Armchair Nation: An intimate history of Britain in front of the TV by Joe Moran

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Armchair Nation: An intimate history of Britain in front of the TV by Joe Moran

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Category: Entertainment
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A history of British television as a medium, how our society has changed, and how it has changed our society.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 456 Date: August 2013
Publisher: Profile
ISBN: 9781846683916

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All of us have a love-hate affair with television, or ‘the idiot lantern’. Hardly anybody who has ever owned a set, or been part of a family which has had one, can envisage life without it. It has been a source of endless entertainment and escape from the drudge of everyday life, while at some time it has irritated most of us beyond measure. Love it or loathe it, it has always been part of the fabric of our existence. While to a certain extent it has been superseded by online services which have supplemented if not overtaken or usurped part of its role, its iconic status is unlikely to disappear for the foreseeable future.

Joe Moran, a newspaper journalist and university professor of English and Cultural History, has written a painstakingly researched history of the medium from its humble origins almost ninety years ago to the present day. His introductory chapter is to some extent a personal view, he being one of the generation who was growing up just as it had become an essential ingredient of our existence. He was not quite two years old in January 1972 when the then telecommunications minister brought an end to the last vestige of post-war rationing, by announcing that all three channels (yes, only three!) were no longer rationed in their annual output but had the freedom to broadcast for as long as they wished.

After that he takes us on a wander through the complete saga, starting at John Logie Baird’s experiments with a tiny screen which displayed a quivering silhouette of uncertain shape, and led to a hardly less primitive demonstration of the new device in Selfridges, Oxford Street, in September 1929. The BBC was initially reluctant to become involved, but as the sole provider of radio to the masses it had little choice in the matter. After several more years of test transmissions, broadcasting ‘proper’ began in November 1936. Only about 400 sets were capable of tuning in, but as programming was restricted to only two hours a day and as initial highlights seemed to consist of technical lectures on radio transmitter valves or arterial roads, or demonstrations of broken window repairs, those who did not own a set were not missing much. Next year the limited service took a small leap forward with televising the procession for King George VI’s coronation, cameras not being allowed inside Westminster Abbey, and excerpts from Wimbledon, where the grass-stained ball was barely distinguishable from the grass on-screen.

Television was suspended altogether at the outbreak of war and did not resume until June 1946. As the BBC became more ambitious in seeing what could be provided, with competition from ITV from September 1955 onwards, the medium developed its own personalities and household names. The irascible interviewer and presenter Gilbert Harding, and the commentator Richard Dimbleby, were among its early stars. Even so there was still resistance to it, not so much from dislike or boredom but more from those who feared that the little box in their household might in some way control their thoughts or, worse still, be some kind of a Peeping Tom invading their privacy.

From the 1960s onwards there is much to be said, so the author has done a sterling job in paring it down to the essentials and still keeping his narrative to less than four hundred pages. He brings in Mary Whitehouse and the ‘Clean Up TV’ campaign; the era of kitchen-sink drama and the stark social commentary of dramas such as ‘Cathy Come Home’; the transmission of pictures from the first landing on the moon; the appearance of colour; the 10.30 p.m. closedown during the miners’ strike and the State of Emergency at the end of 1973; the advent of Channel 4 in 1982; the Broadcasting Act of 1990 and subsequent proliferation of satellite channels. By and large we are presented with the story from a neutral point of view, which makes his very rare excursions into editorial comment if not exasperation all the more effective. After pointing out near the end that during the 2010 general election campaign several senior politicians claimed to enjoy ‘The X Factor’, he then castigates the programme as ‘a grotesque caricature of democracy’, a programme which claimed to be empowering but was actually infantilising, and one which flattered viewers by reminding them constantly that the result was in their hands, while getting them to pay to provide free product testing on new artists in what, reduced to essentials, is nothing more than a triumph of direct-line consumerism.

Yet he ends on a more even, balanced note. Out of mere shapes and shadows made of electrons and pixels, he reminds us, the medium has sent us messages that we have managed to mould into meaning. It has filled our lives with boredom and wonder, irritation and inspiration, dismay and delight. Personally, I am one of those consumers who basically resents the proliferation of 24-hour channels to provide a wall-to-wall presence in the living room (press the off button, I hear you mutter – well, when I have the chance...). Since The Times critic Michael Billington wrote in 1967 that watching the ‘Our World’ satellite link-up show reminded him ‘of the melancholy truism that modern man has at his disposal fantastic power of communication and very little to say’, perhaps nothing has changed.

Yet at best it has been a reflection of how our society has changed over the years, and arguably how television itself has changed society. For the better or for the worse? Read this excellent history and judge for yourself.

For an example of war reporting from one of the great families in the history of British television have a look at Destiny in the Desert: The Road to El Alamein - the Battle that Turned the Tide by Jonathan Dimbleby

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