IS IT a good thing or a bad thing? In retreat from an all-too-frequently unbearable world, here is a TV review about a TV programme about TV. BBC2 devoted two hours last Saturday to Melvyn Bragg on TV: The box that changed the world, an ambitious attempt to take an overview of the medium that is now nearly 75 years old.
Early TV was a communal experience: you gathered the family, or neighbours, around the flickering box to marvel at the moving pictures in your own home. For decades, certain programmes or series provided a national talking-point.
Now, TV is thought of far more as a social atomiser, creating social breakdown, as individuals are glued to their personal screens. But what about the runaway success of Gogglebox, a series about families watching TV together? Perhaps it is not quite as atomising as all that.
Dame Joan Bakewell helpfully reminded us that, when she started, TV was considered the populist upstart: the intelligentsia worried whether it would supplant radio (the thinking person’s medium). Not at all, as it turned out; so Bragg and his distinguished guests suggested, comfortingly, that each new development never destroys what has gone before.
But surely TV sounded the death-knell of music hall, weekly rep at local theatres, and domestic music-making? Didn’t the glamour of TV performance make most people think that it was not worth bothering to learn the piano? In the 1950s, every pub had a couple of regulars who could play all the popular songs. TV played a significant part in the mass closure of pubs: entertainment is now based in the privacy of your own home.
Despite his aim of encouraging debate, Bragg’s format was essentially consensual: experts from an exclusive club discussed largely shared convictions. The studio audience merely observed. He sought challenge, but had set up a process that inhibited dissension. Only Ken Loach’s assertion that TV was an arm of the state, a repressive organ of manipulation by those in power, rocked the boat — and that was suavely deflected.
I don’t mean to sound negative: this programme was a gallant attempt, but it was more successful (like all good lectures and sermons) in raising and helping us to formulate for ourselves the crucial questions than in providing decisive answers.
Here are a few. Is TV a vehicle for sentiment and nostalgia, promoting a cosy view of Britain, or is it unsettling and alarming? Have drama and soap opera made us confront uncomfortable social and moral issues? Have the horrors of war and famine become somehow domesticated, just another programme on the menu?
We have access to the greatest art, and our minds are expanded by expositions of history, science, and technology. Surely nothing is missing from this banquet of information, inspiration, and challenge? Oh yes, one thing: religion.