27 SEPTEMBER 1969, Page 8


Living without television


We have been hearing a great deal in recent days about the particular troubles of one part of the television industry. But is not the story of London Weekend Television—the amazing promise, the brave beginnings, the disillusionment, the collapse into reality—in fact in some ways a microcosm of the whole history of television itself over the past fif- teen years?

There is hardly an article written about television these days which is not taken up with laments as to how dire it all is, the tired programmes, the repeats, the old films, the lack of any kind of imagination, illu- minated here and there only by flashes of tasteless sensationalism. Over the past few years, the pattern of the LWT story has been only too familiar—ballyhoo surrounding some vast 'new look' or new project, such as the BBC's second channel, which then turns out to have been nothing more than wishful thinking surrounding the same old mixture as before.

And yet the remarkable thing is the un- dying optimism of the commentators that it still somehow might all be different. If only the tycoons were not so money-mad, the executives so ratings-crazy, the chairman of the sec so philistine and restrictive, the aver- age level of the people in the industry so abysmal—then some kind of golden age might come to pass, when the 'medium might at last grow into its full potential'.

The one hideous possibility which never seems to occur to any of them is that all this disenchantment may be inherent in tele- vision's very nature—and that the real ex- planation for the current sense of frustration may be simply that over the past fifteen years we have all grossly overrated its im- portance and possibilities.

Three years ago, I virtually gave up watch- ing television altogether. I have since seen it not more than half a dozen times.

Up to that point I had been, perhaps more than most people, a complete child of the television age. From the moment when, on a school outing to the Science Museum in 1949, I had first set eyes on the little blue nine-inch screen (showing appropriately, even then, an old film), I was hooked. When a set arrived in the house, in Coronation year, it at once became a focal point of my life: I watched everything, from Cicely Courtneidge plays with a ten-minute interval in the middle, when the screen went blank and a bell rang to call the audience back from making tea, to the trade test pro- grammes in the morning when they always showed the same film of the first cross- Channel live broadcast in 1952.

With the coming of commercial television in 1955, and the consequent revolution in the BBC'S own programmes, television really did enter what appears in retrospect to have been its golden• age. In the late 'fifties, the first heyday of Panorama, Monitor, Donald Baverstock's Tonight, John Freeman's Face to Face, when Quatermass and the Pit held the nation in suspense for weeks, television seemed to be riding into the future on a tide of unlimited innovation and promise.

The next phase of its development I was directly involved in when, in the autumn of 1962, I began working as a script-writer for That Was The Week That Was. The sensa-

tional success of that programme, marking the last break with the old Reithian stan- dards of respectability and responsibility, heralded the beginning of television's 'per- missive' age, when for the first time the con- stant pressure to innovate and push forward the frontiers began to fall back on a drive to `shock', to 'disturb', to exploit sex, violence and 'irreverence' with unprecedented free- dom.

It was at this time, too, and over the next three years, 1963-5, that I personally sensed a growing disenchantment with the whole idea of television. It had begun on the Satur- day afternoons when I walked round the claustrophobic corridors of the Television Centre, appalled with the unreality of the place, the sense of being totally cut off from the outside world—and eventually spread to the programmes themselves, which I found myself watching with an increasing sense of horrified detachment—until, at the time of the 1966 election, I suddenly found I could take it no longer. Night after night, I seemed to be seeing nothing more than a kind of succession of dream images, in which Heath and Wilson's speeches, spy thrillers, dream world advertisements, plays about madness, all merged into the same flickering night- marish unreality.

Indeed this was the extraordinary thing about giving up television. It was just like waking up from some bad dream which instantly receded into complete unimpor- tance—so that now, when I see it winking in the corner of someone's house, I look at it with that same astonishment with which one sees photographs of the fashions of twenty years ago. 'Did we really wear those ridicu- lous clothes?' As I catch a glimpse of some old film or Kenneth Allsop mouthing away, I ask myself in amazement, 'Did I really seriously watch that kind of thing?'

What one notices most forcibly is the way in which television creates its own wholly unreal values of acceptance. Not once since giving it up have I felt in any way 'ill- informed' or 'out of touch' with what is go- ing on in the world. The only thing tele- vision keeps people in touch with is itself, so that one observes how often their conversa- tion may be taken up in the most desultory way with descriptions of some programmes they have seen—`Did you see . ..?'—but al- most invariably continuing with the opinion that it was somehow disappointing.

I first remarked this strange capacity of television to suspend people's everyday values of judgment when I was working for Tw3. Week after week, when I arrived in the studio, Timothy Birdsall and I would read in astonishment through the script—a few good jokes, surrounded by interminable

padding about queers in the civil service coy songs about ballet dancers. Toce we would groan 'they can't possi put that out!' But out it went, and the became a national legend—although strongly suspect that if some of its ins ments were shown again today, that lee would be dissipated overnight.

A more recent example of the phenomenon was Sir Kenneth Clark's se Civilisation. So strongly was I urged to my 'prejudices' against this, with rem such as 'whatever you think of television least you must agree that this shows the medium really can do', that I did u one or two instalments, and read the set of the remainder. It was certainly skit done—but no more than a fair number coffee table books published every )ear the most remarkable thing of all was if it had been a coffee table book, it ur at once have been treated on its merits as argument by a pack of well-informed viewers, who would have pointed out many inaccuracies, its inconsistencies points much too easily glossed over.

But because it was television, because mellifluous voice and sentiments merged agreeably with beautiful pictures. huildi dream-like snatches of music, it szis trey purely as an image, unquestioningl■ shipped by the majority who could sir wallow in its general aura of cultural a being. The only criticisms one heard not of what he said but of the way he it. As one highly intelligent friend said me, as if it were sufficient to damn whole show, 'his suits are just too well One respect in which the Cirifis series was quite exceptional among vision programmes was the extent to u except in the most Reithian sense of H Service haute vulgarisation, it did not descend or make concessions to its audie The difference between the general I. of television and that of the more traditi wireless programmes, even today, is q staggering. Not only does the absence of compulsion always to subordinate mentary to a visual image mean that wireless can say infinitely more in the space of time, but for some reason the r seems able by its nature to assume a in higher level of intelligence in its audie I was reading the other day through anthology of the Brains Trust progra during the war—it is inconceivable that intelligent topics could be discussed in terms on a television show—and yet the bulk of the audience, as one may see f the questioners, corporals, telephone-t tors and so on, must have consisted of cisely the same sort of people who lt make do with a diet of old films. p games and Late Night Line Up.

It is for reasons such as these that I confess a certain sense of numbness confronted with stories of Michael Pea' David Frost and Aidan Crawley lock behind-the-scenes battles which 'may decided the future quality of televisioo Britain. Of course the London Wee prospectus was false. Not because promised good programmes and then duced bad—but because it promised • programmes at all. Television itself is a plete exercise in unreality, little more rather pernicious drug which nightly vides millions of people with an escape the responsibility of having to think. A is only when one gives it up that one re not only how easy, but what a joyous it is, to be dependent on it no longer.