Peter Batten is not amused . . .
Earlier this year the very popular television programme, “Deal or No Deal” vanished from our screens. This was a great relief for me. I was not a regular viewer, but I did see parts of the programme from time to time. Whenever I did I was made very angry by the behaviour of the presenter, Noel Edmonds. Over the years, he developed a very sly way of mocking the unfortunate contestants. To my amazement none of them seemed to realise, so they went on exchanging banter with “Good Old Noel”, while the slimy presenter was laughing up his sleeve at their “lucky” numbers and their game plans. It was a horrible performance.
But something else about the programme left me tearing my hair. Why do so many of us believe in things like “luck” or find meaning in coincidence? My uncle John was a believer in something called “The Law of Averages”. Apparently, this meant that those who do bad things, although they seem to succeed, will eventually be punished. It sounds rather akin to the medieval “Wheel of Fortune”, where those who rose to the top were bound to find themselves, eventually, rolling down on the other side. I don’t think Noel Edmonds was too worried about such ideas as he pocketed his fee for each edition of “Deal”.
My mother appeared to believe in a reverse “Law of Averages”. Whenever anything good – a rare occurrence – happened, she felt sure that some disaster must follow. Unfortunately, having grown up with her, I find it hard to shake off a similar reaction.
Let’s deal with coincidence first. Whether good or bad, surely a coincidence is just what the word says – a coincidence. I can think of a chain of several coincidences in my own life which led to a friendship lasting over 50 years. But if I stop to consider the links in the chain, each of them can be explained by shared interests, shared educational opportunities or shared friendships. I had a long running argument over several years with a lady in one of my Adult Education classes about what I call the “Some Enchanted Evening” Delusion. You probably know the song from the musical “South Pacific”, which celebrates the idea of love at first sight. Her own experience convinced her that it can happen, but I am afraid I was far too cynical to agree.
The idea of “lucky” numbers, which so many contestants brought to “Deal or No Deal”, is so silly that it does not deserve discussion, but there were two fundamental aspects of all our lives which the programme demonstrated. The first is that the “Law of Averages” is nonsense. Bad things can happen to some unfortunate people not once but several times, sometimes in quick succession. By contrast some absolutely horrible people can succeed time and again. They can even present programmes on the television.
This first aspect is used in the opening scene of Tom Stoppard’s play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”, where a coin being tossed keeps coming down on the same side time after time. But Stoppard makes another point. A messenger arrives and knocks on their door. He comes from King Claudius who is summoning them to Elsinore to help him attempt to murder Hamlet. From the moment they hear that knock they are caught in a chain of events which will lead inevitably to their deaths.
There is a point in many people’s lives when they make a decision, often in a brief second, which affects them until the day they die. The contestants on “Deal” were asked to make choice after choice as part of the element of chance which the game so brutally demonstrated. Fortunately for them their choices only resulted in the loss – or gain – of a few thousand pounds. In life the consequences of a choice can be much more serious, for good or ill.
No, Uncle John, the “Law of Averages” does not apply.