I know the exact day when my future life as a critic was set on its course, because I still have the ticket stub to prove it. It was 5 June 1992 — seat D4 at the 8.15 p.m. screening, to be precise — when I went to the Curzon Phoenix cinema in central London with three schoolfriends to see what would become my all-time favourite film (and, subsequently, book), Merchant Ivory’s Oscar-winning masterpiece Howards End. That perforated ticket stub, a little raggedy around the edges now, sits in pride of place on one of the three cork pinboards I display in rotation on the wall of my bedroom, all of which host a mini patchwork quilt of tickets for plays, films and exhibitions I’ve seen.
For 28 years I have maintained these pinboards carefully, arranging and overlapping the tickets neatly with a series of jauntily coloured drawing pins. For me they represent the most glorious items of home decor, as valuable and evocative as any book, painting or piece of furniture. They are snapshots of a time, a place and a happy memory that I can recall each morning as I sit up in bed and catch sight of them: that musical in Sheffield, that film at my favourite cinema in Rotterdam, that visit to the art gallery in Porto. Yet when I see the ticket for the film Misbehaviour (14 March 2020, 6 p.m. at Picturehouse Central, Piccadilly Circus) I feel anxious: will this be the last item I ever add to my decades-old collection?
It is, I admit, not the gravest consequence of the pandemic, but Covid-19 looks as if it may kill off paper tickets for good. Paper, previously an unexceptionably neutral substance, is now a key public enemy, a potential hotbed of germs and hand-to-hand virus transmission. Venues are desperate not to re-involve their staff and punters in the passing around of bits of paper, and it saves them a fair whack of money on the printing costs too. It looks to be the final triumph of grimly practical mobile-phone ticket downloads and QR codes: technological innovations whose encroaching popularity I have held out against for years. The perfunctory transaction of holding my phone up to an electronic scanner at a venue’s entrance holds no appeal for me whatsoever. After all, I can hardly affix a phone and scanner installation to my bedroom wall, can I?
The demise of physical tickets will prove a small but crucial loss to the entertainment historians of the future. I am constantly drawn to exhibitions that contain treasure-trove displays of old ticket stubs, as these little pieces of paper have so much to tell us about the venues in question, how they saw themselves and, crucially, how they wanted to be seen. Not to mention, of course, the eye-wateringly upwards course of ticket prices over the years.
I look again at my pinboards and notice the heavier, more expensive paper and the intricate embossed detail of the tickets for the stately Royal Opera House and Glyndebourne, compared with the changing array of funky neon colours on the stubs for the innovative Almeida theatre in north London. If one wanted to track the National Theatre’s concerted efforts at self-reinvention over the past couple of decades, my pinboards would be a very good place to start. If one wanted to trace the giddy price inflation of cinema admissions, my pinboards would reveal that Howards End cost £5, whereas entry to Misbehaviour, with a member’s discount, was £14.20.
What to do now? I find myself in a strange sort of ticketing limbo. I have been to two events since culture’s slow reawakening from its corona-induced big sleep and my wallet contains a couple of dog-eared pieces of A4 paper as testament to this fact. Still a mobile-download refusenik, I printed the respective tickets myself at home — but glorious as Jesus Christ Superstar at the Open Air Theatre was, my scrappy low-grade computer paper bears poor witness to its finery. This won’t make it on to the curated pinboard display, and nor will my ticket for an alfresco concert in Chichester, complete with its schoolmarmy reminder to ‘take all your litter home’.
Just before coronavirus struck, I was thinking that my pinboards were looking somewhat overcrowded and that it might be time for one of my painful periodic culls. I’ll hold off now, as it doesn’t seem as though there will be any further tangible keepsakes of good times to replace them in the future.