Usually the chattering, excited and snaking queue outside Islington's Union Chapel are waiting in anticipation for a one off performance by a favourite band. Having been to numerous showcases there over the years, I love the dappled light through the stained glass and soft reverberation of the lofty church ceiling. It’s the perfect venue to experience bands like Elbow or even REM many moons ago.
This crowd however, was in the line for a very different kind of live show. It was the first night of the School of Life Live tour, and replacing screeching rock frontmen would be philosophers, psychiatrists and modern day technology gurus, and their lyrics would be derived from a new-school series of self-help books.
School of Life is the brainchild of Alain de Botton, a prolific thinker and author of inspiring books including The Art of Travel and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. It's perhaps explained best in terms of a recent Intelligence Squared debate in which he proposed that religion has a great many benefits to society, in terms of guidance, philosophy, morality and more general support in our modern complex lives. But where do you go if you don’t believe in a deity as an increasing number of people in Europe now claim according to both census and church reports?
Mr de Botton conceived The School of Life; a physical space hosting a book shop, café and various rooms within which a programme of talks, courses and seminars are held every day. The curriculum is managed by several faculties (the lexicon they use parallels that of a traditional university) and covers thoughts on coping with many aspects of the modern condition; how to move on post relationship break up, career choice, retraining your brain and predictably a selection on the theme of managing stress. They also run monthly Sunday Secular Sermons, with past speakers including Grayson Perry and Rory Sutherland delivering the ‘sermon’, often accompanied by Status Quo or Kylie 'hymns'.
Speakers, (or were they performers?), included Roman Krznaric talking about finding a job you love, Philippa Perry (wife of Grayson) who is a psychotherapist talking about how to stay sane and the headline act, Mr Alain De Botton “rocking the crowd” with his views on how to think about sex more.
The audience laughed, applauded spontaneously and to validate my rock and roll comparison, the lady beside me even seemed to be a sort of School of Life 'groupie' - howling out the names of the speakers as they took to the stage! With a thousand people paying £20 a ticket this was a commercial success as well as being a marketing exercise for the series of books, clearly this also generates concert level revenue too, with the merch stand peddling books rather than tour t-shirts. In fact, I think they missed a trick by NOT creating tour merchandise! A similar pattern of success can be seen with the Nine Lesson and Carols for Godless People, which five years in now sells out 6 live shows each festive season – and features a variety of comedians, musicians and thinkers all united by their atheism.
But what does all this pseudo-religious activity have to do with entertainment in 2012? Well, the answer lies in the new role entertainment now plays in peoples lives, not as a passive medium, but as an active, creative entity. The perceived definition of what constitutes entertainment is broadening out rapidly, as can be seen in the blurring of genres. Comedians once restricted to nightclub venues are aping rock stars and selling out multiple stadium shows, while film has broken out of its celluloid frame into the world of performance through a variety of pop-up and secret cinema experiences.
With the desire for shared, social and life affirming experiences at an all time high, the concept of a new style of church community, one where ‘instructions for living’ are delivered by celebrity thinkers, could offer a whole new level of escapism into the great canon of entertainment. In fact a 'movement' comprised of energized, whooping and laughing audiences, led by charismatic "pin-up" speakers could be the catalyst to a whole new type of Smart Entertainment – a model that inspires people to ‘think and do’ as opposed to just consume.