Heston Blumenthal has spoken about the ongoing issue of diners picking up their phones before their knives and forks while eating at his Berkshire restaurant, the Fat Duck. He is reluctant to ask people not to take pictures of the food before they start to eat, however, despite his disapproval. “We’ve debated this for several years now,” he told the Radio Times. “If you say to people, ‘Your food’s going cold’, you put up a barrier between you and the diner.”
Blumenthal knows that the Fat Duck is an expensive restaurant. Its set menu is £325 per person and that’s before drinks or service. It has three Michelin stars and four out of four pound signs. My immediate and instinctive reaction was that if customers are paying that much for their meal, a dinner that is inevitably beautiful to look at, then they have every right to ask their food to pose. Snap away. Fill your camera-roll boots.
And yet I find myself sympathetic to Blumenthal’s frustrations. As social media has taken hold, there has been a growing inability to enjoy an experience without documenting and broadcasting it. To feel resistant to that can feel like trying to hold back the tide.
It may be hopeless to resist it at all. I often think about the recent Australian study that suggested that documenting an experience, and presenting it for an audience, has turned into the experience itself. People enjoyed their holiday less when they couldn’t take a picture and tell other people about it online. That doesn’t mean that those people were less engaged, simply that the rules of engagement have changed, quickly and emphatically.
It made me far more understanding of those viral shots of massive crowds at tourist destinations, queueing and jostling for the perfect, seemingly solitary Instagram post. It is as much a part of travel, for instance, as a dip in the pool or that first wave of a warm breeze that hits you in the face when you step off the plane.
“If I see something beautiful like a sunset, I try to be in the moment, then take a picture afterwards,” added Blumenthal, though if he waits until the sun has set, the picture won’t be much to look at. “A lot of people now are more interested in capturing a photograph so they can post it, which disconnects them from the moment.”
Perhaps, though, saying we were there, with a picture, with a post, is simply part of being there now and that is more connected than it seems.
Jessica Raine: call the dog whisperer
I never thought I’d find myself drawn into a five-hour podcast for dogs that is mostly made up of ambient sounds and the actress Jessica Raine giving a canine audience the kind of positive affirmations for which you’d pay an annual subscription on an app like Headspace. But if this is what 2020 sounds like, then I’m all in.
Raine, best known for her role as Jenny Lee in Call the Midwife, narrates the first of Spotify’s My Dog’s Favourite Podcast (bit presumptuous; mine likes This American Life), an epic show intended to be left on to relax pets when their owners go out.
“You know what’s brilliant about dogs like you? You help people make friends,” Raine purrs. It’s far more articulate than what my dog usually hears, which is either “who’s a good girl?” or “get your muddy paws off that”.
I tried My Dog’s Favourite Podcast out on her, to see how she reacted. She looked at me for a second, pricked her ears up at the word “dog” (dogs are supposed to understand at least 165 words, but mine pretends she only knows three: biscuit, breakfast and dog) and then sauntered out of the room, with a minor air of disgust. I, however, was too relaxed to care.
Stephen Graham: you don’t need to be posh in his company
The actor Stephen Graham has had an extraordinary career, but the past 12 months have been spectacular. He was in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-nominated film The Irishman, an experience he called “my Champion’s League final”, while it was near impossible to tune into a good-quality drama on telly without seeing his face. Now Graham is using his powers for the greater good. Last week, he announced that he and his wife, Hannah Walters, have set up Matriarch Productions, a film and TV company based in Leicestershire, to “try to develop good stories that will be a broader representation of the cultural aspects of our society”.
The timing could not be better. As the culture wars continue to rage, – watch any episode of Question Time for a bleak reminder that the promised post-election healing is a long way off yet – it is hugely important that we hear and see all sorts of stories, from all sorts of people. The debate around whether the privately educated Redmaynes and Cumberbatches find it easier to make a go of acting than many working-class performers, for whom drama school is prohibitively expensive, is one that Graham has been brought into many times before. “If it wasn’t for my mum and dad, and if it wasn’t being able to get a grant to go to college, it would never have been possible for me,” he told Hunger magazine last year.
But what is lost in the posh actor row is that we need to change who is behind the stories that are being told, rather than solely the people in front of the camera. Matriarch will offer opportunities to new writers and directors, and other behind-the-scenes people, who might not previously have had a chance. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.
• Rebecca Nicholson is an Observer columnist