From Penny Theatre to Social Media | 2213

From Penny Theatre to Social Media

Last week’s episode on governance and coordination (and the distinction between the two) was something I’ve been meaning to write about for over a year. Rather than fretting about the distinction, noodling on a really long text. I’m glad I just bit the bullet and made it and hit publish. Feels good man. 

It now can serve as an on ramp to a whole bunch of other things I’ve been putting off writing about. I’ve spent the week writing a post about live streaming, coordinative play, Trust’s Moving Castles project and game environments. It’s got rather long, and might need breaking up. But I want to finish the draft first. We’ll see.

Anyways, in the spirit of public connected thought. Today’s show is developed out of an off the cuff comment I made in the text about social media. TikTok, and social media more broadly has its roots in 18th century theatre. By way of light entertainment and reality television. All are formats that put normal everyday people centre stage.

Back in Episode 2036 I talked about Henry Jenkins’ 2006 book convergence culture. Where he describes reality television as being built around β€˜attractions’. β€œShort, highly emotionally charged units that can be watched in or out of sequence.” I pointed out that you could probably find that same sentiment in TikTok’s design document.

Reality television first emerged in the mid to late 90’s. Driven by two separate pressures. 

Pioneered and later weaponised by MTV in 1992 with the launch of The Real World. A programme focused on the lives of a group of strangers who live together in a house for several months. Whilst cameras record their interpersonal relationships. As an aside, the Japanese series Terrace House is the pinnacle of this format.

MTV wanted a scripted soap opera like 90210, or Melrose Place. But that was going to be far too expensive for the fledgling network. Instead, inspiration was drawn from the experimental 1973 PBS documentary series: An American Family. 

Intended as a documentary style slice of daily life. Over the course of filming it ended up documenting the impact of the break-up and divorce of the families parents on their children.

The other pressure on MTV at the time was its own existence. Cable television has opened up the media landscape. 100’s of new channels all competing for attention. A race to the bottom. A race for emotionally charged units.

One of my favourite Youtubers is Stuart Millard. He’s a kind of media archaeologist and social commentator. He spelunks his way through old VHS rips of British television shows uploaded to Youtube. He writes long blog posts about late-90’s edgelord banter shows like Channel 4’s 11 O’Clock show. And will do deep dives on the surviving episodes of Saturday morning kids shows like Motormouth. Millard also has a deep fascination with the life’s work of Noel Edmunds which I appreciate. Check out this blog and support him on Patreon.

It was his recent two part series on the ‘Great British Beauty Contest’ that was the genesis of today’s episode.

Besides the meta level beauty contest the shows contain:. The fashion round, a swimsuit round, maybe a talent round, singing segment, short interviews with contestants and more. The format of the shows are kind of like watching an hour of TikTok but grouped by theme. Proles, smiling and performing for judges. Elsewhere in the wastelands of late 70’s British primetime light entertainment, we see shows with dance troupes, folk singers, comedy skits, celebrities, pop songs the whole works.

The camera eventually came off the sound stages and into peoples homes with both reality television and shows like You’ve Been Framed. Today it’s in our pockets.

TikTtok is an algorithmically weaponised talent show. It’s reminiscent of the 30 second long audition segments from the early rounds of Britain’s Got Talent. A show which is itself the last gasp of light entertainment. Who needs a panel of celebrity judges or Simon Cowell to say β€œnext” when anyone can just swipe up.

We can now connect light entertainment and TikTok back to its origins in the 18th Century as Penny Theatre. Or the Penny Gaff – which emerged during the industrial urbanisation period. It was the professionalisation and exploitation of street performers.

From wikipedia:

penny gaff was a form of popular entertainment for the lower classes in 19th-century England. It consisted of short, theatrical entertainments which could be staged wherever space permitted, such as the back room of a public house or small hall. Unsophisticated, the props and scenery rarely consisted of more than a stage and a piano. The lessee of the venue would often stand by the stage, calling out when each act should finish in an attempt to maximise the evening’s revenue.

Sounds a lot like spending an evening on TikTok doesn’t it?

Penny Gaff theatre became what we now know as music hall, the evening review. Which in turn were lifted from the stage and placed in front of the camera to become light entertainment.

Early Victorian moral reformers described the Penny Gaffs as places that” “no respectable person goes, so they have it all their own way, and corrupt the minds of youth without rebuke”.

Sounds a lot like modern moral panics about TikTok doesn’t it? 

Lastly, the penny gaff derives its name from (unsurprisingly) the cost of the entrance fee. But Gaff was the slang word for the local cock fighting pit. A connotation not lost on the audience, it brought an attitude of blood sport to the evening. As a result performers were frequently subject to the wisdom and aesthetic preferences of crowds, let’s say.

As are performers on social media still today.


The script above is the original script written for the episode. It may differ from what ended up in the edit.

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One response to “From Penny Theatre to Social Media | 2213”

  1. […] Otherwise it’s pure downloading and penny theatre. […]

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