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This vision thing

Time was when anything that merely moved on screen mesmerised the nation. Television has gone global - and viewers have become ever more restless and demanding. Justina Hart reports on the visual phenomenon of our times

The giant has arrived," warned an American magazine in the early 1940s. "He was a mere pip-squeak yesterday, and didn't even exist the day before, but like a genie released from a magic bottle in The Arabian Nights, he now looms big as life over our heads." Welcome to TV world! Sixty years on, with programmes like Big Brother, we're not so very far from living the illusory reality captured in the film The Truman Show (1998), in which innocent Truman Burbank is picked at birth to inhabit in a TV show for life.

So: Big Brother 2002-style or Big Brother, as in the George Orwell's 1984 novel? Television has been seen as both monster and magician from the beginning, when in 1926, John Logie Baird completed his televisor: an electro-mechanic machine capable of transmitting up to 12.5 moving colour images per second and on which the first moving image to be seen was his office boy, bribed for a pound to shift sullenly from side to side. By 1928 Baird had convinced backers that there would be a market for flickering images on a screen three inches by four (8cm by 11cm) and in September the first commercially produced televisions in the world were shown at a trade fair in Britain.

But why would anyone want one? The technology had come before the content. Baird quickly realised that no one would buy the receivers until there was something to watch. A range of performances were broadcast from the Baird studio in London including, in July 1930, the first publicly televised play in Britain, The Man with a Flower in His Mouth, organised by the BBC. These were amateurish affairs, as one might expect of one-off programmes produced by manufacturers. For much of the early years of TV those appearing on it had to wear complete (and very thick) face make up with white face paint and blue paint applied to the lips, eyebrows, eyelashes, since the picture definition was so poor. Still, by June 1931 TV sets were on sale at 25 guineas (when the average male weekly wage was pound;2 or pound;2.10 shillings, for those lucky enough to be employed, compared to pound;265 nowadays).

Still, the sets had cachet and interest grew. Abroad, the private Columbia Broadcasting Systems began regular programmes in the US in 1931, while the first national broadcaster was Germany in 1935. At home, interest grew in the new medium and the BBC transmitted its first programme from Alexandra Palace on November 2 1936, heralded (disingenuously) as the "world's first, public, regular, high-definition television station". Broadcasting before the war was a medley of news, films, cartoons and drama. Propaganda played an important part, with many parades being shown, but the greatest triumph was the televising of the Coronation procession of King George VI in May 1937. Estimates of the viewing audience varied between 10,000 and 50,000 people, or most of those who owned sets. Baird's system was technically inferior and was quickly dropped in favour of that made by Marconi EMI, still used by some BBC transmitters up until 1985.

Despite its potential for propaganda - notable in more recent events like the Gulf War - BBC TV, like that in most countries, went off air in 1939. The mast at Alexandra Palace could have been used to guide enemy aircraft, in those days before radar. However, television benefited from the Second World War; much of the work done on radar and communications transferred directly to television set design. One area that was improved greatly was the picture tube (technically called a "Cathode Ray Tube").

England resumed TV broadcasting on June 7, 1946 . Adele Nixon sang a song describing it as "a mighty maze of mystic magic raysI all about us in the blue". Apart from the fuel crisis in the Seventies and the bygone nightly shutdown, it's been on air ever since. For a long time, there was a marked difference between British TV and that from the rest of the world, particularly America. Lord Reith's vision of the BBC as an organisation with a "mission to inform, educate and entertain" seemed to mean that the UK had lots of series like The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski and cult figures like The Prisoner while the US had lots of drama series like Bonanza, sitcoms like I Love Lucy and gameshows. Catchphrases like: "I can assure you of our impartiality - we're from the BBC," were straightfaced reality. Even programmes, like Watch with Mother (the world's first for little children, first broadcast in 1950) were so much more improving than those American cartoons. Big Brother, in the Orwellian sense, was behind the camera.

And then there was national pride. The first TV programme to be broadcast in Scotland showed the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society performing the Duke of Edinburgh Reel. They were celebrating the opening of Kirk o Shotts station in Lanarkshire on March 14, 1952. All over the UK, presenters spoke in the clipped tones of received English; newsreaders wore dinner jackets. A sense of national occasion, pageantry, tradition, was a British strength. Richard Dimbleby and Gilbert Harding's sonorous tones accompanied real-time broadcasts - still in black and white.

A comparison between plans for the Jubilee and the carefully planned TV coverage of the Coronation in June 1953 shows how much things have changed. The televising of the Coronation was a key factor in turning us on and turning us into a nation of telly addicts. Magazines presented the TV set as the new hearth through which family affection might be rekindled. The Coronation would unite the nation as family. Between 1951 and 1954 the number of combined sound and vision licences (costing pound;2) doubled to over three million, and the sale of black and white sets, which cost a princely pound;90 - or more than nine times the average weekly wage - increased. Despite the seven-hour Coronation programme, watched by an estimated 20 million viewers, early television was derivative, taking things that existed, like West End cabaret, and relaying them unimaginatively to the home. Watching plays was like watching the theatre, but smaller and in your living room.

In 2002 we knew what the BBC's Jubilee output would be like in advance, because we have seen so many similar spectacles before. We are sophisticated, restless consumers, who yet long to be impressed. Colour TV ownership is 98.3 sets per 100 households (compared to Bangladesh's 0.6 per 100). We watch on average 26 hours a week, 35 in the lowest socioeconomic classes, and will have seen 25,000 hours by the time we reach 18. More than half of all children now have a TV in their rooms. For pound;90 in today's money (a third of the average weekly wage) you can buy a 14-inch portable colour TV. Never mind Orwell's dictum that Big Brother is watching you: we are able to watch Big Brother everywhere, even on the bus on little two-inch mini-TVs. With so much on tap, how can anything be special?

"We had to take the view 18 months ago that the concerts at Buckingham Palace will be a significant event in the nation's history," said a BBC spokesperson. The royal family itself has become, superficially at least, more responsive to the popular mood, but so is the BBC. TV-watching is less passive now: the BBC has six TV channels and a number of other platforms, such as the internet, so that people of all faiths and political persuasions can have a say. Focus groups, ratings figures and ratings wars affect even such "significant events". Richard Dimbleby's son David will have been expected to judge the nation's mood, to put on the kind of sonorous voice that the BBC sanctions for royal occasions. Get it wrong, be too sycophantic or insufficiently respectful or show political bias, and we will complain vociferously. If we don't like the BBC's coverage we can switch over. With five terrestrial channels, more than 50 cable and satellite channels, video and DVD, all producing material to watch, the consumer now reigns over his or her hardware. We are not just less deferential to royalty than in 1953, we are less respectful of the media. If the BBC is Big Brother, we are little brother, thumbing our noses. Still, at the most dramatic end of the scale, television enables us to feel a part in history as it happens. People say, "Where were you when Kennedy was shot?" an event, amazingly, broadcast on live TV. People got up in the middle of the night to watch the Apollo Moon landing in 1969. At the end of the Eighties we saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, and in the Nineties Princess Diana's funeral.

The immediacy of television (from its earliest days it was closely allied with news coverage and documentaries) is a mixed blessing. The Gulf War with its zinging flashes was an operatic show in 1991; it didn't look real. And at the start of the 21st century, TV brought us September 11, 2001. We were able to see, from the vantage point of an eagle, planes crashing into skyscrapers in real time and watch, goggle-eyed, as those skyscrapers fell into dust and fire. We wept as we watched (partly to compensate for our voyeuristic fascination with the screen) as real people in real time waved handkerchiefs and plummeted through the air to certain death.

These images were horrifying because they were real, and confusing because they were "like" a film, and all this happened on the screen in your living room. It raised uncomfortable moral questions. Since we get pleasure from watching violence on TV, were we not in part entranced by TV's power to give us the ultimate, as-it-happens thrill? And how far removed is this from watching the spectacle of Christians being thrown to lions? There is a flourishing illicit market in film from CCTV in shopping centres. Is reality TV (like Big Brother) a similar kind of voyeurism or does the consent of the participants change the picture? TV in its early days was always live. Then film and videotape, enabling editing, special effects and more skilful ways of telling a story, ousted live TV. Well-made documentaries like Cathy Come Home (1966) jerked our consciences; crafted comedies like Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969) tickled our fancies. Recently, in talk shows like So, Graham Norton, and slip-on-a-banana skin series like You've Been Framed, live or unedited TV has made a comeback. It seems we prefer spontaneity to smoothness and pratfalls to Panorama. Pretty much what the doomsayers predicted in 1955 when independent television arrived, bringing advertising and consumer culture and ending the BBC's reign of cultural elitism. Fay Weldon talks about ITV's birth in her recently published autobiography Auto da Fay: "The BBC was bad enough, but oh, ITV, the vulgarity of it! More (TV) could only mean worse." In response, in 1964, the BBC split itself into two parts. BBC1 was to compete with ITV. BBC2 was to go highbrow. In 1971 the Open University was launched, in line with prime minister Harold Wilson's "white heat of technological revolution". In 1982, with the birth of Channel 4, commercial TV was able to launch its own version of minority interest programmes, and go for niche advertising.

In some ways, TV is a giant con-trick. It keeps its audience watching (and wanting) by simulating face-to-face communication. The newsreader stares straight at you, appearing to talk to you directly and personally. Whatever you do, seems to be the subliminal message, don't switch channels and don't switch off. A programme host keeps viewers involved by addressing a co-host, saying something like, "We want England to win the World Cup, don't we?" You, the viewer, are in truth whom the presenter is addressing. "No flipping" was fictional talk show host, Larry Sanders's refrain before an advertising break in The Larry Sanders Show, parodying the incessant drive for ratings. You buy the products in the ads because they look like those shown in the programmes you've just been watching, which in turn brings in the cash to make more TV programmes. It's a circle in which Orwell's Big Brother and Channel 4's Big Brother merge into one.

From time to time, prophets of doom arise who denounce bad language, sex and violence. Mary Whitehouse launched the Clean Up TV campaign in 1964; apart from establishing the concept of the 9pm watershed, before which material which might corrupt children should not be broadcast, her life's work seems to have had little effect. More recently, US Professor Neil Postman has been among many voices decrying the "dumbing down" of public discourse and blaming it on TV in his 1993 book Technopoly: Surrender of Culture to Technology (published by Vintage Books, US). Lord Reith, it is felt, would not have liked The Weakest Link. Yet, even though there are moral panics from time to time, life without TV is almost unimaginable. It is part of 21st-century Britain. Anyone from a television-deprived household appears narrow-minded to their MTV and Sky-savvy counterparts, as though they inhabit a black and white universe. Did these people feel like playground lepers while everyone else was babbling about Starsky and Hutch or The X-Files, depending on their generation? TV is social glue. If you wanted to hang with the cool kids, it was surely vital to get your fix of the programmes that held them transfixed to the screen.

TV enables us to know about and to go to places we will never see for ourselves. It impacts on every area of our lives, from interior decoration to holiday destinations. We can conduct knowledgeable discussions about the initiation rites of disappearing tribes in the Amazon (remember Thames TV's Disappearing World?), and have pub arguments along the lines of "Head to head: polar bear or grizzly bear. Which would win?" TV fills in the visual gaps that books leave to the imagination. We know about the sex lives of beetles; we see deep into the sea and sky and above us into space. David Attenborough's BBC series of Life on Earth has probably tuned more people into appreciating the natural world than any biology lesson.

Nobody in 1936 could have predicted how knowing we would become, nor how much choice we would have, even if that choice sometimes seems like a toss-up between wilted lettuce and boiled cauliflower. US rock icon Bruce Springsteen wrote about the issue in 1992 in his song 57 channels and nothing on: "So I bought a .44 magnum it as solid steel castAnd in the blessed name of Elvis I just let it blastTill my TV lay in pieces there at my feetAnd they busted me for disturbin' the almighty peace.Judge said, 'What you got in your defence, son?''Fifty seven channels and nothin' on.'" Through the huge upheavals that have affected Britain since then, TV has accompanied us. From public events to much-loved soaps, from favourite comedians to awe-inspiring documentaries, from abrasive interviewers to breaking news, TV is a place, in the words of Marshall Mcluhan, where "the medium is the message". Back then, when a family gathered around a magic box, nobody could have predicted that we would become actors in our own drama. Never mind Big Brother, it is easy for anyone these days to have their 15 minutes on screen in a docusoap, chat show or quiz show, even to be, in a scam recently uncovered by newspapers, a professional victim of crime or outraged neighbour. In the shifting mirror of television, which Big Brother do we see: Orwell's or Channel 4's?


TV Hotlinks (American TV)


The Internet Movie Database

Media Guardian

Kill Your TV

Whitedot (anti-TV organisation)

Independent Television Commission (ITC)

Early British Television History

Ear BBC history

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