Books: The Crystal Bucket : Introduction |
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This book continues the story which I started to tell in Visions Before Midnight, a volume selected from my Observer television column between the years 1972 and 1976. In this second instalment I try to cover the years 1976–1979, but once again the story is patchy. There is no hope of telling it all, or even of outlining the reasons why this should be so. Enough to say that British television remains too various to be fully absorbed in one mind, even when that mind is well accustomed to being bombarded by patterns of light and sound for the better part of every day. All politico-sociological or sociologico-political surveys of British television can safely be dismissed as moonshine. In America there might be some chance of summing up what the networks crank out, but in Britain your only chance to draw fully abreast of what the BBC has on offer is when ITV goes on strike, and vice versa. Far from being a conspiracy to manipulate the public, British television is an expanding labyrinth which Daedalus has long since forgotten he ever designed.

Most of the blandness which experts presume to detect in television is really just the thinness of overtaxed inspiration, as programme-makers desperately try to come up with something original once or thirteen times too often. The production of television programmes is governed by considerations which have little to do with any supposed calculation of the effect on the punters. It is a mark of how times have changed that I can advance this proposition without sounding even mildly paradoxical. Only ten years ago it was regarded as unquestionable that the basic attitude of television executives was cynicism. (‘Basic’ was as basic a word then as ‘situation’ is now.) With regard to the ITV companies the cynicism was presumed to be commercially determined. With regard to the BBC the Establishment was presumed to be manipulating the collective mind of the working class in the interests of a reactionary consensus. You couldn’t switch on a television set without being brought face to face with some humourless pundit telling you how television was a repressive mechanism.

Talk of decades is essentially trivial but triviality has its place. Many people were thrilled by the 1960s and disappointed by the 1970s. For wiser heads, however, it was the other way around. The 1960s were a binge and the 1970s were the hangover. But unlike a real hangover it had no element of remorse. The headache was barely half dissipated before everybody had forgotten just how ridiculous his or her behaviour had previously been. Forgetfulness is not good but it is better than thoughtlessness, especially when the thoughtlessness is dignified with the name of ideology. The 1960 radical critique of the Capitalist Media had scarcely a thought in its head. Whether teaching in Cambridge or contributing to Time Out, people who could barely compose a readable sentence laid down the law about how television was part of a vast conspiracy to stifle the inventiveness of the people. Inspiration, it was assumed, lay thick on the ground, waiting to be picked up. Enlightenment was in the air. Would the television organisations respond to this challenge, or would they have to be dismantled? Something called the Free Communications Group proposed the breaking up of the BBC — a move guaranteed, it was confidently asserted, to increase freedom, especially in communications.

Such was the intensity of 1960s euphoria that people whose biggest achievement had been to write some shoestring polemical article felt as creative as the Beatles. In the 1970s most of these no longer young hopefuls graduated into a fretful quiescence. The best of them achieved a kind of tentative wisdom, but not even they could help being disappointed with the new decade. It seemed so complacent. Reformed drunks who don’t realise that sobriety isn’t supposed to be exciting are usually doomed to become drunks again, but the rise in the price of oil finally put any relapse into fashionable radicalism out of the question. Meanwhile television continued to be roughly what it had been before — i.e. a curate’s cornucopia. To criticise it properly, you had to watch it. The more you watched, the less likely you were to make wide-ranging statements.

One generalisation you could safely make was that things were still being achieved. The BBC, in particular, kept coming up with prodigies. In certain aspects Auntie showed signs of becoming a bit dégringolade, but this was not surprising. Cultural organisations of any type are more fun to build than they are to run: their sense of identity will always fray eventually. Once, BBC television had echoed BBC radio in being a haven for standard English pronunciation. Then regional accents came in: a democratic plus. Then slipshod usage came in: an egalitarian minus. By now slovenly grammar is even more rife on the BBC channels than on ITV. In this regard a decline can be clearly charted.

But over the same period the BBC’s knack for the blockbuster co-production attained the status of collective genius. The Voyage of Charles Darwin was a startling achievement from the logistic angle as well as every other: just getting it set up must have been like planning the airborne invasion of Arnhem, with the difference that this time it worked. As for David Attenborough’s Life On Earth, it was obvious from the first episode that thousands of new zoologists would all be conceived at once, like a population bulge. I watched enthralled, distracted only by envy of my own children, for whom knowledge was being brought alive in a way that never happened for my generation or indeed for any previous generation in all of history.

One area in which both the BBC and ITV have never ceased to be unforthcoming is in the question of Northern Ireland. My own view is that both organisations would do better to let the documentary-makers have their heads on this subject, but I can see how to an executive it might seem otherwise. Each channel has provided a complete historical analysis of the Ulster situation (for once the word is appropriate) at least once. They could do that every week and not change matters. Nor would they necessarily change anybody’s mind. Television, I suspect, can do little in the short term to ameliorate a political crisis, although there can be no doubt that it can do much to exacerbate it. But leaving that vexed point aside, it is still notable that in the area of political journalism ITV has been at least as active as the BBC.

Beyond the IBA’s relatively modest requirements on the holders of a franchise, there is no reason why the ITV companies should do as much as they do to appear serious. They do so, it seems to me, for honour’s sake, and because even in the counting house there are many mansions. The ITV companies have undoubtedly done more than their share to promote mind-rot among the populace. Their imported game-show formats give an unnervingly pungent whiff of what American television is like from daylight to dusk. But there the resemblance stops. Not even the less discriminating of the commercial companies are entirely without pride. It is not always just their money that attracts restless BBC personnel: it is often the opportunity they provide to do something original. While this book was in production, Dennis Potter and several other subversive talents were engaged in making programmes for a commercial television company, LWT. But the trail was already blazed. It was ITV, not the BBC, which made and screened Bill Brand, a decidedly radical series in which the hot-eyed hero poured scorn over piecemeal solutions and resolutely refused to be tamed. The Naked Civil Servant, Jack Gold’s brilliant programme about Quentin Crisp, was turned down by the BBC and triumphed as an ITV offering. Neither of these ventures could be seriously thought of as demonstrating even the slightest trace of commercial cynicism. The worst you could say was that ITV had begun to usurp the BBC’s function. As if to endorse this analysis, BBC executives started showing a strange inclination to cancel potentially awkward programmes after they had actually been made, or — as in the case of Law and Order — to fight shy of them after they had been screened. But that was a question of personality. It had little to do with the analyst’s favourite word, structure.

British television is simply not to be compared with the American networks, of which the film Network gave such a precisely inverted picture. On American television little untoward is allowed to happen. On British television the untoward happens all the time. It is a matter of how things are organised. Even the most money-minded of the ITV companies can’t function without programme-makers, and the programme-makers have been brought up in a tradition of pride in work. This is just the kind of tradition which a radical criticism is least equipped to understand. It is, if you like, part of the superstructure.

Inevitably the schedules eke out their surprisingly high proportion of good things with an even higher proportion of junk. Even then, such is the pressure of continuous programming that much of the junk has to be imported. Not all of these interloping programmes are entirely to be despised. A general opinion about American private eye series, for example, is not worth hearing if it does not leave room to remark that The Rockford Files is consistently engaging and often very sharply written. Even Charlie’s Angels has some sort of virtue, if only as an indication of the true depth to which feminism has penetrated the American networks. After the Angels had completed their first series an Oxford English don wrote an article declaring that they were the only thing worth watching on television, whose serious programmes were beneath the contempt of such demanding intellects as himself, but whose lapses into abject trash might accidentally stimulate his creative imagination. In his case the Angels certainly seem to have done the trick. Perhaps Dallas will do the same for me. I came to mock Dallas but I stayed to pray. In how many directions could Sue Ellen move her mouth? Which of the four leading ladies would be wearing the bra this week? Would Jock’s love for Miss Ellie survive her mastectomy? Perhaps Miss Ellie’s missing breast would be invited to star in a series of its own — a spin-off.

Sometimes the imported product was better than ours, especially in the field of documentary drama. From The Missiles of October down through Washington Behind Closed Doors to the magnificently acted Blind Ambition, the Americans showed us how to make television drama out of domestic politics. The British companies could work something like the same trick when the subject was royalty — Edward and Mrs Simpson was the outstanding achievement in that line, if you didn’t mind the almost total distortion of the leading characters — but when it came down to Downing Street, coyness supervened. The fact of closed government leads to conjectural fiction. In America, where everything is out in the open, the framework of a screenplay is already there in the congressional record. The naïve candour of open government survives into the fictional treatment, giving it the freshness of an adventure story.

That same naivety carried all the way through to Holocaust, which I did not find at all contemptible, despite being told to by a chorus of knowing voices. It is wishful thinking to suppose that an historical memory can be transmitted without being simplified. The memory is already simplified before people decide that it needs to be transmitted. All you can hope for, in this most extreme of all cases, is for a sense of outraged decency to be embodied in a way that will touch the feelings of the uninformed. People who thought they knew a lot about the death camps might have been unmoved by Holocaust, but people who knew little were often moved to tears. To scorn the series was easy. The Jews looked more Aryan than the Nazis. But calling the series a melodrama could not cancel the fact that there was real drama mixed into it. What more could you ask in the portrayal of helpless anguish, how much more could the heart take, than Meryl Streep provided in her role as the wife driven to distraction by the sight of her tortured husband? The budget would have had to be a lot lower, before such a performance lost its emotional impact. Meryl Streep is a greatly gifted artist who will spend her life doing famous things, but I doubt that she will ever do anything more important.

Yet even by saying that much I can hear myself trying to make you remember, whereas life would be choked by thought if we did not forget. Most television is bound for oblivion and rightly so. In ways that blessedly cannot be quantified, the programmes to which gifted people have devoted months and sometimes years of their lives make fleeting marks behind our eyes and slip away. Nobody can be sure about what television does to the viewer. One opinion holds that television programmes can subjugate whole populations and turn children into murderers. Another opinion holds that television is too trivial a cultural event to be considered. A surprising number of experts have subscribed to both these opinions in close succession or even simultaneously. I never cease to be stunned at the assurance with which moralists pronounce about the precise manner in which large numbers of people are affected by sounds and images transmitted invisibly through space. I have enough trouble answering for myself.

In a given year of viewing I am regaled with as much dramatic fiction as Aristotle faced up to in a lifetime; more great music than the most passionate nineteenth-century music lover would have heard if he had lived to be a hundred; more facts and figures than I care, or dare, to think of. The head would come off its hinges if it were asked to remember what happened last year as well. So the mind protects itself, with the coarse filter of forgetting. The insubstantial pageant fades. We hope it leaves a wrack behind, but can’t be sure what the wrack is. As we wait for introspection to provide the answer, the parade inexorably continues, like the triumphal march from Aida, like the Panathenaean procession, like those interminable allegorical displays in the Middle Ages. Why should so many talented people put so much effort into what will be forgotten? And most of it will be forgotten, no matter how dedicated the efforts to preserve it. The frightful blunder by which the BBC wiped the tapes of plays by Pinter, Owen, Gray, and other leading playwrights was merely a prematurely terminal instance of what would have happened anyway in the course of time. I like the idea of a channel for important repeats but residual payments would make it difficult to organise. And if a channel won’t organise it then the individual viewer is unlikely to either, even if all the past material were available from an instantaneous and inexpensive form of data-retrieval. There is barely time to view the present. To view the past as well would take all the time in the world. So ephemerality is likely to go on being the condition of life for everyone who works in television.

But it never seems that way at the time. Whether as a viewer or as a participant, I have never been able to feel above the battle. Unfortunately MacNeice’s lines in ‘The Sunlight on the Garden’ come truer every day. Our freedom as free-lances/Advances towards its end. Year by year it gets harder to be a solo act. The fourth channel and the new technology might combine to safeguard the future of the independent contributor but I’m not counting on it. Soon work will be rationed, nobody will be allowed to have two jobs, and anyone who wants to appear on television will have to sign on with a company.

On that day there will be a clear conflict of interests and I will be through as a television critic. But I hope I am left with the choice. A project I once put up to a television company was turned down on the grounds that I had not yet decided which side I was on. I believe there is only one side and no war. There is just television, of which the criticism of television forms an integral part. Everybody is a television critic. I have never met anybody who wasn’t. The only difference is that a few of us write it down.