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1 February 2011

The happening place

“I’m standing here, outside a building, where something is going on. Or not.”

By Steven Baxter

It’s hard to pin down exactly when it happened, but at some point in the 1990s we started seeing the outside of buildings on the news. It was a boon for architecture students or people who enjoyed seeing houses or offices in all their glory over the shoulder of a serious-looking on-the-spot reporter, slightly less interesting for the rest of us.

“I’m standing here, outside a place, where something is happening,” the reporter would say, in the kind of hushed tones reserved for David Attenborough intruding on a couple of copulating gibbons in a rainforest.

“Hang on,” I must have pondered the first time I saw it, “what are they doing, standing outside a building? Why do that? Why not show something happening, or nothing happening, or just admit that nothing’s happening, and have someone in a studio talk about the nothing that’s happening?”

Of course, you’re not allowed to say nothing’s happening. Something is always happening. Not on camera, but somewhere near where the camera is pointed. And once in a lifetime, looking at the outside of a door has brought joyous success – Bernard Ingham barging John Sergeant out of Margaret Thatcher’s way as she crashed his OB to tell the world that she was fighting on in the Conservative leadership battle against Michael Heseltine.

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Every other time, though, no. It’s just been the outside of a door.

“Here’s someone’s front door. They might open it; they might not. They’re . . . not opening it. Ooh, is that someone behind a curtain? No. It’s a leaf blowing in the wind. We’ll just stay with these pictures for a moment, in case . . . no. No, I just thought I saw a flicker there, no.” And so on.

When the world went mad during the general election campaign last April, you could look at a stalker’s-eye view of a door belonging to a house of someone who’d been called a bigot by Gordon Brown. As if we wanted to. Or might be interested in the door. “Oh, there’s a door, much like one you can buy in B&Q,” we said to ourselves. “And there it stands on its hinges, resolutely staying shut, while something of mild import happens behind it.”

There’s a new layer of ennui that’s been added to the “house where something might be happening” news trope; it’s the “football stadium where nothing is actually happening” shot. Transfer deadline day this week saw camera crews rushed to football grounds where the floodlights were off and nothing was demonstrably happening, where players may not have even been, where ink may not even have been applied to contracts with telephone-number salaries on them. But that was the nearest thing to a location, so that’s what they filmed.

It’s surreal, when you think about it, to have a reporter standing outside a football ground where nothing is happening, reporting on the nothing that’s happening, telling you that perhaps something might be happening, then telling you about the “sources” they’ve been hearing about telling them about what might (or might not) be going on over their shoulder, in that giant stadium that’s closed.

More surreal to think that clusters of fans actually start arriving outside these empty stadiums to celebrate/commiserate/burn things, depending on their mood. Are they doing it just because the cameras are there? Which means, all of a sudden, the cameras aren’t there in vain; they’re finally filming people who’ve turned up to celebrate the nothing that’s happening in the stadium behind them, because someone was on TV reporting on the stadium in which nothing was happening, so they thought they might come down and see what was going on – even if it’s nothing.