Who remembers the dark days when inflight entertainment meant staring up, neck cricked, at a small monitor suspended from the ceiling? Such screens were hung at intervals above the aircraft’s aisles but never within easy viewing if, like me, you were short of stature and required two pairs of spectacles to negotiate your way through life. Long-distance glasses didn’t do the trick and up-close reading models were equally useless.
But now there are seatback televisions or screens that pop from the arm-rests on most airlines, except the budget carriers where, from my recent experiences, you’re lucky to have a seat that pushes back even an inch, let alone be treated to a free ticket to watch The Hundred Foot Journey, which stars Helen Mirren, who’s reliably watchable at any altitude or incline, by the way. If you do score a telly, there’s usually something with Judi Dench or Maggie Smith, even if only boxed sets of series 103 of As Time Goes By or Downtown Abbey: The Musical.
On international flights of late I’ve taken to watching World Movies, from postmodern phantom ninja adventures to something starring Idris Elba as a CIA agent set in Paris with a mix of English and seemingly random French subtitles and so much sliding down roofs and falling through skylights that there is no way he can’t be considered frontrunner to play the next James Bond. When the pickpocket (and possible terrorist) he is chasing is finally nabbed, Elba asks why he ran away, “Have you seen yourself?” the chap whimpers. It is a good reply.
Watching inflight movies you can’t understand — something from Iran, perhaps, with Tagalog subtitles — is sleep inducing and possibly better entertainment than Modern Family: The Retirement Years. The best airline package, in terms of variety, from music and TV to features and documentaries, is aboard Emirates, which has an astonishing 2500 channels. It may want to rethink its acronym of ICE, though, for Information, Communication and Entertainment. Just an idle thought as I see it emblazoned across the screen before Chinese Buddhist monk Xuan Zang sets off on his perilous journey to India in search of enlightenment. The eponymous movie, in Mandarin, is set in the seventh century and his quest will take 17 years, according to the ICE info, which at a guess is going to feel like Sydney-Dubai-Heathrow and possibly back again. I have botched the English subtitle command so must read the wording across the screen in German, a language in which I can count to 10 but that’s it.
No matter. It reminds me of watching subtitled Scandinavian crime shows on telly with my husband and the pair of us sitting on the couch and going “Tak! Tak!” like a pair of batty cuckoo clocks, pretending we can speak Danish. He goes across to the kitchen, just out of sight of the screen. “Don’t worry,” he says confidently, when I suggest I pause the show until he returns, “I can hear it from here.” Sometimes, it’s easier just to relax with your feet up and let your imagination take flight, especially when your head’s in the clouds.