Do we really want live entertainment on a flight?

Live performances on planes? That's the latest madcap scheme from Richard Branson on his new Virgin domestic airline in the UK, Little Red.
Live performances on planes? That's the latest madcap scheme from Richard Branson on his new Virgin domestic airline in the UK, Little Red. Photo: Getty Images

In May I flew from London to Edinburgh on Virgin's new airline, Little Red, which has been introduced to take domestic passengers from Heathrow to Scotland and Manchester. It was a pleasant enough flight, and about the length of time it takes to read one New Yorker article on my iPad.

After a 24-hour flight from Sydney and running the gamut of all the security checks before boarding, I was glad of the relative peace and quiet in a cabin mostly full of business travellers.

But if you had flown on Little Red this past month you might have been lucky enough, or unlucky enough, depending on one's point of view, to be entertained by a live comedian trying out his or her act before appearing at the Edinburgh Festival. And from September onwards, that spotlight might be filled by a live music act from Manchester or Edinburgh's "rich music scene", as Virgin's publicity would have it.

Richard Branson's latest madcap scheme is intended to "shake up" the conventions of domestic British travel. In an admirable attempt to make flying less tedious, the airline plans to book live gigs on some of its services, without informing its passengers in advance, apart from posting updates on Twitter and Facebook. Virgin Atlantic had some success with an airborne art gallery in upper class on the London-New York route last February and so the company is pushing the boarding pass envelope once more.

But an art gallery is a passive event, easily ignored. Hurtling through the sky 3500 metres above the ground in a sealed cocoon while a Jeff Buckley clone massacres Hallelujah, or one of those dopey female 20-year-olds with a girly voice sings about her cat, is a different thing altogether. It's potentially at least as bad as being held hostage by a fellow traveller with reeking BO and a heavy cold.

Don't get me wrong, I adore show folk and appreciate that it's tough to find venues to try out your stuff. And now that those entertaining demonstrations of lifejackets by flight attendants seem to be a thing of the past on international aircraft, a bit of showbiz is missing from the take-off ritual.

I have actually thought once or twice what it might be like to have comedian Pam Ann burst through the curtains to do her trolley-dolly routine. And I would have no objection, ever, if Bob Downe, Eddie Perfect or Le Gateau Chocolat were booked to sashay down those aisles.

But it's a risky proposition for Little Red. Some of these acts might have conservative folk choking on their free bacon sandwich. And, if a comedian's humour is blue, as it most always will be, will the airline censor it? And how? By a flight attendant with plastic handcuffs wrestling the errant jokester to the ground?

We all know too well that comedy and music are issues of personal taste. I can't imagine anything worse than being stuck on a flight with the live equivalent of someone's compilation tape of the 1970s. But you might love it. (Most of the Muzak airlines play is numbingly awful, although mercifully restricted to take-off and landing.) I suppose the airline could operate the gigs as a kind of X Factor where an act is given one minute to convince the cabin that he or she can go on for another 10.

But that may still leave 49 per cent of the passengers grinding their teeth. Unlike encountering buskers on subways, where you can always change carriages, if you don't like the inflight entertainment, you cannot get off.

You could boo the performer back into his or her seat, but this makes for a rambunctious, although possibly thrilling, flight.

There is the option of popping on noise-cancelling earphones, if you happen to carry them, and keeping your head in a book. But I was raised to be well mannered, and I feel this is rude. So we can look forward to the time when the aisles are busy with contortionists and sword swallowers, although perhaps not fire breathers. Trapeze artists will strut their stuff during turbulent thunderstorms.

At midnight, mid-Pacific, we could be treated to The Rocky Horror Show and flight attendants doing the Time Warp.

When they send in the clowns, one thing's for sure - we'll be the most captive audience any of these performers will ever have.

lee.tulloch@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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