This Thing Called Television 

17 December 2016 tbs.pm/9933

From the Radio Times published 9 December 1949

Television has its own garden and experts frequently come along on Saturday afternoons to give advice to viewers. Here is Fred Streeter in the rockery

Television has its own garden and experts frequently come along on Saturday afternoons to give advice to viewers. Here is Fred Streeter in the rockery

Whenever I have to go travelling round the country, there is one thing that I always find myself looking for as the train brings me back towards London — and that is the criss-cross pattern of H-aerials that goes sprawling along the rooftops. For make no mistake about it, the skyline of London is changing before our eyes. Row upon row of small houses, where a year or so ago there was nothing to be seen but the usual huddle of cowls and chimney-pots, now carry these queer antennae on their rooftops as though every home were displaying some new brand of talisman.

I do not pretend that they are particularly beautiful, these angular bent-hairpin affairs, clamped on to the chimney stacks. Indeed if John Betjeman or Clough Williams Ellis, or anyone else who cares for the face of England, were to tell me that H-aerials were ugly and unsightly, I should probably agree with him. But, all the same, I will make no secret about it — my heart warms at the first glimpse of them, and I say ‘Aha!’

One of the Family

One of television's big days for Outside Broadcasts is in June when the cameras go to the Horse Guards Parade for the ceremony of Trooping the Colour. Here is a panoramic view of the scene this year, with His Majesty taking the salute

One of television’s big days for Outside Broadcasts is in June when the cameras go to the Horse Guards Parade for the ceremony of Trooping the Colour. Here is a panoramic view of the scene this year, with His Majesty taking the salute

The reason for this involuntary and benevolent grunt is simply that I feel that I know something about the life that goes on in the households beneath such aerials. About the people next door — the people without the aerial — I personally know nothing. They may be model parents and ideal citizens, but they are still strangers to me. But when I see the prongs of that upright and distinctive aerial — why, in a flash, I am right inside the house sitting down in front of the set as one of the family. By now I am getting pretty used to this feeling of playing ghost across the suburbs. Peering over other people’s shoulders, I have shared Shakespeare and farces, music-halls and cookery demonstrations in a score of different households — not a bad mental exercise, by the way, as what appears on the screen is always several hundred times as important as what goes on in the studios.

The other day, however, I experienced a new sort of sensation; and that was when I went up to Sutton Coldfield to see how the new transmitter was getting along. It is a beautiful sight — that slender, gleaming mast that rises seven hundred and fifty feet into the thin air, or into the driving rain haze, on the lip of the hills overhanging the rich Midland plain. It is the sort of thing that persuades me that, despite all they do to prove the contrary, engineers are artists at heart and, like other artists, have their lyrical moments, their supreme outbursts. That mounting and dwindling spire, resting its 140 tons on a base the size of a schoolboy’s marble, and with the supporting stays slung out across the surrounding fields as though the BBC were preparing to moor an airship, is a piece of sheer inspiration expressed in high-tensile lattice steel. You could stand there speechless and admiring for minutes on end, simply staring up at it as the clouds go cruising past and the aerial itself appears to be sailing off somewhere into Warwickshire.

The duel between Hamlet (John Byron) and Laertes (Patrick MacNee). The performance of 'Hamlet' was one of the most ambitious drama productions ever staged at Alexandra Palace

The duel between Hamlet (John Byron) and Laertes (Patrick MacNee). The performance of ‘Hamlet’ was one of the most ambitious drama productions ever staged at Alexandra Palace

Close at hand, however, I saw something that I must admit excited me even more — a small house with a green gate and our old friend, the H-aerial, standing out above the eaves. Not — and here you really must believe me — that I am merely a sentimental twin brother of that manufacturer of patent medicines who was able to admire a country view only when he could see one of the hoardings advertising his particular brand of stomach pill sticking up somewhere in the midst of it. This little house with the green gate, for instance, would certainly have looked no worse if the aerial had not been there at all. But, as soon as I saw it, I was half-way inside that house, getting ready to do a bit of haunting in the Sutton Coldfield district for a change. And the thing that excited me most was the fact that, though the aerial was there, braced against the four winds and looking as efficient as a junior radar station, in all probability no one inside that house had the slightest notion of what television is really like.

Up to the present, in fact, the whole installation must have been a simple act of faith. It is one thing to drop into your neighbour’s and then buy a television set just because you don’t want to miss something that is going on next door. But it is a completely different matter to put down a tidy sum of money for a set, rearrange the drawing-room around this new piece of furniture, only to sit around patiently waiting for that magical moment on December 17 when the box in the corner is going to spring into life.

The Honeymoon Period

And assuming that Midlanders are much the same sort of people as those of us who live further south — though some Midlanders may have their own point of view on this — I believe that I can tell pretty well what is going to happen inside that house with the green gate. There is going to be an initial stage during which television is nothing less than an unholy tyrant. In order that the family may see programmes uninterrupted, meals will be brought forward so early that no one has any appetite for them or kept back so late that everyone round the set is gnawed by hunger. At about 8.20 p.m. people will begin to wonder if their watches have stopped or if the set has broken down and will start frantically dialling TIM. Letters will get written very late at night or not get written at all; and reading, amateur theatricals, choir practices, dart matches, sewing, knitting, darning, or whatever there is to be done will be left undone. All that is what I will call the honeymoon period. It will last longer than most honeymoons, but will eventually give place to something a bit quieter and less ecstatic, something more like early married life.

Television history was made at the 1949 Boat Race when viewers were able to follow the race from the start at Putney Bridge to the finish at Mortlake. As well as eight cameras along the banks, a waterborne television unit on the launch 'Consuta' followed the crews

Television history was made at the 1949 Boat Race when viewers were able to follow the race from the start at Putney Bridge to the finish at Mortlake. As well as eight cameras along the banks, a waterborne television unit on the launch ‘Consuta’ followed the crews

In this rather difficult transition period people will still watch, or ‘view’ as for some reason it is rather pretentiously called, no longer as bond slaves to the thing, but still in a mood of pretty abject loyalty, and still expecting that small opaque screen in its walnut case to provide an endless succession of deliriously entertaining evenings. This is the period when delights at times give place to disappointments and people begin writing letters to the BBC to ask whether it has escaped somebody’s notice that Thursday’s programme was nothing more than a repeat performance of Sunday’s play, or that the Demonstration Film in the mornings always happens to be the same.

Then finally will come the sensible, mature, settled-down state of affairs when people contrive to live their own lives as well as seeing what they want to see, and do not any longer regard television as a kind of skeleton key to the whole treasure chest of human happiness.

Plenty to Choose From

For, let us face this fact at the outset, it would be downright absurd to imagine that any normal person is necessarily interested in everything that he could see in the course of a week’s television — newsreels, piano recitals, ice hockey, art criticism, boxing, fashion shows, table tennis, opera, scientific demonstrations —not to mention at least two whole evenings a week given to drama and two or three programmes of light entertainment. And — let me be equally plain about this — it would be just as absurd to imagine that any normal adult person would not be interested in at least some of these.

I myself feel that in any week if there have been two or three programmes that I have liked seeing, and one or two more that have given me really keen enjoyment, then I have not been doing too badly. And that I believe is how most reasonable people will come to feel about it.

For above all things, television is not something that, like the radio, can be left crooning to itself in the corner while you cheerfully get on with something else. You are either looking at television or you are not looking: there is simply no such thing as background viewing, and what is more important, there is no such thing as the attitude of mind that goes with background anything.

One of the most popular and spectacular of television variety shows is 'Cafe Continental' which is on the air about once every month on Saturday nights. This picture was taken recently during the performance by Jolly, a hair-raising equilibrist

One of the most popular and spectacular of television variety shows is ‘Cafe Continental’ which is on the air about once every month on Saturday nights. This picture was taken recently during the performance by Jolly, a hair-raising equilibrist

bbccrest-deco

Your comment

Enter it below