A sunny afternoon spent watching Dominic Cummings? Coronavirus has left us with a weird new kind of event TV

Coronavirus has changed the way we live – and it's also changed what kinds of programmes become must-watch TV, says Eleanor Bley Griffiths

Dominic Cummings at the press conference

It was a gloriously warm Bank Holiday Monday and, at five minutes to 4pm, the afternoon sun was hitting our roof terrace at full strength. It was the perfect weather for sitting under the shade of an umbrella and drinking a glass of iced tea and reading a book. And yet, like millions across the nation, I instead obeyed the siren call of the BBC news notification that pinged up on my phone – and tuned in to watch a press conference with the government’s political advisor Dominic Cummings.

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These are strange days. “Event TV” used to be Strictly Come Dancing, or the Line of Duty finale, or Eurovision. Those were the shows that would keep me on the sofa on a Saturday evening or dominate my WhatsApp groups or inspire me to dress up in kitsch fancy dress. On the political side, “event TV” came in the shape of election night coverage or the occasional Prime Ministerial resignation. (Remember that other “DC”, David Cameron, singing himself a cheerful little tune on his way back in to Number Ten? “Do do do do do. Right!”)

But now, we get a new instalment of “event TV” every single day. Lucky us! The Coronavirus Daily Update regularly pulls in more viewers than a primetime drama, with scientists and advisors becoming household names. There have been some particularly standout one-off specials in the series, like the broadcast in March where Prime Minister Boris Johnson finally imposed a lockdown and told us his simple instruction was that we should all stay home (hint hint, Dominic Cummings).

Boris Johnson's Sunday 10 May televised message (Credit: Getty Images)
Getty Images

So at short notice on a Bank Holiday weekend, here we all were, waiting for back-room political operator and so-called mastermind Cummings to explain himself. Twitter was going nuts. Government ministers were making bizarre statements. The public mood was furious, and the Daily Mail and the Guardian were in rare agreement. Cummings had so far been evasive, petulant and unrepentant. What was going to happen? Would he resign, or continue to insist he’d done nothing wrong? This was truly going to be unmissable TV.

So we sat and waited. And waited. And waited. Chief political correspondent Vicki Young did a valiant job of filling the air with words, in an impromptu audition for Just A Minute. BBC news host Ben Brown kept being told that the press conference was a few minutes away from starting, except – as he pointed out with mounting irritation – they’d been saying that for the last half hour.

At home, I too was irritated. And I was in good company: from my Facebook chats and WhatsApp groups, it was clear that everyone had sacrificed their time in the sun to watch this broadcast, and so far Cummings was nowhere to be seen. But at least the “good company” meant it was a kind of communal TV experience as we swapped information and jokes and thoughts on what was to come.

And then finally it began! With his shirt half-untucked, Cummings ambled into the Rose Garden at Downing Street and seated himself behind a trestle table like a man selling raffle tickets at a school fête; he read out his statement and allowed himself to be asked some questions, and I won’t go into too much detail about that except to say that it was car crash TV – and not the kind of car crash that could have resulted from someone driving 40 minutes to Barnard Castle to… test out that they were safe to drive? Yeah. It was, as Ben Brown called it, an “extraordinary bit of political theatre”.

At its peak, the broadcast attracted a TV audience of 5.58 million on an exceptionally sunny Monday afternoon, with many more having watched live on iPlayer (as I did). It surely lit up WhatsApp groups and dominated dinnertime conversations across the nation, and it will certainly go down as one of the most memorable programmes to air in this entire lockdown period. Now that’s “event TV” in the time of the coronavirus…

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