It’s like your front room, but with pigeons and no chance of fighting over the remote. Welcome to the new world of telly-dominated public spaces.

Waiting for the gift of sound and vision. Picture by PaulSh

Big screens have been popping up all over the UK recently. With the sound off, they’re rather like those screens you see while you’re queuing at the bank. But in Birmingham’s Victoria Square the other lunchtime, the sound was on and echoing around the heart of the city.

I like Victoria Square. Its public art, its use of different levels and sense of enclosure, and its position at the civic heart of Birmingham make it a great space. As Les Huckfield commented on Twitter, there are days when the whole of Victoria Square is ‘alive in an unrivalled cultural mix’.

No doubt some bright spark at the BBC thought the big screen would be a superb way of bringing this cultural mix together. There are big screens in 22 cities and towns now, a joint venture between the BBC, local authorities and the Olympic organising committee.

The BBC says, without the faintest hint of irony, that this will bring our cities to life:

Each screen is customised to reflect life in its community with a broad range of local content, including events listings, events and partnerships with community, arts and media organisations.


The promotional video says the screens will bring local communities together, and shows clips of people cheering at sporting events and ‘interacting’ with no doubt carefully crafted digital content.

Imagine that. Public spaces customised to reflect their local communities. Who’d have thought it? Luckily we have a huge national corporation to show us what to do.

Not everyone thinks this is a great idea. Following my initial comment on Twitter, people voiced their displeasure at the screens in Millennium Square, Bristol (‘embarrassing, blaring away to everybody and nobody’) and Manchester’s Exchange Square (‘horrible’).

Dan Gregory sarcastically tweeted: ‘Think of it as a brilliant piece of public art. What else could reflect the lives of the people of Brum than a supersized TV screen?’

The trouble is the people at the BBC really think that. They see the big screens as not only extensions of Olympic jollity but also as showcases for local talent.

I’m all for showcasing local talent. But seriously, do we need to mediate it through a giant screen and the BBC’s filters of what constitutes good taste and acceptable content?

The point about public space is that it’s a setting for the public – for people to make what they want of it, a stage for formal or informal performance, a place of meeting and conversation. The users of the space become its creators. Stick a 25 square metre screen in and everyone faces in the same direction.

In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, public screens were used to channel the energies of a cowed populace into the fury of the Two Minutes’ Hate. In today’s public spaces all you need to subdue the masses is a steady stream of cheery blandness, with occasional interjections by Robert Peston.