A Sociological Autobiography: 6 – Watching TV

It was the radio that entertained and diverted us in my early years. I overheard Grace Archer expire in the Archers. Wilfred Pickles’ Have a go’ was routine fare, a jar of homemade honey a likely prize for champion competitors. Later, Round the Horne was a favourite during Sunday lunches (followed by the unimaginably tedious Gardeners’ Question Time). Television intruded, a tad rudely, a while later. My father’s fondness for radio meant that Radio 4 news and magazine and topical programmes like Any Questions overlapped with the arrival of TV. Donald Soper, Methodist preacher, Any Questions regular and the best off-the-cuff speaker I have ever heard sticks in the memory (as I student I later sought him out on his soapbox on Tower Hill). Radio 3’s Test Match Special lived on regardless: I have yet entirely to come to terms with Brian Johnson’s demise, though now even ‘CMJ’ has gone. Radio slipped into your living room and invited you to listen in; television was to be more insistent, making rivals of other activities from Margaret’s knitting to my playing with toy soldiers and dinky or corgi cars.

Television had been around since the 1930s, if in limited and experimental forms. The first broadcast from Alexandra Palace in 1936 reached out to 25-40,000 locals. The service was suspended during the war, however, resuming its transmissions in 1946. The Scambler household was run far too economically to allow for a set at 10 Colebrook Close until well into the 1950s. In this age of constrained incomes, meager housekeeping and rationing, I recall more than once hiding under the kitchen table with my mother when the rent man was spotted: he would think we were out and traipse off to wait another week. Money was tight. Ron’s teaching income had to be supplemented every summer holiday with nursery work at the sunny-side foot of the South Downs. Television would have to wait.

But the Whites had one, and I had an open invitation to join Kieran to watch my favourites. Ron and Margaret rather than the Whites rationed my scamperings across the road, I think to one hour every weekday. Multifarious westerns come to mind, from the likes of The Lone Ranger and the Range Rider to Dale Robertson starring as Jim Hardie in Wells Fargo (my choice). Then there was Superman … and I could go on. These sojourns at Kieran’s place were my run-in to Saturday afternoons and evenings in Rustington. I lapped up and savoured an innovation bearing comparison to Saturday matinee performances at Worhing’s Odeon (Fess Parker as Davy Crocket pops up from the memory bank). A choice of three cinemas then; just the one now. But the heyday of cinema in the 1920s and ‘30s was already fading by the 1950s.

We were not to remain without a television, even in the Colebrook Close days. One day there came a giant walnut box containing a small six-inch screen in the top right-hand corner. Admittedly this impressive piece of furniture delivered radio better than television. Rob Ellmore, woodwork teacher at Ron’s St Andrew’s School, doubled up as an amateur electrician. For a period after he was summoned, the television worked, after a fashion. A smart tap on the top of the walnut casing intimidated either or both of the vertical or horizontal holds, resulting in a temporarily stable picture. Repeated taps were required per programme.

Here is an aside about Ron, Rob Ellmore, and the third member of a creative and active trio, Derek Walker, art teacher and restorer for the Tate (he used to carry priceless masterpieces back and forth on the train). Rob not only repaired faulty televisions. He led this trio through the building of several dinghies and canoes to teach pupils how to sail and enjoy the sea. Ron could only afford a canoe for himself. There is a double poignancy here: he would have loved a dinghy and, even more, a son who enjoyed being in and on water as much as he did. The unfortunate truth was and is that I only enjoy swimming because it is preferable to drowning.

But I divert. Gradually our television coverage improved via a series of second-hand sets until it largely displaced the radio in our home lives. From an initial base point of hoping that the seemingly omnipresent test card would eventually yield to visual narrative and the holds hold, the number of channels and options grew. Of course BBC1 was the benchmark. After all, Reith stood between standards and vulgarity. The institutional ethos and ethic of the BBC guaranteed independence and impartiality; or so we imbibed. This was a 1950s-cum-early-60s characterized by a postwar stability of class and status. I was a kid, but a generalized trust in established institutions held fast: people knew their place.

Soaps and sitcoms were introduced to this world. For many years the Scambler family followed Coronation Street as well as now extinct serials like Emergency Ward 10, Dr Kildare and Compact. No less addictive were the quiz shows: Hughie Green’s Double Your Money (‘ … and I mean that most sincerely folks’) and Michael Miles’ Open the Box  (‘what should she do, take the money or open the box?’). I now think soaps, sitcoms, quizzes and contemporary equivalents like Big Brother and Strictly Come Dancing, or the endless sequences of food, travel or trade-in antiques programmes, carry potential for ‘escapist’ addiction. They are the ‘familiars’ we take refuge in and feed off in the absence of – often more costly – alternatives. They afford escapes for non-escapees. The National Lottery now takes this a step further to bring the betting shop into people’s living rooms to tax them for their dreams they are sold.

Here is another sociological observation, if far from original. Technological innovation intrudes into culture just as culture intrudes into technological innovation. As television nudged, no ‘shoved’, radio aside, so time and space in the domestic or private sphere were reconfigured. I never ran to hear the radio in someone else’s house. There was an irresistible urgency to television, as I am sure there was to radio a few decades before. Moreover, our new expectations of and for entertainment required novel seating arrangements dictated by the Radio Times. Evening meals migrated from dinning to sitting room. Conversations, I now recognize, became attenuated. But Sunday lunch was to remain obdurately a dinning room and radio commitment. As ever, the new never completely vanquishes the old. More: the present is a mix of past and future. As Sartre insisted, we are always part of a process of ‘becoming’. We only arrive, and accomplish ‘being’, at the point of death.

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