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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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Love it or hate it

March 1st, 2006

singingdetective.jpgBY GILLIAN WILCE

Each week in the British satirical mag Private Eye, “Glenda Slagg” tackles some issue in the style of the worst kind of tabloid comment, her piece spattered with exclamations and question marks and always taking two opposed and incompatible points of view. Well, that’s pretty much how I’ve been thinking since the request came down the wire that we write about television this month. On the one hand, there’s the “Television, doncha love it?!!” article and, on the other, the equally possible “Television, doncha hate it?!!” article.

The “Television, doncha hate it?!!” article recalls ruefully the distant active days when television featured little in any of our lives. I can’t even remember whether we had one or not in the first shared houses and flats of my youth. But what I do remember is that during my second stab at being a social worker, I would go out on my rounds of an afternoon and catch irritating glimpses of the same film in every house I visited in East Dulwich. The biggest concession made to my presence was to turn the sound down, but the picture would flicker away at the periphery of my vision and it was clear that people simply lived with the television on all the time. “It’s company, isn’t it?” was the most usual comment by my admittedly elderly clientele, although one more profoundly affected man planted himself between me and the door and announced that TV had told him I couldn’t leave. (He was, fortunately, smaller and frailer than me!)

The role of television in delusions would make a subject in itself, but it’s not really surprising that people should then have believed that the TV — still in its black and white infancy — was giving them a private message or emitting harmful rays at the behest of the next-door neighbor.

Sometimes I remember that time and think with horror, as I come downstairs from my work room and instantly look for something relaxing to watch, “Am I getting like that” — not altogether delusional (I hope!) but frittering time in televisual distraction, frozen in my seat by the rays from the set. In this context it is not the absolute, and easily avoided, dross — the inane chatter of chat shows, the endless lifestyle and make-over programs, the crude and unsubtle comedy shows — that is the real temptation (though you wonder what insidious effects they may be having on attitudes generally), but the reasonably well made and proficiently acted drama series: programs that pass an hour very pleasantly but which can all too easily be used to “fill” time, to keep me from summoning the energy to do something more creative. And going digital and extending my range beyond the basic five channels, as I did this year, has produced not exciting new programs but — well — more of the same, really.

My diatribe against television would go on to say that when it comes to information and discussion, you can learn ten times more from a radio program of the same length; even the best-meant of “subject” programs on TV tend to treat viewers as if they were a bit deficient mentally and needed to be jollied along with unnecessary “enacted” bits of history and lumbering visuals aids. Radio can do the news in much more detail because it doesn’t have to find a visual image for every item. There’s no question about it, if I had to choose, I’d keep my radio and junk my TV and be all the healthier for it.

And yet the “Television, doncha love it?!!!”article is chanting, “But, but, but” more and more loudly in my ear. But what’s wrong with having well-crafted entertainment available in your own home at the end of a tiring day? But, more than that, some of the best and most interesting of original drama I have ever seen has been written for TV — like, for instance, Dennis Potter’s greatest plays, Blue Remembered Hills (with adults playing children), Pennies from Heaven (an early use of everyone bursting out singing as part of the drama), The Singing Detective (with its weave of past and present and fantasy). And if I should ever have to select just one video to keep for life it would be of Melvyn Bragg’s interview with Dennis Potter during the latter’s final illness when, fortified by morphine and champagne, he talked about his life and his work and how, when you are dying, the May blossom is the blossomiest blossom there ever has been.

But this autumn’s dramatization of Bleak House in soap-length half-hours (by Andrew Davies who is known to be good at this sort of thing) has not only been satisfying in itself, but has also sent more than one person I know back to reading their Dickens. You could argue that these effects might have been achieved on radio or in cinema, but I don’t think this is true (Potter, for instance, was a flop on the big screen). There are things that this intimate medium can do that can’t be done anywhere else; things we need to see as well as hear; things that really use the continuing presence of TVs in our living rooms.

Drama series at their best can’t be matched in any other medium — some documentaries too. In 1964 a programme called Seven Up aired on British television. Producer Paul Almond simply took fourteen seven-year-olds and recorded interviews with them (the inspiration was a conversation about the British class system and the Jesuit saying “Give me a child until he’s seven….”). Last year Forty-Nine Up featured eleven of the original fourteen people talking about their lives. They had in the meantime appeared on Seven Plus Seven, Fourteen Up, Twenty-One Up… you get the picture. All but the first of these programs has been produced by Michael Apted, who was a researcher on the first of them. They continue simple but not artless: carefully produced compilations of interviews intercut with extracts from the earlier programs. While they do still have things to say about class in Britain, they have become wider commentaries on the very stuff of life, the participants ageing along with us in real time (a far cry from contemporary so-say “reality” TV), fascinating and sometimes almost unbearably moving. Television at its best — “doncha love it?!!!” And when you don’t love it, there’s always the off switch, but it’s late and I’m tired so maybe I’ll let myself watch Celebrity Big Brother just for tonight! •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Television Issue, Wilce | Link to this Entry

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