Magazine article The Spectator

Turned off at Last

Magazine article The Spectator

Turned off at Last

Article excerpt

APART from the usual affiliations of childhood, television was my first love. I fell in love with TV at the age of three, the particular object of desire being a crackly blackand-white set that reposed in my parents' front room. Thereafter, we were fast friends. As a reliable conduit to the wider world, TV was responsible for some of my most vivid pre-teen experiences: the 1966 World Cup final, the Aberfan mining disaster, the 1969 moon landings - each was brought to me by the veneered rectangular box in the corner. Other stuff, too: Blue Peter and Atom Ant, Tomorrow's World and Top of the Pops, The Onedin Line and Morecambe and Wise. Even now, almost 30 years later, I can remember far more about the cast of Upstairs Downstairs than about the Norman Conquest special subject that occupied me for an entire Oxford term.

TV and I kept up during my teens and afterwards - hectically, indiscriminately: Roots, The World at War, The Goodies. At college there were protracted Mondaynight stake-outs before a bill that included the nursing drama Angels, Coronation Street and reruns of Fawlty Towers. And then, somehow, it all went wrong. TV stopped looking her best, started keeping company that I didn't fancy. The comedians no longer seemed funny, the soaps began to creak. There were books to read, destinies to pursue.

Round about 1985 our ways parted irrevocably. I ostentatiously quitted the room whenever my father began his nightly levee in the company of Emmerdale, EastEnders and The Bill. I haven't watched TV with any seriousness - and any of the wall-eyed commitment that TV-watching supposedly demands - for 15 years. `Watch it for a month,' an editorial chum who knew of this separation suggested. `Watch it for a month and see how you get on.' Remembering the fervent satisfactions of childhood, I decided to give it a go.

For a month I put aside the books and the music, and watched TV. I got up early and watched it with my children. I stayed up late and watched it on my own. I spent long afternoons roving from channel to channel, here glancing at an American chatorama, there watching some gameshow hopeful trying to remember the capital of Canada. All of a sudden, another world - dense, multitudinous, with its own queer laws and protocols - moved unappeasably into view: TV.

One knew, of course, that one was going to be bored. What one didn't know was that one was going to be bored quite so excruciatingly, and with such regularity. The chief challenge of terrestrial television, so far as I understand it, is to find something worth watching. On a specimen Friday night in June, for example, BBC I offered a fiveyear-old repeat of Only Fools and Horses, while BBC 2 chipped in with an instalment of Gardener's World. ITV Carlton, meanwhile, canvassed the attractions of something called All-Star Family Fortunes. Channels 4 and 5 had opted, respectively, for Big Brother and Fort Boyard. Apologies to all concerned, but in the face of this tidal wave of tedium, I just gave up.

Yet, while acknowledging that boredom is an inevitable part of the TV-watcher's schedule, I didn't expect to be quite so embarrassed. It is difficult to explain this sensation without sounding snobbish, but the earlymorning chatshows such as Kilroy, where members of the general public prattled on artlessly about themselves in the context of `predatory women' or 'I fancy older men', left me squirming with unease over the participants' eagerness to expose and humiliate themselves in public. (In Kilroy's defence it should be said that American equivalents such as Ricki Lake, where gruff-voiced transvestites leap on stage to confront their erstwhile schoolfriends, are infinitely worse.) The nadir was reached with a Channel 4 evening show, hosted by someone called Graham Norton, in which members of the audience gleefully recounted how they had made fools of themselves at weddings and so on. As an undergraduate, I once sat gamely through the uncut version of Pasolini's Salo, in which bosomy charmers snacked on razor blades or bathed in vats of excrement. …

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