The Ancient Modern
Late Night on the Favorite Five / Joshua Alan Sturgill
When I couldn’t get to sleep the other night, I found myself up at some early hour, drinking tea and browsing some British television shows recommended to me by a friend who knows I love human interest stories. One particular show stands out—not because of its premise or its host, for both were all too typical—but because it featured a particularly memorable woman being spontaneously interviewed on the streets of Chicago.
I should explain the premise of the show, though, so there is some context for understanding why this woman made such an impression. The title of the show was something like “Favorite Five” or “Finding Five,” and it was a kind of reality/documentary program where the show’s host travels to interesting places and interacts with the locals.
The obvious appeal of the show is this charismatic, humorous, attractive host, and his clever interactions with the people he accosts on streets around the world. Most of the interviewees were memorable for their extreme dullness or garishness, and their inability to “keep up” with the host’s banter.
For instance, in this specific episode, the host is walking around downtown Chicago. You know he’s walking around with a whole camera crew, but of course, the viewer doesn’t see that part. It’s night (so folks are out at bars, clubs, restaurants), and he’s stopping people on the street to ask them “what are your five favorite _____ ?” Hence, the name of the show.
I remember: “five favorite vintage television programs,” or “five favorite movies,” and easy questions like that. But most of the Five Favorites were like “five favorite inventors,” “five favorite folk ballads,” and things as diverse as “five favorite vacation spots” and “five favorite porn stars.”
The whole point, as I said, wasn’t to get information. It was to laugh at people’s answers and reactions, and to highlight the suave sex appeal of the host. In this episode filmed in Chicago, it became rather obvious that American culture was being lampooned, and stereotypes about American ignorance and greed were being humorously confirmed. The questions were zippy; the people were dutifully obtuse; and, the editing was superb—meaning I could tell that the 30-minute episode comprised the best of hours of filming, cut and spliced together with lively music and clips of historic or artistic sites in the Chicago area.
So what made this particular episode memorable—and, I could tell that it was memorable to the host and producers, because they gave their subject a lot of camera time—was one otherwise nondescript middle-aged woman who had just stepped out of a bar with her friends. Part of the humor of the show was the surprise of encountering a camera crew and being suddenly interrogated. But this woman didn’t seem at all surprised or embarrassed.
The host started jovially firing questions at her. She answered all of them as if she’d just been thinking about her “five favorite folk ballads” and her “five favorite Trump tweets.” She had glasses and a blouse and permed brown hair. She was someone you would absolutely have overlooked. But as soon as she started talking, her poise and good natured way of speaking completely captivated me. My best description is of an encounter with royalty. But there was not the least amount of haughtiness or conceit. She just seemed naturally regal.
She answered all the questions, laughed with her friends, and seemed to make the host feel as if he were dealing with an equal. She spoke as if the questions were serious, but not important to her. Some of the people being interviewed were forceful and grasping about their opinions. She didn’t do this at all. Some of the people being interviewed shoved friends or acquaintances out of the way to get in front of the camera. This woman seemed perfectly at ease, and asked her friends for help if she couldn’t think of a name or place, and laughed with them as she was talking to the host.
Her dignity hit me all at once. It put me in mind of a book I read years ago about the amazingly high literacy of Welsh miners in the late 1800’s. It reminded me of an anecdote I once heard about Byzantine peasants and stable boys who ably discussed matters of complex philosophy and metaphysics. Most of all, though, this woman and her calm, clear way of speaking broke through a cloud of prejudice I didn’t realize I had allowed to gather around me: the belief that that world outside my peer group is basically greedy and stupid.
It impressed on me the idea of mass greed and ignorance in the world can only be partly true. And what is true in it is inflated and perpetuated in order to keep us feeling smug or needy or frightened of what’s happening “out there.” But in this woman’s face, I saw a pleasant unselfconsciousness that is maybe more common than the television would want us to know. Unselfconsciousness and an intelligent humility doesn’t make for good television, I suppose.
Her name was Sarah, if I remember correctly. She was an “administrative assistant” as we would say now, but she called herself a “secretary” and didn’t seem at all ashamed about it. She was close to retirement. In her spare time, she loved to read, eat ice cream and go out with her friends for a glass of wine at a favorite bar—the bar, in fact, where she was being interviewed for British television. She had a center, a gravity, that didn’t seem at all to depend on her work or circumstance. I got this impression in the few minutes of her interview. And I’m sure that her “moment of fame” wouldn’t change anything about her, or her friends or her routine. If she ever saw the show, it would just be one more among the good times she and her friends always had together.