In almost 90 years since television was invented it has done more to re-shape our world than conquering armies and pandemics. Whether you see TV as a force for good or evil — or more recently, as a method for delivering absurd banality — you would be hard-pressed to find another human invention that has altered us so profoundly, psychologically, socially and culturally. What would its creator — John Logie Baird — think of his invention now, almost 70 years after his death?
From the Guardian:
Like most people my age – 51 – my childhood was in black and white. That’s because my memory of childhood is in black and white, and that’s because television in the 1960s (and most photography) was black and white. Bill and Ben, the Beatles, the Biafran war, Blue Peter, they were all black and white, and their images form the monochrome memories of my early years.
That’s one of the extraordinary aspects of television – its ability to trump reality. If seeing is believing, then there’s always a troubling doubt until you’ve seen it on television. A mass medium delivered to almost every household, it’s the communal confirmation of experience.
On 30 September it will be 84 years since the world’s first-ever television transmission. In Armchair Nation, his new social history of TV, Joe Moran, professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University, recounts the events of that momentous day. A Yorkshire comedian named Sydney Howard performed a comic monologue and someone called Lulu Stanley sang “He’s tall, and dark, and handsome” in what was perhaps the earliest progenitor of The X Factor.
The images were broadcast by the BBC and viewed by a small group of invited guests on a screen about half the size of the average smartphone in the inventor John Logie Baird’s Covent Garden studio. Logie Baird may have been a visionary but even he would have struggled to comprehend just how much the world would be changed by his vision – television, the 20th century’s defining technology.
Every major happening is now captured by television, or it’s not a major happening. Politics and politicians are determined by how they play on television. Public knowledge, charity, humour, fashion trends, celebrity and consumer demand are all subject to its critical influence. More than the aeroplane or the nuclear bomb, the computer or the telephone, TV has determined what we know and how we think, the way we believe and how we perceive ourselves and the world around us (only the motor car is a possible rival and that, strictly speaking, was a 19th-century invention).
Not not only did television re-envision our sense of the world, it remains, even in the age of the internet, Facebook and YouTube, the most powerful generator of our collective memories, the most seductive and shocking mirror of society, and the most virulent incubator of social trends. It’s also stubbornly unavoidable.
There is good television, bad television, too much television and even, for some cultural puritans, no television, but whatever the equation, there is always television. It’s ubiquitously there, radiating away in the corner, even when it’s not. Moran quotes a dumbfounded Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc) from Friends on learning that a new acquaintance doesn’t have a TV set: “But what does your furniture point at?”
Like all the best comic lines, it contains a profound truth. The presence of television is so pervasive that its very absence is a kind of affront to the modern way of life. Not only has television reshaped the layout of our sitting rooms, it has also reshaped the very fabric of our lives.
Just to take Friends as one small example. Before it was first aired back in 1994, the idea of groups of young people hanging out in a coffee bar talking about relationships in a language of comic neurosis was, at least as far as pubcentric Britain was concerned, laughable. Now it’s a high-street fact of life. Would Starbucks and Costa have enjoyed the same success if Joey and friends had not showed the way?
But in 1929 no one had woken up and smelled the coffee. The images were extremely poor quality, the equipment was dauntingly expensive and reception vanishingly limited. In short, it didn’t look like the future. One of the first people to recognise television’s potential – or at least the most unappealing part of it – was Aldous Huxley. Writing in Brave New World, published in 1932, he described a hospice of the future in which every bed had a TV set at its foot. “Television was left on, a running tap, from morning till night.”
All the same, television remained a London-only hobby for a tiny metropolitan elite right up until the Second World War. Then, for reasons of national security, the BBC switched off its television signal and the experiment seemed to come to a bleak end.
It wasn’t until after the war that television was slowly spread out across the country. Some parts of the Scottish islands did not receive a signal until deep into the 1960s, but the nation was hooked. Moran quotes revealing statistics from 1971 about the contemporary British way of life: “Ten per cent of homes still had no indoor lavatory or bath, 31% had no fridge and 62% had no telephone, but only 9% had no TV.”
My family, as IT happened, fitted into that strangely incongruous sector that had no inside lavatory or bath but did have a TV. This seems bizarre, if you think about society’s priorities, but it’s a common situation today throughout large parts of the developing world.
I don’t recall much anxiety about the lack of a bath, at least on my part, but I can’t imagine what the sense of social exclusion would have been like, aged nine, if I hadn’t had access to Thunderbirds and The Big Match.
The strongest memory I have of watching television in the early 1970s is in my grandmother’s flat on wintry Saturday afternoons. Invariably the gas fire was roaring, the room was baking, and that inscrutable spectacle of professional wrestling, whose appeal was a mystery to me (if not Roland Barthes), lasted an eternity before the beautifully cadenced poetry of the football results came on.
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Image: John Logie Baird. Courtesy of Wikipedia.