When I was a child, growing up in the 1960s, our household television set was a great black-and-white beast of a thing. A valve-driven, mahogany-encased behemoth that, if you wanted to watch it, you had to switch on several minutes beforehand to allow the circuitry to warm up. On which you had to adjust the vertical and horizontal holds to obtain a clear picture. Or if that failed (which it often did), bang just so on the top or the side to get it to perform.
There were three channels available: BBCs 1 and 2, and the arriviste, commercial-funded, ITV. One’s elders tended to turn their noses up at the latter, though one suspects they were happy enough to watch it when the curtains were closed.
Actually the middle and upper classes affected disdain for TV in general – certainly prior to the Queen’s Coronation in 1953, the first British broadcast to garner viewers en masse; but even into the 60s there was still a whiff of contempt for the “goggle-box”, the “idiot’s lantern”. It was, I think, no accident that many early sets had doors at the front that you could close when you weren’t watching, thus disguising the telly as another, less infra dig, piece of furniture. Nor that folk whose houses were big enough would often have a dedicated television room, separate and distinct from the living room, where the monster could be kind-of hidden away. New-fangled. Mistrusted. Not altogether healthy. Shameful, somehow.
And TV was rationed then – not just by our elders and betters, but by the broadcasters themselves. I remember (and I may be misremembering; I was very young) there was a short burst of telly at lunchtime on a weekday – the news, followed by Watch With Mother – then school-age kids’ programmes from about 4pm to 5:30pm, then boring grown-up stuff until 10:30ish… and that was your lot. National anthem, thanks for watching, goodnight.
But my parents, and especially my grandmother, took a perverse pride in being thus constrained, and I don’t think they were the exception. American television might have hundreds of channels (in colour, too!) broadcasting around the clock; but so what? Everyone knew that too much TV rotted your brain, that US television was just so much dross, and that quantity was no substitute for quality. Commercial-free and espousing the highest ideals (“Nation shall speak unto nation”; “To inform, educate and entertain”): despite the strictures imposed on it, BBC television was the best in the world.
Because of them, actually. There was a fear that if British television as a whole were to abandon its high-minded principles, if the industry were to be opened up to all-comers at all hours, the quality would be totally lost. That TV would sink to the depths, with channel after channel pumping out a non-stop diet of nothing worth watching.
Fast-forward (one of the many things you couldn’t do, back then) to the present day, and my grandmother would be dumbfounded. Not just by the proliferation in the quantity of television, but also (happily) by the concomitant growth in comms and computers. Information technology.
It’s the latter which has kept the programme-makers honest. Thanks to tech, not only do we now have more channels, but more media in general. Which has given us, the viewers, agency. The whip hand. You might mourn the demise of “water-cooler” telly, when watching and talking about TV was more of a shared experience; but because we have the means to watch what we want to watch, when we want to watch it (were she alive today my Grandma could watch the Coronation all day every day on repeat, if she so wished), or indeed not watch it at all, programme-makers have had to fight ever harder to attract and retain our attention.
So that far from dumbing down, the standard of programmes, both homegrown and imported, has become consistently, incredibly high.
American TV, once the source of cop shows like Kojak and glossy soap operas such as Dallas and Dynasty, somehow came of age in the 1990s and started producing grown-up, nuanced dramas like The West Wing and Breaking Bad, clever satire such as The Simpsons and The Daily Show, and laugh-a-minute comedy series: Friends, Curb Your Enthusiasm, et al.
Meanwhile British television maintained and strengthened its stranglehold on documentaries and TV journalism: Panorama continues to get better and better, if that were possible; our newsgathering and broadcasting are bywords for thoroughness and impartiality; and documentary strands like Storyville, or frankly anything fronted by David Attenborough, are not far short of life-changing.
All this, and Heaven too: superlative, diverse comedy like Father Ted, Peep Show and Ricky Gervais’s latest vehicle, After Life; hard-to-define sometimes-meta comedy-drama strands such as Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror; and enormo-spectacles like the recently-ended Game of Thrones. (Which I’ve never watched – a fact of which I’m oddly proud.)
My Mum and Dad, and my Grandma, were wrong. TV may have grown and diversified, but most of the shows hitting our screens are beyond fabulous. But if I could venture just a small gripe-ette?
I’ve sworn not to get political, and I’m not about to break my vow. But the fact is that we live in what the ancient Chinese curse euphemistically calls “interesting times”.
And the last thing I want, when the news cycle is as grim as it currently is, is to sit down in front of something similarly bleak. The Handmaid’s Tale is brilliant, prescient, beautifully written and wonderfully acted – but my God it’s hard-going. Humans, flesh-and-blood “Us” against silicone-and-circuitry “Them”, is likewise thought-provoking; but I’m not sure I’m always ready to have a mirror held up to our fractured society.
There are too few dramas that provide light and shade. For every Killing Eve? Ten Bodyguards. For every Fleabag? Ten Virtues. And as for comedy, bittersweet is not for me; Don’t Forget the Driver is a dark, miserable thing. Gentle comedy doesn’t hit the spot, either; The Detectorists, anyone? Surely the first rule of comedy is to make you… you know… laugh?
Thanks to modernity, life – multidimensional, multifaceted life – has been brought not just to my doorstep but into my home, into my pocket, in ways that my forebears couldn’t have imagined. Visual media, plus a whole lot more. And it’s great, I wouldn’t have it any other way. But can we – can I – be blamed for occasionally hankering after a more innocent, less complicated age? Where we could all sit down, forget our troubles, and lose ourselves in The Forsyte Saga or belly-laugh at the silliness of Morecambe & Wise?
Reality is hard-hitting enough as it is.