From A to B: Tales of Modern Motoring
What we think about what other people think about cars
Radio might be the most intimate medium but TV is the most sociable; a convivial presence in every living room we’ve ever known, ready with gossip, information, comfort or distraction. In The Friend in the Corner we return to significant TV shows to find out what they did for us, and how they pulled it off.
Friend in the corner: From A to B, Tales of Modern Motoring
A BBC2 documentary series in which people sit in their cars and talk about their relationships with vehicles and with driving. There is no narration, and very sparse, exquisitely timed editing. Everything is concentrated on the drivers and their cars.
There’s fly-on-the-wall and then there’s fly-hovering-persistently-in-your-eyeline. The camera in From A to B barely moves: it sits in the passenger seat or on the bonnet, staring unflinchingly at the driver as they idle in traffic, monologuing. Every shot is meticulously composed, and the careful editing allows still moments to bloom into revelation. Photographed by Martin Parr, it’s full of his remorseless concentration and knack for timing.
Reality TV didn’t quite exist in 1994: there were fly-on-the-wall documentaries, and there were interview shows. From A to B hovers somewhere between the two, the larval stage of British reality TV. Changing Rooms, the first great breakthrough in makeover TV, was still two years away. A year after that, in 1997, we arrived at Ground Force, Driving School and the inescapable, foundational Big Brother.
But although From A to B can be placed within the taxonomy of reality TV, it was a distinct thing: a strange evolutionary off-shoot, like the Tasmanian tiger or the Morris Traveller. While much reality TV is rushed, cash-strapped schedule filler, From A to B is relentlessly crafted and produced. It disdains gossip-fuelling, soap-adjacent emotional churn. It is not interested in what people say and do so much as what they think about what they say and do; it is not interested in cars, but in what interests its subjects about their cars. Its preoccupation is the semiotics of cars, and what people think about the semiotics of cars. Appropriately for the 1990s iteration of BBC2 - a channel with a postgraduate degree from UEA - this is sociology on wheels.
Where did you watch it?
Not in my car. Partly because that wasn’t a thing you could do in those days (unless you had one of those tiny portable TVs that security guards watch sport on) but also because I didn’t own a car. I was living in London, which meant that I both did not need one and could not afford one. I’m not very interested in cars anyway.
What kind of friend was it?
A sneery, metropolitan one.
Like Martin Parr’s pictures, that still, unblinking film camera is just waiting for people to damn themselves out of their own mouths, patiently paying out the rope. Inviting people to talk about how they present themselves to the world through their cars also invites other people to judge them for it. As Henry Higgins observes in Pygmalion, ‘It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.’
A middle-class family asserts that owning a Land Rover distinguishes them from other middle-class families, all of whom look identically smug and suburban to the viewer. Monomaniacal identikit salesmen obsess over microscopic status games in gradations of car marques. A young woman calls her Capri ‘Leroy’, ‘not really because it's a black car’. The merciless camera framings spread the subjects out like pinned butterflies, calmly placing their opinion of themselves against the observable facts.
But it is not only the drivers who are being judged. Who are we, after all, sitting in front of the windscreens of our TV watching the road unfurl before us? Who are we, kidding ourselves that we are taking a dispassionate, educated look at the complex social signals and interplay of modern Britain, when all we’re doing is sating our basic ape curiosity?
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Why did you watch it?
Basic ape curiosity. Moreover, I was a sneery metropolitan type myself (I still am), and wanted my curiosity cloaked in a veneer of intellectual detachment. And I was a child of the ‘80s, the decade of branding and advertising; I understood cars as signals of identity and status.
I also recognised - and welcomed - the style. The static, carefully framed shot was everywhere: it featured in my other favourite sneery metropolitan TV show, Further Abroad with Jonathan Meades (1994), in which the black-suited embodiment of ironic enquiry stumped in and out of artfully arranged tableaux.
It’s also the whole premise of Patrick Keiller’s London (1994), a series of still shots accompanied by Paul Schofield’s lugubrious voiceover.
This is the ironised superciliousness of the quotation generation made visible, Generation X as a camera set-up. The resistance to involvement, the determination to detachment, the whole world-weary, implacable independence of it all. The camera as the eye of the flaneur, taking in the Bishopsgate bombing and the gates of Vauxhall Park with equal amounts of curiosity and application.
But this is the whole point. Everything is interesting, everything is capable of being read, being scrutinised and understood. Those camera shots are so still because we must see the whole scene, take it all in. The wanderer is relentlessly moving but also relentlessly motivated, interested and curious.
Ultimately what From A to B reveals is that we are surrounded by millions of tiny universes, all inching past in traffic, whirling past down the motorway, stacked up in the multistorey. Whole lives, with all their sorrows and joys, dreams and disappointments, packaged up in aluminium and set spinning out into the world on four white-walled radials.
That staring eye is not just full of judgement and mockery; it is also full of wonder at the endless strangeness of the ordinary, the indefatigable inventiveness of culture, the extraordinariness of people. And their cars.
For more ‘90s hipster posturing:
"Generation X as a camera set-up". That sounds very fitting, camera "frames" rather than the real thing (whatever that means). But do you not feel that it's just the past, and memory thereof, that is put into frames, a bit like in the Tom Waits song, or does the whole "camera framing" thing still work on you in the present?