Jimmy Saville, Tracey Ullman, Denis Waterman, Lenny Henry, Clive James, Jan Leeming… Personalities are central to the institution of television. A stock of recognised names acts as an assurance that audiences will return again (and again) to their role as viewers, perpetuating-via advertising or licence revenue-the flow of cash to maintain the institution. There is an economic imperative, then, to television's construction and maintenance of personalities.
The assurance is like an informal contract between production company and audience. Yet, in the same way that promises can be broken, the assurance is no guarantee. It is less a contract than a mythology, for the most part sustained in the face of regular and consistent contrary evidence. The popularity of any personality can rise and fall repetitively. (Yesterday's has-been may be today's discovery and ripe for anonymity tomorrow. Ask Frankies Vaughan and Howerd.) And audiences have been known to refuse the offer of many a personality in particular programmes or series. None the less, as a system, like cinema's star system, the mythology has material effects: the production of more personalities in the relentless search for high viewing figures.
The mythology is sustained, of course, by cultural myths beyond television. The cult of the personality is a product of the myth of the individual. According to this myth, history is made by extraordinary men (and a few women), irrespective of social movements. The myth has two inflections. One stresses individual achievement through personal effort and competition, and particularly serves the interests of capital. The other is the folk myth (the Cinderella story or the Log-Cabin-to-White-House story) in which the individual succeeds through nature or fate, rather than effort, position or circumstance. The first inflection foregrounds labour, the second denies it and offers genius in its place. The myth of individualism, like all myths, is contradictory.
Nowhere is contradiction more apparent than in television, where the constant need to top up the stock produces a veritable glut of personalities,