The government has harnessed the power of infotainment | David Mitchell

It was such a relief, on Monday afternoon, to see that the government had finally sorted out its messaging. Up to then it had been so confused! Stay at home! Go out a bit! Go to the park but don’t sit down! Put on a mask if you’re having a picnic! Stay alert – the virus may be behind you! Catch the virus at a sustainable rate! Somehow try to do some economic activity! Anything but a podcast!

You may not go to your second home! But you may now buy a second home! But you may not now go to it! See your parents one at a time, up to a maximum of four! Do not exercise for more than an hour! If you go to Cumbria you will be killed! Wear adorable homemade masks, not scary medical ones, which are reserved for concealing compassionate smiles from the dying! Clap separately but simultaneously! If you’ve got dementia, remember to take extra care! 

If you’re anxious to comply with the rules, how can you know that you are? And equally, if you’re anxious not to, how can you know that you aren’t? That’s just as galling. Like a vandal discovering that the wall he’s defacing is actually a specially designated civic space for people to express themselves.

But now it’s been sorted! The government has finally twigged that the best way to get through to people at times like these is with drama. Drama has an unmatched power to communicate complexity, and to resolve apparent contradiction, to humanise vast and ungraspable concepts. And that brings me back to Monday afternoon’s broadcast and the launch of HM Government’s new pandemic-explaining character “Dominic Cummings”, star of the new state-sponsored infotainment strand Cummings and Goings.

An everyman in the mould of Hector the tax inspector, Dominic Cummings appears to be the product of CGI rather than Hector’s more conventional cartoon animation, and looks impressively human, albeit slightly sullied by the digital taint of the uncanny valley. His movements, surely the product of Andy Serkis’s inimitable amphibianesque physicality (thanks Andy for stepping up when your country needs you), were projected on to a verdant garden backdrop and the character then seated himself at a simple table with a glass of water, presumably to allay any subconscious audience concerns that he needs to keep moist. 

Then we were in for an informative treat! Enough of the hypothetical scenarios, let’s hear about what an everyday decent guy has been doing under his own unique and specific circumstances – because, in the end, everyone’s circumstances are unique and specific, and guidelines can only ever be that: a guide. And rules can also only ever be that. And laws too. And the lines on a road, just guidelines, lines guiding you wherever you want to go. 

In the case of Dominic Cummings, that was a big phlegmy trip with wife and child up to his parents’ property in Durham. That’s a long way from his home in London, but here is the government finally showing it gets it: not everyone’s family estate is in the Home Counties. Come on – wake up, media bubble! Some families have to look much further afield to be able to buy a large amount of land. That’s the reality of modern Britain. Hooray that it’s finally being recognised. 

As with a lot of important art, Cummings and Goings is rich with allegory. Durham doesn’t just mean Durham. Durham is an idea, a feeling, a state of mind – a hope, a plan or a secret. We all have a Durham – that’s what Cummings is saying – but it’s probably not literally Durham. His Durham is Durham but your Durham may be Brighton or the outer Hebrides or a pub that still opens on the quiet.

And of course we aren’t meant to take literally the idea that Dominic Cummings drove 30 miles to a riverbank at Barnard Castle on his wife’s birthday purely because all the opticians were closed. Nobody would be so stupid as to think that could be fact. Is it fiction then? Assuming so, like all the greatest fiction, it conveys a deeper truth. What is that truth? Well, as both Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have said, people need to “make up their own minds”.

The nuance and complexity of Cummings as a character is a testament to how much respect our leaders have for us. Not for the British a patronising clear and packaged message, but instead an unvarnished deep, insoluble human truth – pain, fear, disdain, secrecy, compromise and how scruffy a shirt can look after a comparatively short period of wearing it, all laid bare. This is a massive advance in public communication and I predict Cummings will be bigger than the Green Cross Code Man. We’ll be buying dolls of him – little nodding ones for the dashboard, implicitly endorsing our every journey. 

I look forward to Cummings’s future adventures whatever they’ll be. Cummings saying “lovely bluebells” when his eyesight goes weird again on the A1(M); Cummings losing his job and starting a podcast; Cummings climbing up a 5G mast to set fire to it, slipping and ending up dangling from his own beanie; Cummings taking his wife and child on a 100mph circuit of Brands Hatch in order to safely check his tyre pressure.

And of course, the real stroke of comic genius is how Boris Johnson joins in with the fiction, like Tony Hart did with Mr Bennett. Whatever Cummings does, Johnson’s endorsement provides the punchline. A lesser leader might excuse Cummings by saying he made a mistake but not a very serious one. But Johnson said he “acted responsibly, legally and with integrity”.

Not just “he is in general a responsible, law-abiding person who has integrity” but on this particular occasion – the Durham trip under lockdown plus eye test at the national speed limit – for that bit of his life, Cummings “acted responsibly, legally and with integrity”. Etch that phrase on to the side of a giant aluminium penis, call it “The Treachery of Words” and you’d have a major contender for the Turner prize.

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