the next seven weeks in dense woodland.”
Because watching vox pops on the telly is as bad as, if not worse than, actually having to carry them out on your own in the street. I don’t care what randomly chosen/reluctant/heartily enthusiastic members of the public think about anything: Brexit, the single market, global warming, the sexiness of the back of Tom Hiddleston’s neck.
I care what my nearest and dearest think, and I care about what experts (yes, I love experts and I’m not ashamed) and commentators think. But the bland observations of people who’ve been stopped on their way to the shops? Nah.
Now, I know we all remember the vociferous Bristol Brenda’s fantastically blunt outburst when BBC reporter Jon Kay broke the news to her that there was going to be a general election: “You’re joking?! Not another one! Oh, for God’s sake, honestly, I can’t stand this. There’s too much politics going on at the moment!”
Yes, Brenda was great but she was a once-in-a-lifetime find. Coming across Brenda must have been like tripping over a sapphire on a lawn. But we remember Brenda because her pantomime exasperation made brilliant television. There aren’t many Brendas in the world.
She was entertaining and made a perfectly valid point that struck a chord with the voting-weary. Just once Brenda took us beyond the polite vox-pop conventions; she gave us something of herself and her ebullient fury, rather than the usual “Yes, I think rail strikes are bad, now I must catch my train” or “Yes, I think the NHS is wonderful, now I have to go and have an operation.” Brenda simply showed us why vox pops are pointless except for people like Brenda.
If I were queen of the world I would draw up an Act of Parliament on fancy notepaper banning television vox pops from the minute an election is called until the result is declared. Then I’d give myself emergency powers to ban them for an unspecified period after that, too. Then I’d hope that in a world where, thanks to social media, no opinion ever goes unexpressed in a torrent of online detritus, vox pops will surely, finally, be dead.
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