I’m not sure why I would have first searched ‘Driving in Portsmouth’ on YouTube. I think it may have been that I was thinking about a public sculpture that exists in the fork of the motorway as you drive out of the city, and over that slither of water at Hilsea that officially gives the city its island status.
I am from Portsmouth. Its particular topography is held in the oldest part of my brain even though I don’t live there and I don’t need to know it. I can perfectly visualise the paving slabs in my street, the tracks on the footpath on Portsdown Hill, how many steps it takes to cross the road over to the George Inn, and the exact weather conditions which ensure the ice cream van might be parked next to Micks Monster Burger, in or out of season.
The public sculpture in that fork of the motorway was a Millennium project, one in a set of architectural investments the city made to mark a thousand years since the last one and the new dawn of a new century. These Millennium developments were a neo-liberal spending spree to show future generations that we had taste, money, foresight, democratic ways of selecting designs for public sculptures, that we valued the arts, believed in cultural heritage and that Portsmouth was to be a ‘destination city.’ Everyone was into the Millennium; I even remember the coolest band at school who my friends’ older brother was in was called Millennium. We all remember Robbie Williams in that chainmail dress on Top of the Pops. I know exactly what I wore on New Years Eve y2k, synthetic parachute pants and a shoulder-less long sleeved top from Tammy Girl (I must have been freezing.)
‘Driving in Portsmouth’ turned up quite a few results. In fact ‘Driving in…’ videos are a thing. People just drive around a place filming from the dashboard or from the passenger seat. Sometimes they have the local radio on, sometimes its silent, maybe they add some effects when they switch between footage. The comments are often from people that have moved away from a place and are very nostalgic, they might say something like ‘Its changed so much!’ or ‘I remember when I lived on Palmerston Road in 1976 and drove this route everyday’ Then a commenter might pipe up with ‘it would be quicker if you turned right outta South Africa lodge then first right again onto Warfield Ave all the way though to Hulbert road, up to round about back down, straight over bottom round then right onto the m27 :)’, a conversation then ensues about the quickest route from a to b. Personally, I feel those people are missing the point, although its hard to say exactly what I feel the point is.
My favourite Youtube video that has now been deleted was called Driving in Portsmouth at Night, I think, although you tend to only half remember these things because you assume they will be there forever and can be coungoured indefinitely with two or three abstract words. It was around four minutes and was roughly split into two sections. In the first half we drive around Southsea during bright sunshine hours with Ziggy Stardust as our soundtrack. The film is cut, according to chord changes in the song for dramatic effect, and somehow passing pedestrians and indicator lights seem to fit exactly with the music. The comedian Bridget Christie confessed that when driving with her children they will always play the theme from Steptoe and Son in the car, to produce this same effect, rendering every passer by as an extra in their personal comedic invention, similar to the strategies of John Smith’s films.
Anyway, halfway through the YouTube film, our journey dramatically switches from day to night. The lights go out just as the bridge of Ziggy stardust comes in, and dashboard lights blink as Bowie heightens with the lyric ‘So where were the spi – ders, while the fly tried to bre-a-k our b-a-lls, With just the beer light to gui-de us, So we bitched about his fans and should we crush his sweet h-a-nds?’ And we are then left euphorically gliding up a pitch black motorway, past the afore mentioned up-lit millennial public sculpture in the central island, ‘Oh ye-e-ah.’
The film is for some reason, to me, hilarious. I think because it is affectionate and earnest, with considered editing and heightens to a climax. Maybe that is a formula I respond too. It’s very hard to say why you find something particularly funny, but its something actually quite serious and worth thinking about. There have been some great comedies set in cars. Marion and Geoff is an incredibly under-rated cereal, it’s so clever and gentle; Just a man in a car, recording himself and allowing his personal tragedy to unfold. Alan Partridge’s driving ettique is always a delight. Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan would collaborate later on The Trip, some of the funniest scenes of which take place inside their car either singing along to or stoically coexisting with the music they have chosen to soundtrack their journey. Seinfeld’s Comedian’s in Cars Getting Coffee is worth a mention. Using the car to film is also associated with low budget or D.I.Y approaches, early reality TV and constructed reality genres.
I recently had some hypnotherapy, which was a rather wonderful insight in many ways. Along this process of nudging and flexing the deepest and darkest held feelings that seemed calcified in the most surprising parts of my body (the therapy associates memories with colours and parts of the body), I found many moments of distress were associated with being a passenger in a car. A revelation I found tinged with comedy, as so many personal tragedies are. All of these ideas, people making driving videos, others responding to them so fondly, the association of specific music with specific stretches of road, repetition, routine and comedy led me to consider the car interior as a gendered space. The representation of the car interior on TV of in particular, I feel is presented as a male space; something I’d like the reflect on further elsewhere.
I started to think about the kinds of experiences I’d had as a passenger and the intensity of memory I have for particular car journeys. Ultimately, although it is in some ways familiar territory and the dramatic potential of the car interior is so fully explored in cinema, I think there is something banal, lo-fi and slippery here that I’d like to respond to in film.
It may or not be funny.