Books: On Television: Introduction to the Collected Edition |
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On Television: Introduction to the Collected Edition

For ten years, between 1972 and 1982, I wrote a television column for the Observer every Sunday of the year except for an annual holiday spent trying to readjust my eyes and skin to sunlight. I was inhabiting a strange, half-lit world in which nothing happened except watching television. Often I had two sets running at once. Elsewhere on earth, they were inventing the VCR machine, but too late to help me out. Every night I watched everything that mattered, and a lot more that was not supposed to, on three channels, which eventually grew to four. If somebody said something interesting I had to write it down from memory. It was good training, but only, I thought then, for pursuing more of the weird activity I was already engaged in. It was not like learning to play the piano, which at the start you can't, and then later you can. With television criticism you already can at the start, but if you are still going to be able to later on, you have to develop some sort of philosophy about what you are up to. Otherwise an occupation which has the initial appearance of money for jam will end up in mental breakdown.

Perhaps it did, and I didn't realise. My own impression, however; is that I emerged from the experience a wiser man. If this impression is correct, it had a lot to do with the quality of British television. One of my daughters is now training to be a scientist because of the science programmes she saw on television. Admittedly my other daughter still only ever studies at all when threatened with being denied access to the next re-run of Inspector Morse, but on balance the influence of television on the next generation has been good — in my house, at any rate. Whatever was coming out of the tube wasn't hurting the young ones I knew.

So what was coming out of the tube? Was television really the incitement to cultural suicide that the pundits said it was? In the prefaces to the three individual volumes — and especially in the preface to the last one, Glued to the Box — I tried to touch on these questions explicitly. But my answers were always implicit in the columns themselves, the product of what I am now inclined to look back on, with some fondness, as my Mushroom Years. The conclusions I came to are, I like to think, too complex and subtle to be summarized in any shorter space than this fat book. But if I had to sum up my Position in a sentence, it would be this: I began with the suspicion, and ended with the conviction, that popular entertainment is well worth doing.

Since then I have been engaged in trying to do it. Working for television is far more demanding of time and energy than just watching. Performing has its own requirements which criticism can only guess at. Yet the two activities, I grow ever more sure, are so closely linked as to be inseparable. With deregulation on the way, the great age of television, when there was a national audience instead of niche marketing, is on its way out, perhaps never to return. It is a good moment, then, to remember the good moments. If, at first, I was slow to realise just how good they were, at least I got excited by instinct — thereby demonstrating, not for the first time in history or the last in my own life, that the secret of knowing what you think is to admit what you feel.

London, 1991