Review: You have been watching ...: What makes a water-cooler moment? Joe Moran picks five TV events, from penalties to Pop Idol, when the nation switched on and broadcasting history was made
(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Watching television is a habit that runs like a bass note through all our lives. Huge masts have been built on hilltops, aerials and satellite dishes have sprung up on roofs, roads have emptied of people and cars, pub tills have been silenced, the boiling of kettles has synchronised across the nation, and the same bluish-grey flicker has radiated through millions of front room windows - all because people were watching TV. And yet the history of this activity remains largely obscure. The relentless dailyness of television has meant that there has always been far too much of it to enter the sorting house of collective memory. Leafing through old copies of the Radio Times is a melancholy activity, an entry into a lost world of spent effort, used-up enjoyment and forgotten boredom. Most television, to which talented, energetic people devoted months or years of their lives, has left momentary imprints on our retinas and slightly less momentary imprints on our brains before vanishing into the ether.
Those bits of television that are collectively recalled as landmark moments are often less significant than we think. The 1953 coronation did not transform us all into viewers in a single avalanche: it just gave the inevitable triumph of TV an obliging shove. Kenneth Tynan was not the first person to use the F-word on television: that was either Brendan Behan on Panorama in 1956 (although no one could understand him because he was drunk) or the man who painted the railings on Stranmillis Embankment alongside the river Lagan in Belfast, who in 1959 told Ulster TV's teatime magazine programme, Roundabout, that his job was "fucking boring".
The 1977 Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show, far from being the highwater mark of television's golden age, was not even the highest-rated show of the 1970s, being roundly beaten by less fondly recalled programmes such as Miss World 1970 and a 1971 edition of The Benny Hill Show. The key moments in the history of our television watching are often surprising, and some of them only seem momentous in retrospect.
Gilbert Harding on What's My Line?
On 25 July 1951, Gilbert Harding chaired a new TV quiz show, What's My Line?, in which panellists had to guess what people did for a living. It did not go well. He mistook a male nurse for a panel beater and kept interrupting him to say his answers were wrong. When the nurse revealed his mistake, Harding told viewers: "This is the last time I ever appear on television." And yet he was back on the show as a panellist a few weeks later, and seemed no happier, telling one prevaricating contestant: "I'm tired of looking at you." A viewer complained: "I felt like walking out of my own drawing room."
Gradually, though, viewers were drawn into the panel's attempts to identify jelly baby varnishers and pepper pot perforators. What's My Line? was water-cooler television in an age before water coolers, and Harding's rudeness was the main attraction. He often appeared slightly drunk, for which occasions the BBC coined the line: "Mr Harding was overcome by the heat from the studio lights." He inspired that odd mixture of reverence and resentment that we now associate with celebrity, a phenomenon wrongly thought modern. "Right, I've seen Gilbert Harding now," said one man loudly as he passed him in the street. "You can take him out and shoot him."
Harding's ill temper was largely down to his discomfort with television. In his column in the People, he pronounced himself mortified at being pointed out on a tube train while TS Eliot was ignored, no doubt happily so, in the same carriage. "Do you think that I planned and plotted, or lost a wink of sleep, scheming to spend a considerable part of my life trying to identify hog-slappers, cheese-winders' clerks, or theatre fireman's night companions?" he wrote. He had better things to be doing with his time, and so, he implied, did his viewers.
But Harding's solution to the inconsequentiality of What's My Line? was eccentric: he over-invested it with seriousness and meaning. He resented the way women primped themselves before coming on the show, so they all looked alike and he could not tell the black pudding stringers from the knitting needle knobbers; and he disliked the certificate challengers were given to say they had beaten the panel, thinking it encouraged evasive replies to questions. The public fascination with What's My Line? bemused him, and he hoped one day he "might be able to watch the programme, and try to find out for myself what it is that makes it so popular".
He could not watch himself, of course, because all television at the time was live. He reserved his highest praise for those with achievements more enduring than the fast and fleeting fame of the new media age. His Christmas radio broadcast in 1953, in which he quoted Macaulay's description of the Puritans ("Their palaces were houses not made with hands: their diadems crowns of glory which should never fade away") moved many listeners to tears. He seemed uniquely unsuited to television, an ephemeral medium which died on the evening air.
The launch of Telstar
In the summer of 1962, all eyes were on a little magnesium and aluminium capsule, not much bigger than a beach ball, careening round the earth in a low, egg-shaped orbit. On the night of 10 July, millions of viewers stayed up after midnight to watch a special broadcast from Goonhilly Downs on Cornwall's Lizard Peninsula. Goonhilly, a sparse heathland at Britain's most southerly point, could have been designed for satellite broadcasts by a benevolent god familiar with the nature of the radio wave. It offered a sweeping view from horizon to horizon, allowing Telstar to be tracked easily as it raced across the sky. In engineer speak, it was "electronically quiet", away from industrial interference and radio noise. And on the Lizard, an old seabed lifted 400 feet above the waves, the rock is mostly the hard, greenish mineral known as serpentine, on which very little grows, so that there were few trees or bushes to block the path of the TV signal. The rock was also strong enough to bear the 1,000-tonne satellite dish built to pick up Telstar.
Drawn by a sense of history in the making, crowds of Lizard locals and holidaymakers had pitched their tents and lit campfires near the floodlit dish, jamming their cars along the narrow lanes leading on to the moors. But as Britain awaited the first satellite broadcast from America, Goonhilly's bank of TV screens were picking up only atmospheric fuzz. The steerable dish searched the skies in vain along Telstar's predicted orbit, for a signal as weak as would be received from a one-bar electric fire on the moon.
Then, at around 1am, viewers saw a TV flicker and a fuzzy image move manically up the screen as an engineer tried to tune it in. "Something is . . . there's a picture there . . . there is something different there," said an excitable Ian Trethowan on ITV. "It's bouncing around, but you can see absolutely clearly this is a man, sitting behind a desk." The man settled for a few seconds before disintegrating into static.
Somehow the precariousness of the satellite connection, the faint image of a face appearing out of nowhere interrupted by capering wavy lines, added to the sense of enchantment. In her Christmas TV broadcast, the Queen used Telstar as a metaphor for a world changing almost too rapidly. "This tiny satellite has become the invisible focus of a million eyes," she said, striking an oddly melancholic note. "Yet some people are uncertain which star to follow, or if any star is worth following at all. What is it all for, they ask, if you can bounce a television picture through the skies and across the world, yet still find lonely people living in the same street? The wise men of old followed a star; modern man has built one."
The rise of daytime TV
It began with a seemingly innocuous ministerial statement. On 19 January 1972, the telecommunications minister Christopher Chataway told the Commons that Britain's broadcasting hours would no longer be restricted, and the three channels could transmit for as long as they liked. ITV responded that autumn by expanding its weekday afternoon programmes. BBC radio's daytime audiences declined drastically as listeners turned into viewers of the legal drama Crown Court, the soap opera Emmerdale Farm, The Indoor League (in which viewers watched people playing dominoes, table football and shove ha'penny in pubs) and Mr and Mrs, which quizzed married couples on their quirks and rituals: "What would your husband do if his trouser zip broke?" "What is the wastepaper basket in your bedroom made of?"
These viewers were unwittingly glimpsing the future of TV, one where its disposable content would matter less than its omnipresent occupation of the schedules. In the same year, the Cambridge cultural critic Raymond Williams visited the US and found himself one night in a motel room in Miami, bemused by the grammar of American television, in which programmes ran surreally into the incessant ad breaks without a pause and the normal rules of scheduling had little purchase. In a country in which you could view movies from 6am into the small hours, Williams decided that watching television was a pursuit in its own right, almost unrelated to what was being watched. This, he said, was the state to which the medium aspired, insatiably filling any blank moments in the schedules until it achieved the condition of uninterrupted "flow".
With the derestriction of broadcasting hours, those Zen-like moments of stillness on British TV - filled with Test Card F, the little girl with an Alice band playing noughts and crosses on a blackboard, or IBA engineering announcements "for the radio and television trade" - began to disappear, to be replaced eventually by an endless flow of programmes, stretching from dawn till daybreak.
The launch of breakfast television in January 1983 was another watershed. Until then, British TV had denied its uniqueness as a medium by dividing itself up into programmes that retained the discrete genres of the pre-TV era, and which viewers were expected to watch from beginning to end. But breakfast TV was definitively televisual, its sole organising principle the clock in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. Items were only about four minutes long, with viewers able to dip in at any point. The discordant mood shift, or what producers called "light and shade", became routine, as items on keep-fit and horoscopes ran headlong into ones about alopecia and cancer, stitched together with a general tone of bright-eyed, routine empathy ("Your doctor said it was benign, didn't he?") and faintly manic cheerfulness. Television's natural instinct was now simply to go on and on, to consume the infinite time stretching out in front of it, like those cartoons where Bugs Bunny is frantically laying down railway track so the train he is on can keep moving.
The 1990 World Cup semi-final
As watching television became Britain's main pastime, the ending of popular shows placed a strain on the National Grid, because the electricity used to run TVs was small compared to the much greater amounts needed to operate lights, electric kettles and water pumps for flushing toilets. No longer did people open the fridge door or make a cup of tea as a matter of individual whim; television immobilised them all for set periods before springing them into life when a programme ended.
The Electricity Board employed "demand forecasters" to track electricity usage across each evening, instructing Britain's power stations to increase or reduce output accordingly. One of their main jobs was to map the "TV pickup", the moment each night, after the most popular programmes, at which millions stopped watching television. It was a phenomenon experienced most starkly in Britain, with its relatively few commercial breaks and large number of tea drinkers boiling electric kettles - unlike, for example, the Japanese, who used gas stoves.
The World Cup semi-final on 4 July 1990 was decided by a new form of torment for England fans: a penalty shoot-out. When Chris Waddle hoofed the ball high over the bar to give West Germany their victory, the Electricity Board braced itself for a soar in demand. It was a summer evening, and darkness had fallen during the match, and they dreaded a mass switching on of lights. Instead, viewers were shocked into paralysis, and it was not until eight minutes after Waddle's penalty that the demand for electricity surged to 2,800 megawatts, beating the previous record set in 1984 by The Thorn Birds
Viewing figures for televised football had been declining since the late 1970s, and hooliganism had cast a pall over the game, but England's run in the 1990 World Cup altered public perceptions of the sport, adding new fans and allowing existing ones to declare their interest more fervently. In May 1992, Sky paid pounds 304 million, more than 10 times the current rate, for the right to televise live games in the new Premier League. Football became the testing ground for a unique kind of turbo-capitalism, a hyper-mercenary trade in which a coterie of clubs secured much of the TV money for themselves and proceeded to earn even more through merchandise and stock market flotations.
Oddly, though, as clubs became detached from place, ruled by offshore interests and money markets, the sport's emotional landscape was enriched. Satellite football created a new, communal way of watching television. Walking through a town centre on a Sunday afternoon or a Monday evening, you would see the coloured chalkboards outside pubs advertising live football and hear the mingled sounds of cheers, clinking glasses and commentary wafting through the air. Goal celebrations became part of everyday life, and a news footage cliche. A reporter would be sent to a bar for a big game, with the camera trained not on the match but on the supporters, showing them edging towards the screen, open-mouthed in anticipation at a goal chance and then erupting in joy or throwing back their heads in despair. Rarely in modern times had public life been given over to such self-abandoned extremes of anguish and euphoria.
The final of Pop Idol
At the start of the millennium, a revolution in primetime weekend TV hung on a device called a digital main switching unit, which allowed thousands of phone votes to be registered simultaneously. This meant that on the night of 9 February 2002, ITV viewers were able to make 57 million calls on 28,000 dedicated phone lines to vote for Gareth Gates or Will Young in the final of Pop Idol - one call for nearly every person in Britain. This type of reality TV talent show went on to transform primetime weekend television. The writer and radio presenter Francine Stock described it as "a kind of modern equivalent of the crowd response at a gladiatorial contest, but instead of using the thumbs up and thumbs down, we're using our dialling fingers".
The television producer Peter Bazalgette noted that phone-in votes were engendering the kind of public engagement that was missing from politics. The turnout at the 2001 general election had been only 59%, the lowest since the wartime election of 1918. It became a truism that more people voted on premium rate lines for reality show contestants than in general elections - although the truism was untrue, because many of these phone votes were made up of multiple calls by the same people. "Email and mobile telephony have transformed the tenor of our lives . . . But we still only vote for the government once every four years or so," noted Bazalgette sadly. "Our democracy is divorced from the rhythm of the age."
In 2011, researchers from the universities of London, East London and Sheffield, after spending two years watching children play, concluded that this new breed of reality talent show was feeding into playground life. Inspired by Iona and Peter Opie's classic studies of the playground in the 1950s, which had documented the incorporation of advertising jingles and TV theme tunes into clapping and singing games, the researchers discovered children's games based on dance routines from Britain's Got Talent and The X Factor. They noticed one personality recurring constantly in children's roleplay: Simon Cowell, the charismatic, caustic Svengali who could silence studio audiences with a regal wave of his hand. Interviews with first-time voters in East Anglia found that most thought Cowell "a person of authority" whose success had earned him the right to be rude. "He knows what he is talking about, so he is someone who can say if you are crap," said one. Several argued that Cowell should be prime minister.
A familiar ritual played out each Saturday night in autumn, beginning with tension-creating music and the basso profundo of Peter Dickson, whose pause-laden announcements made his voice as recognisable to British viewers as Richard Dimbleby's had been half a century earlier, and ending with the magical incantations "calls cost 50p from landlines, mobile networks may vary" and "please ask the bill-payer's permission", which caused millions of digits to press urgently on keypads. The closing of the phone lines was conducted with the solemnity of a sacred rite.
And yet these shows were a grotesque caricature of democracy. They flattered viewers by reminding them constantly that the result was in their hands, while making them pay to provide free product testing on new artists. Meanwhile they worked brazenly on their emotions through the sentimentality of the contestants' backstories, the pseudo-malice of the judges, and the baying audience at the Circus Maximus of the auditions, belittling those deluded souls who presumed themselves to have what it took: the X factor.
When high-fidelity television was launched on 26 August 1936, it began simultaneously broadcasting through space. For nearly 80 years, these high-frequency transmissions have been radiating into the skies at the speed of light, swept across our planet by its rotation. Imagine a huge, invisible mass of carrier waves, at the leading edge of which, and already past several thousand stars by now, is the smooth, matinee idol voice of BBC Television's first announcer, Leslie Mitchell, saying: "Hello Radiolympia. Ladies and gentlemen, here's looking at you."
Just before Christmas 2011, Nasa announced that its space telescope had discovered Kepler-22b, the first confirmed planet to orbit squarely within what scientists call the "Goldilocks zone" of a Sun-like star, where temperatures would be just right to allow surface water throughout its orbit, and thus sustain life. It is 600 light years away, which means that in about 600 years' time, some civilised aliens on this Earth-like planet, assuming they had managed to invent something resembling a cathode ray tube and a TV aerial, could be watching The Xtra Factor or Britain's Got More Talent: Funniest Moments and wondering if they represent the zenith of human achievement.
But perhaps even the most banal TV output will be viewed in a kindlier light from billions of miles away, reduced to what it is in essence: an imperfect attempt to make a connection across empty space. Bad TV is still a technical triumph, needing huge reserves of labour and skill, much of it unacknowledged, to bring it to us. Like all attempts at conversation, it is a leap into the dark, with no guarantee it will be heard or understood. Yet somehow, out of mere shapes and shadows made of electrons and pixels, television has sent us messages that we have moulded into meaning. It has spoken to us through the air and permeated our intimate lives, filling them with boredom and wonder, irritation and inspiration, dismay and delight.
Joe Moran's book, Armchair Nation: An Intimate History of Britain in Front of the TV, is published by Profile on 5 September. To order a copy for pounds 13 with free UK p&p go to guardianbookshop.co.uk
Opposite: What's My Line and Telstar, below. This page: The Big Breakfast, top, and Will Young and Gareth Gates in Pop Idol, above
Most viewed . . . Rachel Ward and Richard Chamberlain in The Thorn Birds, below, and England's Paul Gascoigne and Chris Waddle bow out of the World Cup semi-final in 1990
(c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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