And Ever Shall Be

It was always difficult to work out the exact year in which a given episode of Victoria was taking place, given the series’ sloppiness with chronology. Series 2 ended with “Luxury & Conscience” in which Sir Robert Peel resigns as prime minister following the murder of his personal secretary Edward Drummond – events which actually took place three years apart. Series 3 picks up with “Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown”, which covers the revolutions of 1848 and features Lord John Russell in charge. Dialogue indicates that the return of the Whigs to government is a recent development. In between these installments is the 2017 Christmas special “Comfort & Joy”, set in 1846 and showing, among other things, the adoption of Sarah Forbes Bonetta (which happened in 1850). The curious thing about the Christmas special is the absence of the political side of things. In real life Russell’s ministry had already been in place for six months but, in the series’ uncertain timeline, the political situation is simply ignored. This is almost certainly deliberate, as the intention is for the holiday special to be a purely family affair. Plus, with more than a year’s gap between the series it’s entirely possible that the later story arcs hadn’t yet been planned out, nor the relevant characters cast.

Flash forward to 2021: The Duke of Edinburgh had wished for a low-key funeral (well, by royal standards at any rate), and the pandemic meant that something on the scale of the Queen Mother’s funeral in 2002 or even Lady Thatcher’s in 2013 would not be possible. Instead Philip’s coffin was driven a short distance within the bounds of Windsor Castle and then lowered into the vault. Hundreds of soldiers were still present outside, but COVID regulations forbade more than thirty attendees. Ordinarily it would be expected that prime ministers and other senior officials would attend, but Boris Johnson (and, presumably, any others concerned) relinquished his place to make room for more of the deceased’s family. The resulting guest list included eighteen descendants of King George V, eight spouses thereof, three other descendants of Queen Victoria and one spouse thereof. I had wondered if the family or the press would have sought to orchestrate a photograph of Prince George of Cambridge saluting the coffin à la John Kennedy, but it was decided that the great-grandchildren were too young to be involved.

While the masks and social distancing ought to be obvious giveaways, I actually found that the reduced attendance gave the ceremony a strangely timeless quality – it was effectively a bottle show. Other than Mssrs Mozzia and Brooksbank all the people there were the same people one would have expected to see there at had this happened at any point in the last ten years – admittedly Viscount Severn and Lady Louise would have been smaller. Justin Welby might be considered a semi-political figure and he took office in 2013, but as St George’s Chapel is a royal peculiar he played a minor role compared to David Conner, who has been Dean since 1998. Thomas Woodcock as Garter King of Arms could also be considered vaguely political given his role introducing new members of the House of Lords, with that office the public tend to remember the uniform rather than the face. The sounds of the past week, too, were those you’d expect to hear: steady footsteps, military orders, cannon blasts, church bells, and, from the studio, the interminable wittering of Gyles Brandreth. Now the burbling of a Land Rover TD5 has been added to the mix. Even that adds to the timeless effect, since the Defender was in production for a third of a century and without a number plate even I – a subscriber to Land Rover Enthusiast for a few years – could not guess at a glance the decade in which this one was constructed.

Those who have studied British political history know that long ago the House of Commons met in St Stephen’s Chapel, with the Speaker’s chair on the altar steps and the members facing each other in the choir stalls – an arrangement which has been maintained in subsequent legislative chambers in Britain and around the world. As a consequence today’s proceedings – with only a few dozen people carefully spaced apart – resembled a session of the hybrid house, or perhaps even the failed 1am prorogation in 2019. Hopefully on this occasion the ceremony won’t have to be repeated a month later.

Having already done a piece about television scheduling in light of COVID, it would be pertinent to review it in relation to the royal death. Of course major newspapers and broadcasters have documentaries and obituaries prepared years in advance of the event – not just for the Duke of Edinburgh but for a wide range of prominent public figures. Eye 1545 page 18 notes how, in the build up to his centenary on 10th June, contributors often had to do each interview twice – the first speaking in present tense wearing light suits, the second in past tense wearing black ones. It was also noted that, in addition to different networks’ documentaries often – and unavoidably – using the same stock footage and delivering the same story as each other, there were some instances of companies recycling interview footage from their own documentaries in 2011 or even 2007, with talking heads who nowadays are visibly much older or even who themselves have died in the intervening years.

On other occasions this temporal tangle would be cause for disdain, but to commemorate a man who has been “a constant” for longer than most of the world can remember, somehow it feels oddly appropriate.

UPDATE (20th April)

The video I originally embedded (from the firm’s own YouTube channel) has now been set to private. The BBC’s has also disappeared. I have replaced it with the Teletrece version.

UPDATE (1st May)

That one has gone as well. I’m now using the one from 6abc Philadelphia.

An Insoluble Problem

Nearly five years ago, in one of my earliest posts on this site, I discussed how the National Assembly for Wales recalled to deliberate on the Tata steel crisis a few days before the body was due to dissolve for the upcoming elections.

That election day – 5th May 2016 – was dubbed “Super Thursday” by some commentators owing to the great number and variety of different polls going on at the same time around the country. Thursday 6th of this year’s May will be an even bigger event because the pandemic forced a delay in last year’s elections and so this year all those elected in 2016 will be up again as well as those elected in 2017.*

A major difference with this cycle is the need to conform to COVID regulations. The present lockdown is hoped to be the last and most UK adults have now received at least one vaccination, but it is likely that for many months to come there will still be strict controls on public mingling. The rapidity with which the pandemic situation can change, and the consequent need for various legislatures to make adjustments to the law at short notice, has caused another, less visible change in the electoral timetable.

Yesterday the fifth Scottish Parliament sat for what was intended to be its last meeting. Under normal circumstances it would have dissolved today, but instead it is merely receding, with dissolution not set to occur until the day before the election. The Welsh Parliament** undergoes a less drastic change, receding on 7th April and dissolving on 29th. The intention of these changes (which are intended to be a one-off) is to allow either legislature to reconvene should the pandemic require immediate attention during the campaign.

As a Wikipedian, this saves me some work. Normally after the dissolution of a large legislature I and other editors spend many hours racing through the pages of ex-lawmakers to delete the relevant post-nominals and remove any suggestion of incumbency, then reverting after the election as members are voted back in. This time around we have decided not to bother for the Scottish Parliament as the dissolution period will last only a day*** and so we would probably be reverting the edits before we had even finished making them. The Welsh Parliament might still be worth the effort as their dissolution period is a whole week and it has fewer than half as many members. At some point it will be worth looking into the possibility of creating a bot account to make these kinds of edits for us, so rote are they.

The process of dissolution is not universal. In other countries, such as Germany and the United States, incumbent lawmakers continue to hold office until after the election (and may even continue to sit during this time) so that there is no vacancy between old and new members. This is also the case in Britain for most local councillors.

The London Assembly and Mayor will also be up for election this year. Their set up is somewhere between a local government and a national one, and it is not clear from what literature I can find whether it has a dissolution in the way that the parliaments do. Their guide for candidates says that “In normal times it would be expected for the new Mayor and Assembly Members to come into office on Sunday 9th May, following declaration of the election results on Friday 7th May.” which to me suggests that the outgoing Mayor and AMs remain incumbent during the election period.

*Exceptions are Scottish and Welsh local elections which are on a five year cycle and the Northern Ireland Assembly which had a snap election in March 2017. These will all be up again on 5th May 2022.
**The change of name from National Assembly for Wales to Welsh Parliament (or Senedd Cymru) occurred on 6th May. AMs simultaneously became MSs.
***In practice it could be more like two or even three days depending on the exact hour on which dissolution occurs and the time taken to count the votes.

FURTHER READING

Something Along Those Lines

As much as I write blog posts and make Wikipedia edits concerning Sudrian lore my personal experience of real trains is not extensive – my last rail journey was in 2016. There is little railway coverage in East Yorkshire, though hints of its former extent can occasionally be glimpsed. In the three times I have been to London I of course used the underground a lot: The first two were with family at New Year 2004 (staying near Golders Green) and 2005 (staying near King’s Cross). The canned phrase “This train terminates at Morden via Bank.” from the Northern Line remained burned into my mind for some time afterward. The third was with school in 2015 on a day trip to the Hunterian Museum and the Royal Society. On that occasion I lost my pass shortly before we were due to catch the East Coast train back to Hull Paragon, but was spared from an awkward situation by the fact that the one remaining ticket barrier at King’s Cross had been mysteriously left open.

While living at Cottingham I often went on walks past the Thwaite Street level crossing and around the neighbouring station, but never had cause to actually get on the trains (perhaps just as well – they were mostly the notorious Pacers, after all) that went there.

In the last week I have voraciously consumed the YouTube offerings of Geoff Marshall, who has spent many years making short documentaries about British trains, particularly those on the London Underground. He and his wife Vicki Pipe made it their mission to visit all of Great Britain’s mainline train stations in 2017. In particular they highlighted stops at the least used stations, including some that appear to be spookily unpopulated.

Remarkably Marshall’s efforts continued even during the pandemic, including an episode about a train being used as a rapid COVID test centre. In addition to cutting edge modern trains, Marshall also does a few episodes about the emotional retirement of older stock and special appearances by vintage steam locomotives. The series is well worth a watch, although scenes of sweaty commuters huddled together on the crowded tube can be hard to watch nowadays.

EXTERNAL LINKS

Geoff Marshall:

Trains in Yorkshire:

UPDATE (23rd March)

I have compiled all the videos and photographs I took of the trains in Hull and Cottingham, which can be found here. The password is hull.

The Chris Whitty Collection

Since about 2015 I have been an avid consumer of the public lectures put out by Gresham College. Initially the main draw for me was Vernon Bogdanor’s lectures on politics, followed by Simon Thurley’s series on the history of British architecture. The college has a sizeable online back-catalogue in addition to a high rate of new updates, so I was rarely stuck for something to watch.

By 2019 (or maybe it was 2018) I was branching out into lectures about medicine. I do not recall exactly which such video it was that I chose first and nor, until last year, did I remember much about the speaker. When the coronavirus crisis began and the government began doing daily press conferences, I did not think of Professor Whitty as a familiar name or face. Occasionally I think this of a public figure only to discover that I have edited their Wikipedia page years prior, but even that was not the case here. It was only upon searching for him on YouTube and finding familiar thumbnails that I realised I had seen him before.

Sure enough, Whitty spent some years as Visiting Professor of Public Health, and is currently Professor of Physic. He has produced seven series of lectures for the college since 2013, and continues to do so even during the pandemic.

In addition to these he has been the star – or at least a participant – of quite a few other videos over the years.

As far back as July 2012 he gave the Walker Institute Annual Lecture for the University of Reading, talking about Climate Change & Development in Africa.

In February 2013 he gave a speech at the STEPS Centre Symposium about the importance of evidence in health policy. In contrast to his eventual catchphrase, he makes a point here of deliberately including no slides at all. There was also a Q&A session.

In September 2014 he told the Science & Development Network why synthesis is key to science influence.

In late January 2015 he lectured the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene on forty years of fighting Malaria. That October he returned to talk about the pitfalls of eradication attempts.

In March he was a team of speakers lecturing the Royal Society of London about the inside story of the ongoing Ebola epidemic.

In June 2015 he chaired a panel discussion on the control of Malaria, presented by the Faculty of 1000.

In this one from five years ago he is interviewed alongside Professor Dame Sally Davies (his predecessor as Chief Medical Officer for England) about the experience of giving medical advice to the government.

In 2016 he gave a speech to launch the Centre for Global Health Research for Brighton & Sussex Medical School, in which he talks about global demography and its implications for the prevalence of various diseases.

The next week he appeared alongside Nicola Blackwood MP (then Chair of the Science & Technology Select Committee) and others in a panel discussion on Ebola vaccination.

Two months later he recorded a short message for International Nurses day, played by the National Institute for Health Research. Another month after that he gave a presentation commemorating the last ten years of the institute’s work.

In July 2017 he was asked how UKCDS contributes to development.

In April 2018 he launched the King’s Global Health Institute. In May he gave the George Griffin Lecture for the Association of Physicians of Great Britain & Ireland, talking about the direction of health research. That December he gave a short speech at the IDEAL International Conference about the importance of scientific evaluation of innovation.

In September 2019 he was filmed by the Medical Research Council advising on how to influence policy and practice in health prevention.

The most interesting videos are those from the first two months of 2020, just before the pandemic made him famous nationwide. On 23rd January he was interviewed for Public Health England about the importance of physical activity – a theme which has remained prominent in government policy since. On 27th February he appeared at the summit session for the Nuffield Trust to talk about health trends and projections over the next twenty years. At this stage the virus is a looming threat but has not yet taken over. Whitty is asked how he plans to deal with the coming epidemic. His answers are still abstract but already there are references to school closures, banning of mass gatherings and “flattening the peak”.

Leaving YouTube aside for the moment I also found two brief clips of him on DailyMotion: on 31st January he told ODN it was too early to tell if the virus would spread, and outlined the plans the government had in place to stop it. On 6th February he gave advice for those showing symptoms to self-isolate.

On 3rd March the Prime Minister held the first of what would turn out to be a very long series of press conferences on the coronavirus outbreak. Chris Whitty stood to his right and Sir Patrick Vallance (Chief Scientific Adviser) to his left. You might expect me to close here by saying “the rest is history” but, unfortunately, this particular piece of history is far from over yet.

The Next State Opening

There has been a lot of uncertainty over the last few years with respect to the beginnings and endings of parliamentary sessions. It might have been hoped that in 2021 the process would go back to normal, with a speech from the throne each May (typically the third Wednesday, with prorogation the week before). Now, alas, the pandemic could have thrown that out as well. A Cheapo’s Guide to London currently hints that it will take place in October, while Parliament’s own website gives no information at all. It is likely that any planned date could be changed many times depending on how events unfold in the coronavirus saga.

The key difference between this year and last is that now we have a smorgasbord of vaccines to thwart the disease and – in contrast to our poor performance in controlling the outbreak – are distributing them much faster than most other countries. Priority for vaccination is given largely in descending order of age, which could mean that for a few months of this year we have the paradoxical situation in which the elderly are safe to mingle outside while the young have to remain shielded. Overall this bodes well for the House of Lords, the majority of whose members are aged 70 and over. The Lord Speaker went for his first vaccine back in December. The Queen received hers in January. If the government’s target of 2 million vaccinations per week is maintained then the majority of Britain’s population, including nearly all peers, should have received at least one vaccine dose by the start of May.

Still, that doesn’t mean the ceremony will be plain sailing: likely there will still be some social distancing required and face coverings will remain prominent, which could dampen the splendour a little. In particular the crowding of MPs in the cramped space behind the bar of the upper chamber could prove dangerous, and it may be required that only a small delegation from the lower house is allowed to come. Of the frontal foursome it is probable that Mr Speaker (63), Black Rod (55) and the Commons Clerk (62-ish) will have immunity but the Serjeant-at-Arms (44) might not. As with the introduction ceremonies there could be some subtle changes in choreography to allow the key players to stand further apart.

The preceding prorogation would need to have such tweaks as well – although attendance for that is usually quite a lot lower anyway. Lady Evans of Bowes Park is by far the youngest of the five commissioners and thus probably the last to be immunised, unfortunate given that as the Leader of the House she is the one least able to be substituted, as well as the one who sits in the middle and the one doing all the talking. It could be that this year’s prorogation is again done with just three commissioners in attendance rather than five. It is hard to find the dimensions of the chamber online but I think there might just be room to space them out properly, though perhaps it may have to be contrived so that they sit in a triangular instead of linear formation.

To make matters worse, the devolved legislatures in Cardiff and Holyrood are expected to go up for election in the same month. They traditionally welcome the monarch for an opening ceremony in the summer months – though unlike in Wesminster the speech is not a prerequisite for the commencement of parliamentary business. As with so much in this phenomenon, all we can do is wait and see.

UPDATE (22nd March)

The government has put out a press release announcing that the state opening will be on Tuesday 11th May, “adapted, with reduced ceremonial elements and attendees to ensure it is COVID-secure”.

Aren’t You Sitting A Bit Close?

This ought to date well.

Once again I find myself in one of the bits between, specifically the annual Christmas post-script that occurs in the final week of each calendar. It is an awkward limbo, in which the climax of the year has been reached and passed but normality has not yet resumed.

Christmas has always felt like something of a world unto itself, somehow separated from the rest of reality. For almost a whole month (much longer if you work in retail) websites are redesigned, new dress codes are imposed, all manner of buildings are redecorated and new song rotations are adopted for radio stations. We don’t normally treat Easter this way, nor indeed Halloween. In particular, an awful lot of radio and television series are insistent upon doing the annual Christmas special, which is broadcast (and possibly filmed) separately from the regular run, with the holiday often dominating the story, and sometimes even an altered title sequence – snow effects superimposed over the visuals and bells added to the music.

There are quite a few franchises that carry on getting Christmas specials even when they are stood down as regular series. Mrs Brown’s Boys, for instance, ended its last full series in February 2013 but continues to get double bills at Christmas and New Year with the result that “special” installments now outnumber regular ones. Miranda likewise had three series of six episodes each. Oddly the second series ended on 20th December 2010 and the third series premiered 366 days later. This meant there were two Christmas episodes consecutively but they were not specials as such. The third series ended with a cliffhanger on 28th January 2013, which was not resolved until a similar special double in 2014-15. Not Going Out had its finale in 2014 (aired on Christmas Eve, but the episode was not seasonal), yet came back for a Christmas special in 2015 which then essentially became the pilot for a revival and retool in 2017.

Paradoxically, the saviour’s birthday is also a way of nailing down the timeline within a fictional story – most episodes of a fictional series could be set at any time of year – especially if it’s a studio show with no opportunity to check the leaves on the trees – and it isn’t always clear how much time is supposed to elapse between them. If there are at least two episodes set at Christmas with at least one non-Christmas episode in between, then this establishes that at least one diagetic year has gone by. This occasionally leads to problems with the series’ setting. Dad’s Army is a story about the Second World War, but more specifically the Home Guard. That institution was established on 14th May 1940 and deactivated on 3rd December 1944 (although not formally dissolved until New Year’s Eve 1945), which means that only three Christmases occurred during its period of operation. I was not able to binge the entire series again to check, but from the brief summaries I read online it appears that there were at least four episodes released at this time of year (one as part of a normal series, three as specials), although only two were necessarily set at Christmas so perhaps the chronology is preserved. The Simpsons, Family Guy and American Dad all famously operate on a floating timeline – where the external year changes but the main characters never physically age or progress to different life stages. All have annual Christmas episodes year on year without acknowledging the implications. The latter is especially bizarre as the Christmas stories form an ongoing series in themselves which often involves traveling through time and warping reality.

Thomas & Friends** is a franchise in which time never progresses either externally or internally. Sir Topham Hatt’s grandchildren Bridget & Stephen never grow up, nor does the technology level (or indeed the clothing) move beyond the early 1960s. This is despite the inclusion of at least one Christmas (or at any rate wintertime) episode in each series, and indeed quite a few series in which the year apparently cycles around several times. For a long time the only real human (as opposed to real locomotives, such as City of Turo, Flying Scotsman or Rocket) to be written in the franchise was, quite aptly, our immortal sovereign. From Paint Pots & Queens until the start of this year, I think I counted forty-two separate winters on the island, which means that new episodes cannot logically be taking place any earlier than 1994. Her Majesty returned to the franchise in the 75th anniversary special Thomas & the Royal Engine, this time accompanied by her eldest son. Charles is dressed in what vaguely resembles his Gordonstoun uniform, which would place the episode in the period of 1962-1967, but his height and voice would suggest an earlier date.

This year’s coronavirus pandemic has made it painfully apparent which “new” television content is actually new and which was filmed months or even years in advance. The example most prominent for me is Channel 4’s long running panel show 8 Out of 10 Cats, whose Christmas special this year was apparently recorded back in January (i.e. just after the previous such holiday had finished). The studio had a full live audience and plenty of physical interaction between the panelists. The spin-off series, 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, was even worse.

Already the programme had been subject to some creative scheduling in 2019 due to Rachel Riley’s pregnancy. Riley announced her condition on 24th May, and gave birth on 15th December. In scripted series this might have been hidden by careful framing or an oversized labcoat, but this was probably not feasible with a studio audience. The bump is not seen during the eighteenth season (26th July-6th September), but appears prominently in that year’s Christmas special (broadcast 23rd December), during which Carr decides to stake his reputation on the joke “Rachel is heavily pregnant, so let’s get a move on before someone unexpectedly slides down her chimney.”, as well as throughout the nineteenth season (9th January-14th February 2020).

The twentieth season ran from 31st July to 28th August, by which point the pandemic was well underway, and consisted entirely of leftover material from earlier years. Episodes 1 and 2 were filmed in “late 2019” and show Riley still pregnant. Episode 3 was filmed in “early 2019” and includes references to Richard Ayoade’s role in the “recent” LEGO Movie 2, which premiered over eighteen months prior. Episodes 4 and 5 were not new material, but “Best Bits” compilations assembled in 2018 (for confirmation, look at the title slides at the end of the closing credits to see the little “MMXVIII” and “MMXIX” notices). Quite why these episodes were released in so obviously the wrong order is anyone’s guess. There was something of a Funny Aneurysm Moment in episode 2 when Jon Richardson got “Corona” as his word and the other panelists didn’t really react.

From what has been said on Twitter by people claiming to have been in the audience, the 2020 Christmas special was actually filmed in February 2019. That may initially seem crazy, but on closer inspection it is reasonable, as Riley is clearly not pregnant, yet it cannot have been filmed after the birth as the title card still says “MMXIX” not “MMXX”*, so it must have been filmed before the foetus grew to noticeable size, which realistically means no later than July. Why the 2020 Christmas special was filmed before the 2019 one is, again, a question for the ages.

An example of this effect in fiction is the BBC sitcom Ghosts, whose second season was released on 21st September, having been filmed in January and February. Episode 2 has an eerily subplot about how one of the medieval peasant ghosts returned from a holiday outside his village and accidentally gave all of his neighbours the plague, which was originally planned to be much more graphic. This season also includes a Christmas special (released on 23rd December) in which, once again, there is no acknowledgement of the pandemic.

It would be pertinent to ask whether this really matters: current-affairs programming such as Have I Got News For You? or Mock the Week need to be filmed at short-notice, but non-topical material can be stored for any time without the quality being affected. I would say that it does matter at least a little, for all works are a product of their times even if that is not their intention – each new entry being on some level a reaction to what existed before. The longer in advance a program is made, the more those in it must hedge their bets with respect to topical references, social commentary or even acknowledgement of personal circumstances, with the result that a product which should feel fresh and contemporary is instead rendered oddly generic and distant. Furthermore a game show of any kind relies on the audience being invested in the competition while a fictional piece often strives for hype regarding story arcs and major plot developments, but the tension is inevitably dulled if it is obvious that the events on-screen are all in the past.

This year, of course, adds another dimension to this problem. When the general public have spent nine months largely stuck at home, deprived of social interaction and encased in protective clothing, it can be quite jarring – perhaps even a little cruel – to see people on television apparently carrying on as if nothing has happened. Charlie Brooker in his Antiviral Wipe said “many shows which would normally seem cozy and harmless suddenly look freakishly irresponsible” and many online discussions of recent media have comments to the effect that it was like staring into a parallel universe.

*UK Maternity leave is mandatory for two weeks and then optional for up to fifty more. Riley giving birth on 15th December means, that there would only be three remaining days in the year 2019 in which she could have returned to film the special, one of them a Sunday and another New Year’s Eve. It doesn’t seem very likely.

**This paragraph solely concerns Thomas & Friends on television. The Railway Series in print does not have these problems.

UPDATE (January 2021)

Another season of Cats Countdown has been launched. The end card still says MMXIX and Riley is still not pregnant so presumably this was filmed around the same time as the recent special. One wonders just how many advance episodes they could have banked in 2019 – especially given that the previous season already appeared heavily padded.

UPDATE (May 2021)

The Unlucky Tug has made a video attempting to construct a diagetic timeline for the CG section of Thomas & Friends, with particular reference to the implausibility of a middle-aged Queen Elizabeth appearing with a prepubescent Prince Charles. He also notes, as I neglected, that The Royal Engine, the last of season 24 to be produced (though Thomas’s Animal Friends was the last released) is effectively the finale of this section of the franchise, which will be completely rebooted as All Engines Go! this October.

Lords of the Pod

Today the House of Lords launched a new podcast, hosted by internal communications officer Amy Green and head of research services Matt Purvis.

The first episode focused on the way in which the house had reorganised itself due to the pandemic. The hosts began by talking among themselves to get novice listeners up to speed on the basics, as well as plugging the House of Lords Library. The Lord Speaker was then interviewed about his role and that of the institution more generally in scrutinising government and amending laws.

The Baroness Penn, currently Baby of the House, was appointed a Baroness-in-Waiting and Government Whip on 9 March, told of how her first speech in that capacity was made not from the despatch box in the chamber but from her own kitchen.

The Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall, a deputy speaker, spoke of the difficulties of adjusting at short notice to the new working conditions, with some of the woolsack team not being able to physically attend and others having to be hurriedly trained in the new system without ever having learned the old one.

The Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top, Chair of the Public Services Committee, talks about Britain’s ill-preparedness for the pandemic due to lack of prior action on issues such as poverty and obesity, which otherwise might have softened the effects of the virus.

The next episode is due a month from now. The topic has not yet been announced.

The Lockdown Specials

One of the more interesting phenomena to emerge since the start of the pandemic has been the proliferation of makeshift online productions by those who previously would have been on mainstream television. The gap between amateur and professional has been noticeable diminished as a result of the virus, as actors and presenters have been deprived of their studious, props and make-up artists.

Only this year did I discover the radio sitcom Cabin Pressure. In March the writer John Finnemore launched the online video shorts entitled Cabin Fever. In April David Walliams and Matt Lucas performed a Little Britain compilation with improvised costumes. This was warmly received despite the main show having ended thirteen years ago and despite an ongoing controversy about some of its content. On the same night Dawn French released a “Parish Update” based on The Vicar of Dibley.

Especially notable about these online substitutes is the extent to which their creators are open to public contributions for ideas. Earlier examples included Jimmy Carr’s Little Tiny Quiz of the Lockdown. After a while he began asking viewers to suggest questions. I sent in a whole slideshow’s worth, but got no acknowledgement. The latest one – actually three months ago but I only just found it – was on the Sid City channel, a fan channel for actor Alexander Siddig. He played Lt. Dr. Julian Bashir on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine from 1993 to 1999. Although the series ended twenty-one years ago the fanbase goes strong. Fans writing their own stories about characters from their favoured franchise is hardly uncommon, but convincing the cast themselves to perform it is vanishingly rare. The circumstances obviously prohibit the cast from physically interacting, so the stories are formatted as futuristic epistolary novels in which the characters interact through video link. The premise of Alone Together is very topical, of course, being that Cardassia has been closed off due to the spread of a disease – though this one attacks its victims’ thought processes rather than their respiration. A later story, Curse from the Prophets, is even more on-point in its commentary about immigration.

It will be interesting to see which franchise is next to have this treatment – perhaps The Thick of It, as virtual conferences are now so dominant in real-life politics, although Iannucci has said that his satire is redundant now, and how many of the main cast in 2012 would have survived to 2020 is far from certain.

Need No Introductions

Are we missing something?

After an unusually long recess today was the day that Parliament finally resumed, but everything was far from back to normal.

Social distancing measures require MPs and peers to be spaced 2 metres apart, which significantly diminished the capacity of the main chambers. Plenaries can no longer be physically attended by more than a few dozen members at a time. Every other bench has been ruled out of bounds. In the Lords this is indicated by a red cloth placed over the length, while in the Commons there are slabs of cardboard bordered by hazard tape blocking access. The small white cards on the frames of the green benches, normally used by honourable members to reserve a place in advance, were replaced by either red cards with a no entry sign or green cards with a tick to indicate which spots could or could not be used. The red benches have no corresponding external frames, so instead the tick signs were attached to small pillars propped up behind. Two of the three cross benches had disappeared, as had two of the three seats for the upper house’s clerks, and both chambers had lines of tape on the floor marking standing distances.

Last month, without much fanfare, two new junior ministers were appointed to the government with a promise that they would be made life peers. One was Sir Gerry Grimstone, former chairman of Barclays Bank; the other was Stephen Greenhalgh, former Deputy Mayor of London. Today they finally had their introduction ceremonies, which fell short of what they had probably been led to expect. Black Rod still wore semi-state dress, but Garter did not wear his tabard, nor did the newcomers themselves wear the familiar robe. The supporters – existing members of the house who accompany the new one – were omitted entirely. The reading clerk began with the letters patent already in his hand rather than the inductee delivering it to him, then stepped back to give their lordships space to swear the oath and sign in – though Greenhalgh almost forgot the latter step and had to quickly double back. After bowing to the throne from behind the clerk’s table as usual, the procession exited through the content lobby, with the peer only nodding to the acting speaker on the woolsack instead of shaking hands. One cannot tell from the footage, but it can reasonably be reckoned that friends and family of the new members were not given the usual invitation to watch from the gallery, nor to attend any kind of reception afterwards.

Of course, this is still the early stage of transition. Both houses are moving to conduct much of their business virtually, so shortly it may be the case that the empty benches are filled with monitor screens, or even that the chambers are not used at all.

The New Regime

YouTube comment three days ago: “For once, I know exactly how this ended up in the suggested list.”

Hello, good evening and remain indoors. Today I expected to be closing out the second trilogy of Parliamentary Studies lectures with Simon Burton. That lecture has been cancelled, as has everything else.

Four days into the university’s shutdown, the situation is getting bleak. On Tuesday and Wednesday there was still a smattering of traffic on campus but today nearly all the buildings are locked and barely a soul can be seen. Today the vast majority of British children are going home sine die and now many other types of establishments – pubs, clubs, restaurants and so on – are being advised to close too.

Providing the image for this article, COVID-19 announcements have replaced Brexit votes as the nation’s top daily political fix. I mentioned on Tuesday that the pandemic has destroyed what looked like a return to political stability, but the irony extends far beyond.

For much of 2019 the foremost fear was of Britain leaving the European Union without a deal. Many on the remain side made catastrophic forecasts of borders being locked down, supply lines failing, the pound collapsing, businesses closing down and the imposition of martial law. Many leavers, by contrast, seemed to take a perverse pleasure in the prospect, talking excitedly of a reenactment of the Second World War… or at least the version they had seen in films. This year those anxieties and delights have been transposed to the coronavirus, though the political demographics of the two camps are not necessarily the same. Three months ago the emergence of a large Conservative majority caused many to predict that Boris Johnson would become an authoritarian dictator. In the last few weeks he has been criticised for not being authoritarian enough.

Rishi Sunak became an MP less than five years ago and was still unknown to most of the public until mid-February. Chris Whitty did not have a Wikipedia page until 7th July last year. So far it has been edited 154 times, of which 120 were since 1st March. Even I would not have remembered his name unprompted, though I now realise I’ve watched him several times presenting Gresham lectures. Sir Patrick Vallance does a little better, having a page since 2017, though the edit spike is similar.

Parliament has been looking emaciated this week, with both chambers showing a lot of empty space. Prime Minister’s Questions, normally a heated and passionate cacophony of noise in a room overflowing with attendees, became a subdued and timid affair as many honourable members decided to stay away. Later that afternoon the upper house adjourned during pleasure for ten minutes so that noble Lords who had come for oral questions could clear the chamber before the arrival of those who came to debate the budget, thus keeping the benches well below capacity and allowing peers to maintain social distance. Yesterday the Lord Speaker himself announced that he would be going into isolation. He intends to continue the majority of his duties remotely, though the task of presiding on the woolsack must of course be left to his deputies.