“Nobody knows anything.”

mornington-crescent

Do you know the game Mornington Crescent? It’s a regular feature on the Radio 4 comedy panel show, I’m Sorry, I Haven’t Got A Clue. For those not familiar with the show, ISIHGAC is a kind of satirical piss-take of panel gameshows, with the main aim being for the contestants to be amusing rather than actually winning anything. Mornington Crescent is a game often ‘played’ within the show – the objective is to give the appearance of a game of skill and strategy, with complex and long-winded rules and bye-rules. Contestants name London landmarks in an apparently strategic sequence, utilising various gambits and manouevres along the way. For example, players might use the Kentish Town Defensive Opening or the Mortlake Play. They might invoke Trumpington’s Variations, Tudor Court Rules or the Martello Convention and they may put opposing players ‘in Nidd’. The aim is to be the first to announce “Mornington Crescent!”

The joke – which everyone except uninitiated listeners is in on – is that the various strategies, rules and variations are all completely improvised. While all of the contestants sound like experts in this arcane, labyrinthine parlour game, no-one actually knows how to play Mornington Crescent – because there’s no actual game, just a long-winded, absurdist in-joke. The ‘winner’ is the contestant who ‘plays’ with the improvisational dexterity, confidence and self-assurance. Or, to put it another way, the best bullshitter.

While I find most Radio 4 comedy panel games smug, annoying and – worst of all – utterly unfunny, Mornington Crescent is often hilarious. The idea of a bunch of clever people tying themselves in daft, esoteric knots, like some inverted comedy version of The Emperor’s New Clothes, is fascinating. And it really reminds me of advertising. So many times I’ve sat in bemusement as rooms full of extremely bright people have talked around and around a problem, throwing jargon and acronyms around like confetti and completely missing the utterly simple answer right in front of them. Just like Mornington Crescent, the ‘winner’ in advertising is often the person who can present their point of view with the most impressive balance of eloquence and confidence. But no matter how self-assured the brightest advertising people may seem, no matter how persuasive those articulate brainiacs fluent in marketing jargon can be, I find it liberating to remember that vast swathes of what we do are completely subjective. That most of the debates we have every day come down to ego and opinion. And that in advertising, just as the legendary screenwriter William Goldman famously wrote of the Hollywood film industry, “Nobody knows anything.”

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About antmelder
Creative Partner at DDB Sydney; passionate vegetarian; lover of books, boxing and Bruce Springsteen.

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