There have been few moments of the good life this year, so those we’ve had have been all the more intense. Mine came at the end of what would once have been the second act of A Christmas Carol. Do you remember intervals? Anyway, there I was watching a straight through, 90-minute production at the Bridge Theatre in London, all the more magical because of the darkness that has descended on theatres for most of this year.
On the brink of economic ruin, a cast of three reduced an audience to tears over a wooden puppet of crippled Tiny Tim — double the tears as a miniature crutch appeared without him — and joyful laughter at a couple of modern references. The actors ended in Christmas jumpers and bowed to an ovation.
I saw it the day after reading an interview with Simon Russell Beale in which he explained that the role of Scrooge had saved him from applying for Universal Credit. One of our greatest living actors . . .
I texted the director Nick Hytner to say that he had saved Christmas, and he replied that he was glad that I had seen it, for the theatre was expecting to close again the following week, with every likelihood of London going into Tier 3 (as it since has). Theatre folk have gone back to the state of strolling players under Oliver Cromwell, performing where and when they can.
Not every industry has suffered so grievously. There have been some pandemic successes, including a device that seems presciently designed for people going nowhere. It is the Peloton bike, which, for the health-conscious moneyed classes has proved a brilliant diversion in lockdown. Rishi Sunak has confessed that it is one of his preferred forms of exercise. Of course it is. The exercise bike is our chancellor in electronic form: discreet, expensive, digital, hard-working, slightly preposterous.
That 2020 would be memorable for Peloton seemed improbable just a year ago. Those of us who do not frequent expensive gyms became aware of the name only through a disastrous advertising campaign. A glossy narrative suggested the firm and its ad agency had failed to read a single news story discussing an epidemic of coercive control by toxic men. A beautiful and slim young mother wakes to her Christmas present from her partner. “A Peloton! Give it up for first time riders.” Our poor imprisoned Stepford wife keeps a year-long video diary of her exercise sessions, which she sits down to watch proudly with her partner. “A year ago, I didn’t realise how much this would change me. Thank you.”
Feminists were outraged, the internet was awash with parodies and Peloton was said to have had $1.5bn wiped from its value for this dystopian, sexist Christmas advertisement. So it was with mixed feelings, a few days later, that I watched my son lead his young City wife, shortly to give birth, into the hall to view her present. As she opened her eyes we all looked at our feet. No submissive spouse she. Would she clock him? But no, my daughter-in-law was happy: “A Peloton!”
Perhaps people who work in finance are too focused on results to waste time on irony. Their baby, a year old on New Year’s Eve, has watched intently as his mother has pounded the static miles. She could easily have kept a video diary of her year, for the Peloton has been central to it, providing all the physicality of cycling, but none of the punctures and articulated lorries and rows over those new council lanes. Indeed, the only social commentary has come from their dog, a cocker spaniel that ran off with one of her clip-in shoes and buried it in the garden, never to be found again.
Now that it is such a success, it is easy to understand why. The demands of the pandemic have played into a developing trend, which is to reduce as much of life as possible to remote, digital transactions. The Peloton is very good at this, being connected by the internet to a dazzling range of photogenic gym instructors of either sex, ready to recreate the sweaty rigours of a gym class, without the face-to-face physical engagement demanded of a Tinder date. Better still, for those competitive athletes from the City towers, each class links to everyone else doing it, so you can see where you are in the running order. And, if you don’t want to engage with a virtual class, you can turn on the video and follow a scenic route.
That dip in valuation can be forgotten. It’s a sales and a subscription business, for once you have bought the kit, you need to pay to connect to those cute instructors. After gym closures and lockdowns sent people home, sales have soared: the company has a market cap of $34bn.
But not everyone is convinced. I asked my husband, who has twice ridden the length of Britain from Land’s End to John o’ Groats, if he would like one this Christmas. He was outraged. “Do you know how much they cost?” I didn’t. “And why would you go nowhere inside the house when you can cycle miles outside?” Perhaps it is a generational thing.
Sarah Sands is chair of Bright Blue and a board director of Hawthorn Advisors
Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first
Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen