Thursday, 19 March 2009

How far is too far?

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

The very sad news comes of the death of Natasha Richardson. I saw her, almost twenty-five years ago, playing Nina in The Seagull. It was a beautifully drawn performance, delicate and touching, and she held her own against Vanessa Redgrave and Jonathan Price in their pomp. It is, to this day, the best production of that play I have ever seen, and I can still recall it in my mind's eye. At the curtain call, there was a very touching moment when Vanessa Redgrave held her daughter's hand, maternal pride radiating out of her like sunlight.

Richardson was a remarkably private actress. She did not court the tabloids, and all accounts of her speak of a happy family life. So there is something jarring about the rabid media coverage of her death. Of course it is a story when someone so young and talented dies so suddenly of an accident that seemed so innocuous. But did every single paper and website have to wheel out their neurological experts and ask horrible questions like: 'Could Natasha have been saved?'. Did they really have to quote and re-quote the so-called 'family friend' talking about her being brain-dead before the news was confirmed by the family? Did they have to speculate about what her husband and children must be feeling?

The friends who knew Richardson best put out short and dignified statements of tribute and condolence and refused to speak to the press. Martha Stewart, on the other hand, twittered about it. If you have ever been on Twitter, you will know that it is a site of such staggering banality that there are hardly words for it. (I keep trying to get it, and then I realise there is nothing to get; as Gertrude Stein once said - There is no there there.) In the hands of a clever man like Stephen Fry it can have a sort of haiku-like quality, but generally it is the cyberspace equivalent of graffiti. Writing about a reaction to a death on Twitter is like going out and spray-painting it on a wall in Acton.

But Martha was easily outshone by Tina Brown. She went on to the Morning Joe cable show in America to talk about politics, but was asked first: 'You knew Natasha Richardson?'.

'Oh yes,' she said, as if delighted to be asked. 'She was the most womanly woman.' (I have no idea what this means.) Brown then talked about the tragic nature of the death for a few minutes, in an oddly bloodless way, and then pivoted, seamlessly, into taking pops at the Democrats over the AIG bailout, and laughing over general idiocies on Capitol Hill. I know that she is a sharp media creation, but I watched this performance with my mouth open like a cartoon character. If a good friend of yours had just died suddenly, would you go on television at all? And if you did, because, oh I don't know, life has to go on or some other homily, would you not stipulate that it was the last thing you wanted to discuss? Surely some things should remain private?

I think the new media is mostly a marvellous thing; the internet is an Aladin's cave of wonders. I don't think it is rotting the minds of the young people or turning the middle-aged into morons. But when people use it to canibalise a moment of private sorrow, I think it has gone too far.

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