Monday, 20 December 2010

Introductory Post 1

Statement of Intent

British television was once described as being like a 'window on the world', engaging with life in Britain and enriching it. This blog aims to celebrate what we might define as the high-water mark of British broadcasting - from the enabling Pilkington Report to the disastrous Broadcasting Act: roughly speaking, 1960-1990. This blog also takes on the remit of assessing modern British TV with an open mind, but equally without the sort of wishful-thinking indulgence offered as critique in most of our media. History has no pause or no end; everything has a context.  We intend, as does that television personality and writer Jonathan Meades, a mix of the lecture hall and the music hall. Seriousness but not solemnity. 

Firstly, it is necessary to give a flavour of what we mean by the 'classic' 1960-90 era. We mean documentaries which explored lives of the notable (Face to Face) and real (Granada's 7UP Series) and the way we perceive art (Ways of Seeing). Some notable figures continue this ethos of committed, intelligent broadcasting today: Adam Curtis and the aforementioned Jonathan Meades. In terms of children's television, the oeuvre of Oliver Postgate is central, as are children's series with the joy, wisdom and weirdness of The Owl Service and Catweazle.

As Lawrence Miles has shrewdly observed in the context of Dr Who, British television used to be like theatre, where now it grasps towards the effects of Hollywood. We used to give our writers great creative freedom, where now it is often the case that journeyman directors are let loose in the toyshop. As well as the revered Play for Today series, there were numerous other outlets for talented writers within television drama - James Mitchell, Trevor Griffiths, Harold Pinter, David Mercer, Alan Garner, Ingmar Bergman, P.J. Hammond, Troy Kennedy Martin, Philip Martin, Mike Leigh, Alan Bennett, Dennis Potter, Jack Rosenthal, Alan Plater. It was industry policy to actively foster new talents who would take risks; ironically enough, the Thatcher reforms have actually led to far less 'choice' of innovative dramas. In the classic era, television was a writer's medium first and foremost - and it utilised successive generations of excellent, stalwart actors.

Sitcoms aimed to reach the whole audience, not demographics and niches; Steptoe and Son brought Beckett to a large audience, while Dad's Army embodied the cosy consensus of the post-war era, founded as it was in the shared experience of World War II. Sketch shows tended to display wit, awareness of the past and local colour: Absolutely, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Monty Python's Flying Circus and The Fast Show (admittedly, outside of the classic era, that one!). It can also be argued that comedies did as much as dramas to depict the gradual unravelling of the post-WW2 consensus.

This blog is intended to inform, educate and entertain; to amuse but never to talk down to its audience. If the old 'Idiot's Lantern' has too often in recent years became the fabled 'gogglebox' of puritan socialists' nightmares, then A Window on the World will seek to re-assert the sort of responsible, liberal broadcasting values of Sir Hugh Greene.

A Personal View

When did classic British television get me hooked, personally speaking? What is it that made me spend £42 on sitting for four hours in a darkened room in the depths of the BFI on Stephen Street, London, to watch an obscure Dennis Potter adaptation of Angus Wilson's Late Call?

Well, I was born in September 1982 and caught the tail-end of this broadcasting era, and consciously started looking back at what had been lost. There were fewer and fewer programmes designed for sensitive and intelligent children and adults. Of course, American cartoons had long been an influence before my time (and, of course, I do not stereotype all US cartoons as worthless), but there had been the counterbalance of thoughtful, homegrown TV drama made for children. These were often adopted from the children's books written by the post-Blytonian generation of less conservative writers such as Philippa Pearce, Nina Bawden and Helen Cresswell. Moondial was and remains an act of faith for me; I cannot assess its hold on me in purely rational terms.

I gained part of my political and social outlook from television: anti-authoritarianism (Dr Who), different shades of socialism, absorbed in school showings (How We Used To Live) and later epics (Our Friends in the North). I am fascinating anew by just how political and historical the era's television dramas could be: Upstairs, Downstairs, When the Boat Comes In and The Guardians, to name a few examples. My sense of humour is influenced by classic British comedy, with only a few shining examples from the more recent past - the work of Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker.

My other interests - in film, music, art and literature - are bolstered by being interested in classic British television, as classic British television was intrinsically rooted within the wider culture.

You should not judge the past by today's standards, and also consider that today's standards will probably seem palpably absurd in another thirty years. That is why A Window On The World seeks to fundamentally reject the cynicism of postmodernist interpretations of television history; any 'superior' laughing at "bad special effects" or "outdated attitudes" is verboten. That's all been done before, to decidedly tiresome effect.

There will be no 'roseate glow' bathing absolutely anything from the 'classic' era. There were limits. Better Josie Long and Stewart Lee than Little and Large and Jim Davidson, of course. Historical sensitvity does not equate to cultural relativism. Some things are better than others - it is the critic's prerogative to make some value judgements.

Before I round up, I should thank several sources, important in my love of our televisual inheritance: my parents for showing me Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective at the right sort of age (16-17), the estimable Robin Carmody, who has introduced me to much of the detailed broadcasting historical and encouraged me to make the relevant political and cultural links, and the good people of the Mausoleum Club Forum.

I do have an instinctive bias towards the television of the 1960s-80s, compared with today. I prefer its open-mindedness, I prefer its intelligence and indeed its hokum. Give me an episode of The Avengers or Thriller over Spooks anyday (I do find it odd that people seem to genuinely take that show seriously). Television - as manifested in the BBC and the regional ITV companies - embodied a finer era, not just of broadcasting but of public life in Britain. We were an increasingly liberal Social Democracy, but then turned to the wrong sort of liberalisation under Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch. This blog is an attempt to document this fascinating era and suggest some lessons from the past that contemporary broadcasters - whether on the mainstream channels, or online - might take on board.