Armchair Nation: An intimate history of Britain in front of the TV, by Joe Moran, Profile Books, 352 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1846683916
Irish television was formally launched on New Year’s Eve, 1961 and in 2012 RTÉ celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with a range of commemorative programming. As part of its celebrations, it also commissioned a history of the station from one of its own. John Bowman had spent almost all of the previous half-century working for the national broadcaster, where he was widely perceived as one of its few front-of-camera intellectuals. For many years, he had also presented a weekly radio show in which he played recordings from the station’s sound archives. Within RTÉ, he was seen as a person of integrity, but also as a loyal and dependable staff member. From the viewpoint of the station’s management, he must have seemed the perfect choice to cast an informed – yet discreet ‑ eye across five decades of Ireland’s television history.
Bowman’s brief, one presumes, was primarily to consider RTÉ’s role as a semi-state organisation. His emphasis throughout Window and Mirror: RTÉ Television 1961-2011 tends to fall heavily on the institutional aspects of the station – for me, its least interesting dimension – and, in general, he avoids delving too deeply into the impact of its programmes on Irish society. That is perhaps just as well. Bowman seems happiest when working his way through the written minutes and memoranda left behind by successive RTÉ Authorities and finding evidence of long-forgotten skirmishes with various politicians, clerics and senior civil servants. On the rare occasions when he tries to assess and explain the popular appeal of the station’s shows to Irish viewers, he seems to have strayed far from his comfort zone.
Joe Moran’s Armchair Nation lies at the other end of the spectrum: it is a perceptive, witty, provocative and consistently entertaining read. Moran treats popular television with understanding, respect and a degree of affection, but his underlying purpose is, at least, as serious as that of Bowman. His goal is to determine some of the cultural effects ‑ both profound and ephemeral ‑ that this extraordinary medium has exerted upon the British public since the BBC first provided a TV service to a few hundred viewers in November of 1936.
There had been earlier attempts at launching the new technology. In 1925, John Logie Baird demonstrated his invention at Selfridge’s department store in London – catching the imagination of James Joyce, who refers to the event in Finnegans Wake. However, according to Pope Pius XII, the first TV broadcast had actually occurred a good deal earlier: in 1252, to be precise, when St Clare of Assisi watched a midnight Mass taking place some miles away as it appeared on the wall of her convent cell. In 1958, the pope declared this to be a bona fide miracle, and named Clare patron saint of television.
The first proper programme to be broadcast by the BBC was a short drama by Pirandello – which might seem like a surprisingly avant-garde choice but was probably determined by the play’s minimalist requirements: there were only two characters, little dialogue and no set. A select audience of VIP guests viewed the twenty-minute piece on the roof of Baird’s studio, standing under a canvas canopy in front of a five foot-high screen composed of two thousand incandescent bulbs that lit up in turn to provide the light and shade of the picture. Halfway throughout transmission, the bulbs became so hot that the screen began to melt. The transmission was, nonetheless, hailed as a great success.
Early programmes included demonstrations of how to cook, clean and iron – activities which, as one critic drily noted, were likely to be “of little interest to those who [can] afford television sets”. More popular was the BBC’s sports coverage – which attracted large crowds wherever TVs were on public display. Sports fans tended to be forgiving of the technical limitations of the new medium. One reviewer of the Wimbledon final of 1937 conceded that it had “seldom been possible to follow the progress of the ball itself”. However, he found the “strokes and movements about the court” were “so clearly visible that the absence of the ball hardly seemed to trouble the viewer”.
The BBC’s television service was a casualty of World War Two. All TV programmes were discontinued for its duration, and the only people left watching television in Britain were members of British military intelligence tuning in to the occasional transmissions from Nazi Germany. It was not until June of 1946 that the BBC resumed broadcasting, and, once again, the popularity of sports coverage was to prove crucial in its future development. The London Olympics of 1948 coincided with the introduction of a new type of TV camera whose revolving lens turret allowed the competing athletes to be filmed in close-up and medium range as well as in long shot. For the first time, British viewers could watch Olympic events as they happened, and witness the dramas of defeat and victory etched on the faces of the competitors.
Television viewing received another major boost with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. The Archbishop of Canterbury had refused the BBC’s request to film inside Westminster Abbey in 1937 when King George VI was crowned. In 1953, the Coronation Commission permitted cameras to record the ceremony on the understanding that there would be no close-ups of the Queen – a constraint that was soon forgotten in the excitement of the live broadcast. It is estimated that more than twenty million viewers watched the ceremony on the BBC. Given that were only two million television sets in Britain at that time, there was clearly a great deal of communal viewing.
In 1953, Northern Ireland was the region with of the UK with the lowest proportion of TV sets. Unionists tended to welcome the introduction of BBC television to Ulster as a sign that Northern Ireland was an integral part of the British state. Nationalists, on the other hand, were deeply suspicious that the intention was to corrupt and anglicise the local population. That may help to explain why armed RUC guards were maintained throughout this period at the BBC’s Divis transmitter. Meanwhile, a chartered Aer Lingus flight packed full of television aerials left Cardiff airport for Dublin in May of 1953 ‑ so that the coronation could be viewed by some of the citizens of the Irish Republic. The Republic had yet to establish its own television station, but a forest of tall aerials had sprung up along the east coast in order to capture TV signals from the UK, and there were believed to be more than 100,000 TV sets in the country: a useful reminder that the history of British television is also, in part, a history of television in Ireland.
Viewed from a contemporary perspective, the BBC’s first attempts at TV broadcasting may seem fairly primitive, but many of the elements that we now associate with contemporary programming were already present in embryonic form. The Inventors’ Club, for example, has clear parallels with Dragons’ Den; Take Your Pick – a game in which contestants had to guess what was concealed in closed boxes – has obvious similarities to Deal or No Deal; and, as its name would suggest, the current Strictly Come Dancing series is based on the original format of Come Dancing.
TV “personalities” also emerged at an early stage, and, once again, there are contemporary equivalents. Gilbert Harding became famous for his acerbic and arrogant screen persona. He was the first TV celebrity that viewers “loved to hate” – appealing to conflicting emotions in much the same way as Simon Cowell in more recent years. The BBC’s first presenters may now seem to speak in archaic and strangulated accents, but in their day they were also able to attract high levels of public curiosity and media attention. In fact, the last surviving specimen of that primeval era is still going strong: David Attenborough made his first television appearance in 1954 – when he was described by one critic as representing “the finest type of young Englishman”. As he approaches his ninetieth birthday, Attenborough is currently anchoring a state-of-the-art 3D nature series on a satellite channel. He has clearly proved more adaptable to a changing environment than some of the creatures he has filmed.
From the beginning, British television drew more than its share of critics – some of whom were clearly fuelled by petty snobbery and intellectual disdain. Long before the recent complaints about TV “dumbing down”, it seemed to some commentators to represent the lowest and most vulgar form of common denominator. According to Aldous Huxley, television was “a sort of Moloch which demands incessant sacrifice”. In Brave New World, Huxley portrays television as an opiate used to sedate the masses and keep them docile: a literary trope which has surfaced repeatedly and in several different guises since.
For TS Eliot, the word “television” was itself “ugly” and smacked of “foreignness” and “ill-breeding”. Noel Coward considered TV to be “a hideous and horrid invention”. A columnist in The Sunday Times believed that the lower classes were particularly at risk from the “idiot box”. He compared an evening of “televiewing” to one spent visiting a brothel, and suggested that prolonged exposure to TV would result in the domestic life of working class families being “emptied of nearly all its richness and warmth”. Writing in the British Medical Journal, a heart surgeon at St Mary’s Hospital in London even claimed to have detected a new form of angina that was generated by watching exciting TV shows. Other doctors were equally gloomy, predicting that television would lead to a greatly increased incidence of thrombosis and asthenia.
Suspicion of the long-term effects of the new medium was even expressed by some of those who worked inside the television industry. “What would make me happiest,” one head of children’s programmes at the BBC said about her viewers, “would be that they went away.” I presume that a similar ambition led to the creation of the more recent series Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Television Set And Go And Do Something Less Boring Instead? No doubt its producers had somewhat mixed feelings when their show proved to be very popular with British children – regularly attracting large audiences, and running for twenty-two years and forty-two successive seasons.
In political terms, British television in its early years came under attack from ideologues of both right and left. For those who regarded themselves as part of a social elite, there was a certain prestige – and smugness – to be found in not owning a “telly”. One critic claimed that the absence of TV sets in upper middle class homes was “as much the done thing as [driving] a Land Rover”. A critic writing in the left-wing New Statesman confessed to feeling “depressed and alarmed by the utter triviality of nine-tenths of the flood of pictures which are so earnestly and expensively hurled at us”, and many in the British Labour Party were concerned that the habit of watching TV would prove to be soporific and addictive – leading to political apathy among Labour’s traditional supporters and fragmenting their sense of class solidarity.
Such concerns were exacerbated with the introduction of Independent Television in 1955, since many of its brash new shows attracted large working class audiences. ITV stations also introduced a new awareness of regionalism to television broadcasting in the UK. The identity of some of the new independent stations may have seemed somewhat arbitrary – Granada, which was one of the biggest, even took its name from a region of Spain – but they soon inspired great loyalty from their viewers.
This was particularly true of Ulster Television. In 1955, there were less than fifty thousand TV sets in the whole of Northern Ireland – an overall viewership that clearly could only generate a limited amount of advertising revenue ‑ but UTV decided to offer special cut-price rates to local advertisers. The first chairman of the company had realised that it would make a big difference to Northern Irish viewers if the new channel was seen not only to be promoting international brands, “but also car dealerships on the Newtownards Road and animal feed producers in Cookstown”. BBC Northern Ireland had tended to use TV announcers who spoke with clear, but rather posh diction ‑ UTV made sure that the accents of its front-of-camera talent indicated that they came from Ulster.
Despite its restricted budgets, UTV was able to produce some extremely popular strands of local programming. These included Tea Time with Tommy – featuring Tommy “Mr Music” James. Five nights a week, this former salesman from Camden Town would read requests and bash out a string of sentimental ballads on his trusty piano. The format was simple and without obvious sophistication – but it was also without pretension, and, perhaps, that was the secret of its appeal to Ulster’s viewers. Tommy James also appeared regularly on The Romper Room – in which “Miss Adrienne” or “Miss Helen” would tell stories and play games every afternoon with local children. It is, I suppose, a tribute of a sort to the great popularity of this show in Northern Ireland that its name was eventually used to designate the back rooms of pubs where loyalist paramilitaries would assault, torture and murder their unfortunate victims.
From an early stage, UTV had almost as many viewers south of the border as in Northern Ireland. However, the Independent Television Authority was aware of the political sensitivities involved, and instructed TAM – the Television Audience Measurement agency – not to include the Irish Republic in UTV’s viewing figures. This resulted in a loss of possible advertising revenue to UTV, but, in compensation, the British Post Office would not allow Northern Irish cable companies to pipe Telefís Éireann into Ulster homes when a television service in the Irish Republic finally came on stream. This restriction was only dropped when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998.
Some of the long-term effects of Independent Television were less obvious. Until the advent of ITV, the BBC had adopted a fairly relaxed attitude towards punctuality – with individual programmes often over-running their advertised durations. There was also a somewhat haphazard approach taken to the sequence and time slots in which BBC shows were broadcast. This serendipitous outlook was even understood by some as part of the charm of Britain’s national broadcaster. ITV was quick to introduce tighter, better-defined, and more competitive schedules, which were based on the commercial experience of TV companies in the US.
By the 1980s, the importance of creative scheduling had become clear to all broadcasters – though not, perhaps, to the general public. Moran provides one revealing example of its hidden power. In 1981, the BBC had launched a drama series called Tenko – dealing with the harrowing experiences of a group of plucky European women who were held prisoner by the Japanese army during World War Two. The series originally played after the 9pm watershed on Thursday nights. Its initial viewing figures were dismal, and the series was viewed within the BBC as a complete flop. The reason for this apparent failure was spelled out to its producers in stark and uncompromising terms by one of the BBC’s commissioning editors: “No-one,” he said, “wants to know about an all-woman cast [who are] looking their worst.”
Michael Grade had recently been appointed as controller of BBC 1, and he brought to his new role a highly developed understanding of scheduling strategy. For Grade, Tenko “smelled of Sundays”. Over several decades, Sunday night had become associated with period drama series ‑ the most recent example of which is Downton Abbey. In some respects, these period dramas might even be said to have subsumed the cultural functions of the Anglican service of Evensong: providing the British public with a calm and reassuring start to the impending week. Once Michael Grade had moved Tenko to a new slot on Sunday night its viewing figures rocketed, and soon exceeded fifteen million. The series went on to run for several seasons and was sold to TV stations around the world. Last year, the BBC issued a book called Remembering Tenko – in which it is described as “one of the best-loved drama series of all time”.
Tenko may still be loved, but the transient nature of most television programmes has often frustrated those who take TV seriously as an art form. Dennis Potter wrote some of the best-known landmark dramas in television’s early history, but he admitted that he experienced a profound sense of anti-climax at the end of each broadcast. A play might have taken him months to write – with characters who had “leapt up gibbering in your mind when you (were) trying to sleep” – but, after the end credits had finished rolling, Potter felt that there was simply nothing left: “all used up, all at once, all gone”.
A somewhat similar ambivalence about the fleeting nature of most television shows can be found in the reviews of TV’s first newspaper critics. Most of those who wrote for broadsheet papers had previously worked as theatre or film reviewers. It was not surprising, then, that they tended to focus on prestige programming – such as Potter’s plays, or serious and worthy documentaries. From the beginning, TV critics tended to dismiss the value of popular entertainment shows and soap operas: indeed, some critics still tend to look down upon the sort of programmes that most viewers actually prefer to watch – including, one suspects, the reviewers themselves.
That critical response was challenged in the 1970s by the Australian writer Clive James. Since he wrote for The Observer – a Sunday newspaper – James did not have to phone the copy of his TV review in to any news desk late at night. Instead, he had the time to develop and refine what Joe Moran aptly describes as his “rococo, allusive style”. James was not afraid to address – and enjoy ‑ the popular television shows that “quality” newspaper critics had traditionally shunned. At times, he could not resist showing off his personal erudition – quoting the poet Rilke, for example, while reviewing Charlie’s Angels – but in general his promiscuous mixing of high and low cultural references was both exhilarating and insightful. For James, television was a vibrant democratic enterprise: one that encompassed such a huge range of forms that it was able to resist all attempts at a narrow definition.
Eventually, Clive James gave up writing about television in favour of appearing on it, but his influence was to prove long-lasting. In the following decades, it was not unusual to find that popular British TV shows had been reviewed by a variety of artists, poets and novelists. Paul Theroux, for example, wrote of his fondness for Coronation Street; George Melly sang the praises of the Blockbusters quiz; while Stephen Spender confessed to a passionate love affair with Neighbours. A new wave of TV reviewers appeared as we were about to enter the present millennium. Critics such as Victor Lewis-Smith and Charlie Brooker began to focus on the soft underbelly of satellite television – with shows such as When Animals Attack and My Breasts Are Too Big – and dissected them in what were often scabrous and scatological terms.
In more recent years, the growth of social media has made the traditional role of the TV critic somewhat irrelevant. Nowadays, television programmes usually begin by displaying their hashtag to encourage viewers to tweet. Moran views this as evidence that TV viewers still seek the sense of community that is generated by the belief that you are watching the same show at the same time as many other people. He believes that this powerful human impulse has created “a universe of instant reaction and ongoing commentary”. In fact, amateur bloggers are often much better informed about television than professional reviewers, and the Twitter feed provides producers and broadcasters with market research that is not only free but usually gives a detailed and realistic assessment of the impact of their programme.
Moran’s book also provides realistic assessments of TV programming; in the process, he explodes some of the most cherished myths about British television. For many people, Morecambe and Wise have come to embody the golden age of British TV comedy. Their 1977 Christmas special is now generally regarded as the high point of the comedy duo’s television career, and it is often spoken and written about as if the entire British nation had gathered around their TV sets to watch the show. In reality, as Moran points out, the 1977 Mike Yarwood Christmas Special, which immediately preceded Morecambe and Wise on BBC 1, was watched by a larger audience. Far from uniting the nation in laughter, Morecambe and Wise seem to have encouraged tens of thousands of viewers to switch off, or change channels.
Then, there is the case of It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum – a sitcom that depicted the exploits of a British army Concert Party in India during World War Two. Nowadays, this series is often viewed as a prime example of racial condescension: its cast, after all, included a white actor who had blacked up to play the part of an obsequious native bearer. In fact, the actor in question had grown up in India, and research has revealed that his fluency in Urdu and Punjabi delighted many Asian viewers. According to one of them, British Asians were “happy to see [themselves] on television at all”, and were pleased that the Asian characters in this sitcom appeared to be “human and humorous”, and were not treated as “rebellious” or “barbaric”.
There are many other received wisdoms about television that are challenged by Joe Moran in this excellent book. Perhaps, the most significant of these is the notion that it was once a force for social cohesion but is now watched by a fractured collection of individual consumers. Moran suggests that this tendency has been greatly exaggerated, and points out that TV coverage of major royal occasions, sporting events and popular entertainment continues to attract very large audiences, and to provide everyday points of reference for many British citizens. The reality is that no other medium has invaded our private lives as thoroughly and effectively as television. It has helped to shape and change attitudes in every country in the world – crossing and undermining political, social and cultural frontiers with astonishing ease. It has been a force for democratic expression, and is still feared in totalitarian regimes: earlier this year, more than eighty North Koreans were publicly executed for the crime of watching TV shows that had originated outside the North Korean state.
Moran avoids the sort of moralistic commentary that often accompanies this sort of cultural historiography. He also avoids indulging in nostalgia for any putative golden age and is well aware that quality and dross have always co-existed on television. However, I must admit that I find one of his judgments somewhat disturbing – though, sadly, all too credible. Moran reckons that most television shows – to which talented production teams have often devoted months, if not years of their lives ‑ have only left “momentary imprints on our retinas and slightly less momentary imprints on our brains before vanishing into the uncaring ether”. For someone like myself – who has spent almost all of his adult life working in television – that is, to say the least, a sobering conclusion.
David Blake Knox is a former director of production with RTÉ and executive editor with BBC Television. His independent production company, Blueprint Pictures, was founded in 2002, and has produced a range of TV programmes and films – including Imagining Ulysses, a feature documentary about James Joyce’s novel. His book Suddenly, While Abroad: Hitler’s Irish Slaves was published last year by New Island Books.