LONDON – Like most people my age — 51 — my childhood was in black and white. That’s because my memory of childhood is in black and white, and that’s because television in the 1960s (and most photography) was black and white. All the TV programs I watched were black and white, and their images form the monochrome memories of my early years.
That’s one of the extraordinary aspects of television — its ability to trump reality. If seeing is believing, then there’s always a troubling doubt until you’ve seen it on television. A mass medium delivered to almost every household, it’s the communal confirmation of experience.
On Sept. 30 it will be 84 years since the world’s first-ever television transmission. In “Armchair Nation,” his new social history of TV, Joe Moran, professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University, recounts the events of that momentous day. A comedian from Yorkshire named Sydney Howard performed a comic monologue and someone called Lulu Stanley sang “He’s tall, and dark, and handsome” in what was perhaps the earliest progenitor of the kind of televised singing contests we have now.
The images were broadcast by the BBC and viewed by a small group of guests on a screen about half the size of the average smartphone in inventor John Logie Baird’s studio in London’s Covent Garden. Logie Baird may have been a visionary but even he would have struggled to comprehend just how much the world would be changed by his vision — television, the 20th century’s defining technology.
Every major happening is now captured by television, or it’s not a major happening. Politics and politicians are determined by how they play on television. Public knowledge, charity, humour, fashion trends, celebrity and consumer demand are all subject to its critical influence. More than the airplane or the nuclear bomb, the computer or the telephone, TV has determined what we know and how we think, the way we believe and how we perceive ourselves and the world around us (only the motor car is a possible rival and that, strictly speaking, was a 19th-century invention).
Not not only did television re-envision our sense of the world, it remains, even in the age of the Internet, Facebook and YouTube, the most powerful generator of our collective memories, the most seductive and shocking mirror of society, and the most virulent incubator of social trends. It’s also stubbornly unavoidable.
There is good television, bad television, too much television and even, for some cultural puritans, no television, but whatever the equation, there is always television. It’s ubiquitously there, radiating away in the corner, even when it’s not. Moran quotes a dumbfounded Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc) from “Friends” on learning that a new acquaintance doesn’t have a TV set: “But what does your furniture point at?”
Like all the best comic lines, it contains a profound truth. The presence of television is so pervasive that its very absence is a kind of affront to the modern way of life. Not only has television reshaped the layout of our sitting rooms, it has also reshaped the very fabric of our lives.
Just to take “Friends” as one small example. Before it was first aired back in 1994, the idea of groups of young people hanging out in a coffee bar talking about relationships in a language of comic neurosis was laughable. Now it’s a fact of life. Would coffee shop chains Starbucks and Costa have enjoyed the same success if Joey and friends had not showed the way?
But in 1929 no one had woken up and smelled the coffee. The images were extremely poor quality, the equipment was dauntingly expensive and reception vanishingly limited. In short, it didn’t look like the future. One of the first people to recognize television’s potential — or at least the most unappealing part of it — was Aldous Huxley. Writing in “Brave New World,” published in 1932, he described a hospice of the future in which every bed had a TV set at its foot. “Television was left on, a running tap, from morning till night.”
All the same, television in Britain remained a London-only hobby for a tiny metropolitan elite right up until World War II. Then, for reasons of national security, the BBC switched off its TV signal and the experiment seemed to come to a bleak end.
It wasn’t until after the war that television was slowly spread out across the United Kingdom. Some parts of the Scottish islands did not receive a signal until deep into the 1960s, but the nation was hooked. Moran quotes revealing statistics from 1971 about the contemporary British way of life: “Ten per cent of homes still had no indoor lavatory or bath, 31% had no fridge and 62% had no telephone, but only 9% had no TV.”
My family, as it happened, fitted into that strangely incongruous sector that had no inside lavatory or bath but did have a TV. This seems bizarre, if you think about society’s priorities, but it’s a common situation today throughout large parts of the developing world.
I don’t recall much anxiety about the lack of a bath, at least on my part, but I can’t imagine what the sense of social exclusion would have been like, aged nine, if I hadn’t had access to “Thunderbirds” and football program “The Big Match.”
The strongest memory I have of watching television in the early 1970s is in my grandmother’s flat on wintry Saturday afternoons. Invariably the gas fire was roaring, the room was baking, and that inscrutable spectacle of professional wrestling, whose appeal was a mystery to me (if not Roland Barthes), lasted an eternity before the beautifully cadenced poetry of the football results came on.
Perhaps a clue to the vividness of that memory is the potent ambivalence it evokes. That has always been the nature of my relationship with television, even — and arguably all the more so — during my stints as a TV critic. I love it and I hate it. Its indolent allure and its magical revelations.
It can be enormously stimulating. Clive James, the celebrated TV critic of the 1970s, attributed his daughter’s decision to become a scientist to the high quality of science programs on British TV. And yet it can also be stupefyingly pacifying. Among the many things that TV has reshaped are the dimensions of our bodies. That we’ve grown visibly more obese in the past half-century is in large part due to the paralyzing comfort of the armchair in front of the telly.
So television is stifling, dull, lazy, formulaic, predictable, repetitive and queasily melodramatic; and it is stunning, original, transfixing, compulsive, mind-altering and magnificently verifying. Oh yes, verifying. Even as it was, the moon landings managed to inspire conspiracy theorists who believed the whole thing had been staged on a film set. But imagine what that moment on July 20, 1969, would have been like without television — more like a fantastic rumor than a historic occasion witnessed across the globe.
If that day, around halfway through TV’s history, stood as the epitome of American power and humanity’s instinct for exploration, then its counterpoint 32 years later on Sept. 11, 2001, was a vision of American vulnerability and humanity’s capacity for violence. It was an awful crime but it was also, as its perpetrators would have known, an awesome televisual event. I’m not sure if there’s another piece of footage that I’ve watched more times in so short a space of time than that of the two planes smashing into the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
There was something disturbingly pornographic about the need to see more and different angles of the impact over and over again. Yet TV fed that insatiable need and the world came back for everything television could offer. This is why I’ve never understood the question: “Where were you when [fill in the significant historical event] happened?” Because the answer is almost always: “In front of the television.”
I happened to watch the twin towers fall in a bar among a stunned, gasping audience. It was in more ways than the obvious the opposite of the normal way of watching television. Typically we watch TV alone or in a small number and gain a sense of being part of something much larger. But I was part of a large group silenced into being separate individuals. I remember feeling that I wanted to go home. I wanted to go home to watch television.
And here, I think, we see television’s distinctively domesticated quality. It may be a window on the world but, for best results, that window needs to be located inside your home. For there’s an intimacy to watching television, a comforting security like a glowing hearth. “Why should people go out and pay to see bad movies,” asked the Hollywood mogul Sam Goldwyn, “when they can stay at home and see bad television for nothing?”
Regardless of whether the TV is good or bad, when you are inside you can deal with the world on your terms. The very worst news can be absorbed and normalized in the familiar surroundings of your own abode. An earthquake in Asia? What’s on the other side? A famine in Africa? Let’s put the kettle on. Like listening to a storm from within the safety of a sturdy building, watching television is both unsettling and reassuring. While the content may be moving, you always remain at home.
Again it’s an attraction that can also be repulsive. I recall watching Live Aid, the British concert to raise funds for relief of the ongoing Ethiopian famine in 1985, and feeling distinctly nauseous when film of starving Ethiopians was shown with the Cars’ song “Drive” (“Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?”) playing over the top as if it were some sort of misconceived rock video. That event, too, was an example of TV’s curious paradox — the way it bring us together in our separate homes, unifying and atomizing at one and the same time.
There have been countless predictions and received wisdoms about television since I first started taking notice of what was said about it. When I was a child it was trumpeted that British drama — gritty, naturalistic and socially engaged — was far superior to that of, well, anywhere else, but in particular television in America.
But if that were ever true, it became progressively less true, especially in the 1990s, and then became an exercise in the most deluded wishful thinking when HBO and other American cable stations brought us “The Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under,” “The Wire” and several more expansively ambitious series.
As American cinema, which once produced intelligent adult films, has regressed into childish absurdities, so has American television revived the fortunes of creative filmmakers and an industry-load of talented but largely unknown actors. What a shame that this year saw the death of James Gandolfini (alias Tony Soprano), one of the greatest of them all.
There’s much more to television than signature dramas. There is, for instance, sport. Critically speaking, no one seems to take televised sport very seriously. We may have come a long way since Martin Amis complained of “intellectual football lovers” being forced to “cringe and hide.” But the idea still persists that televised sport is just sport captured on camera.
In fact televised sport is much more than that. When I first started watching, the viewer was left in no doubt that he was in a far inferior position to a spectator. Nowadays you pity the poor fan at the match missing out on the divine pleasures of seeing the same event on TV.
Divine? Yes, because modern televised sport — and specifically modern televised football — has turned the viewer into an omniscient, if not yet omnipotent, god. Much of this sporting revolution in television is down to digital channel Sky Sports, and let’s face it, no one — unless you work for him — is in a hurry to praise a Rupert Murdoch enterprise. But credit where it’s due, Sky Sports has scarcely put a foot wrong.
Yet more than sport, one of television’s greatest and most consistently ground-breaking offerings has been its coverage of the natural world. In the U.K., “Life on Earth,” first broadcast in 1979, was a landmark in television and remains the benchmark of the natural history genre. Even coming in an era of excellent documentary series such as “Civilization, The Ascent of Man” and “The World at War,” it stood majestically alone. By 1979 most of Britain had gone color (just 10 years earlier black and white was still overwhelmingly the norm). And how every color was needed to appreciate the mountain gorillas meeting that greatest of living Englishmen, the naturalist David Attenborough. It was a quintessential TV moment — us, the humans inside, being visited by that other, mysterious world out there.
With satellite technology, there are now hundreds of available channels around the globe. That diversity has inevitably led to a certain amount of fragmentation, as well as huge variations in quality.
The days of entertainment shows drawing audiences of more than 25 million are long gone. We are now a multiplicity of niche targets who, thanks to internet streaming of TV programs can watch our favorite programs at any hour we choose. But if that spread of options has broken the communal bonds of shared viewing, it might also liberate us from the obligations of the armchair. In theory we can choose more and watch less.
There is talk of an imminent convergence, of the personal computer, the Internet and TV all coming together on an intelligible and workable screen. Television has responded by making half-hearted attempts at becoming more “interactive.” None has caught on for the simple reason that TV is something we watch, not something that watches us. And the only control viewers really want is of the remote channel changer.
So television will continue to beguile and bore, frustrate and fascinate for the foreseeable future. And that’s just fine, because as long as the box continues to bring in the outside, there’s no need to think outside the box.
Note: “Armchair Nation,” by Joe Moran is published by Profile Books.
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