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In front of the box

07 July 2017

BBC/Storyvault TV

“Consensual”: Melvyn Bragg and guests debate the history of television

“Consensual”: Melvyn Bragg and guests debate the history of television

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.

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