For a while I wondered if it would have been better had I never encountered television at all. I forgot the footholds it still provided when I first knew it – footholds not entirely of its own making, but neither entirely extrinsic, imported culture. Its own history, not yet corralled into immediately evident strands or channels; old and new programmes placed together for the sensibility to which they were likely to appeal. Television then, still, for a little while, provided one with so many routes out – prospects on its own place in time, its own relation to art, and its role in the world; roads leading towards experiences, works and modes of discourse beyond its borders. Someone said that the point of helping someone is to put them in the condition of no longer needing your help, and television, similarly, seemed to be made by people who believed that the purpose of television was to prepare the viewer for the day when they would no longer need to watch television. Once out, it seemed in memory a very restricted place – like C. S. Lewis’s description of an external observer’s impression of hell – and I felt relief at having kicked its dust off my shoes. Of course, it still had its uses, its place in my life. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
As a child, once old enough to make distinctions, I liked little of the television of my own time. Repeats of classic telefantasy – Doctor Who, the Supermarionation shows, to a lesser extent the ITC spy series – were my main focus. The past was exotic. This vanished epoch was the first lost Eden of my acquaintance, and all of it was experienced via public-service broadcasting. Though I would not have phrased it in such terms, it was clear to me that only television unencumbered by the permanent present-tense of advertising could allow itself the luxury of a curatorial intelligence.
Moondial was repeated at the right time for me to have caught it, but I was put off by its VT look. A Pixley and Howe-Stammers-Walker-reading child, I had discovered that the programmes whose ‘old’ look so fascinated me were shot on 16mm. After Pertwee-era Doctor Who, school memories of Dark Towers, and the cannibalised ‘flashbacks’ of Sky Hunter II, Moondial looked like thin stuff to me. Now I prize that aesthetic, but that’s because it is distant enough to have become an aesthetic; then it was just the way telly looks now, too near in time to be of interest.
Then through reference books and television I discovered the Hammer films, followed them back to Universal horror films, thence to German expressionism, and out. The programming at the local art cinema was excellent, and, when I began to go there regularly in my mid-to-late teens, it became a second home, but television’s repertory screenings were still invaluable. Television no longer compared itself to this older culture – aesthetically, a culture of imitation had taken over television drama - but it could still show the films to which it no longer had any address, and that was all I needed it to do. By this time, of course, it wasn’t the same thing at all - the terrestrial and cable channels of 2001 still showed, taken together, fewer silent films than Channel 4 did in 1994 (or so it seemed – it’d be interesting to find out if this is actually the case).
Did I give television up or did it give me up? At some point, in any case, I became aware that I no longer watched it. How I returned to it, as an annex of film history, might be expected to predispose me towards work intelligible in the terms of authorship’s formulation in cinema, and indeed the work I discuss in the following post is an example of this, but although it is unlikely to bear very frequently upon my contributions here, I want to say something about my relationship with television as it now stands. For years, I never watched it. Now, I watch it, but not to look for traces of what it was. Bryan Magee will not come again. But this causes me less concern than many readers might think it ought, perhaps because as someone whose main field of interest is cinema, followed by literature, then music, I spend a lot of time with the dead. I am here not to mourn the television of the liberal consensus, but to rejoice in the number of great works created in its time.
Yes, there is ‘archive melancholy’, which Robin Carmody and I have talked about elsewhere; but for me there is little present-day regret. That television is not now, if it ever was, an artistic medium frees one from the duty to be, provisionally, interested in everything. It concerns me that there are countries I haven’t seen a single film from; it does not concern me that I haven’t yet seen all of Doctor Who, old or new. I will probably never see anything written by Paul Abbott. Generally, I resent programmes that demand I pay attention over a period of weeks, or expect me to maintain interest in a plot-arc, though the annoyance with which Hinchcliffe fans have greeted the new series of Doctor Who does give me a warm glow for old time’s sake – I may even watch some of it.
No longer stuck with its present tense, or what it says about other arts, I have little objection to what the best of television does now. What I have no expectation of liking, I avoid. Television now strikes me as being as good as it can be when one considers the society it is addressing. To attribute its failings to some incapacity of current practitioners has increasingly come, to my mind, to seem naïve – artists are not superbeings who become mortal as you approach them in age – so it was with excitement that I began reading this blog, in which television’s sea-change is rightly laid at the door of the society it was made in, and for.