Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Christmas special

Before this blog shuts up shop for the Christmas break, there's just time to include a slightly longer version of my article in yesterday's Guardian. Merry Christmas everyone.

For those of us who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s in the Pax Britannica of three and four-channel television, Christmas properly began with the family purchase of the double issue of the Radio Times. This seasonal institution, first published in 1969 with the arrival of colour on all channels, was founded in the confident belief that television was our lingua franca and the nation would join together at Christmas in a diasporic community assembled in 20 million living rooms. In those days every sitcom or quiz show, however secular and unenchanted, had its own Christmas show. I would trawl the Aladdin’s cave of TV listings in search of any old rubbish with a festive theme, from Val Doonican in a reindeer jumper to Christmas Celebrity Squares.

One programme is routinely cited as the apex of this golden age of communal television: the 1977 Morecambe and Wise Christmas special which, according to the Guinness Book of Records, brought together 28.5 million people to delight in Eric and Ernie and various BBC presenters performing “There is nothing like a dame” from South Pacific. There is a long tradition in British culture, running all the way from William Langland to T.S. Eliot, which supposes that we once possessed an organic common culture that has been fragmented by modernity. This is the televisual version of the myth: a lament for the lost capacity of TV to create shared moments.

History, of course, is rarely so neat. Television ratings in the 1970s were fiercely disputed. The figure of 28.5 million viewers for the Morecambe and Wise show came from the BBC’s own audience research. ITV’s figures, which the British Film Institute now prefers to rely on because they sampled households using electronic measuring devices attached to TV sets, suggest that their 1977 Christmas special was only the 11th most viewed programme of the 1970s, with 21.3m viewers, and the 10th most viewed was the Mike Yarwood Christmas Show which directly preceded it on BBC1, with 21.4m. So perhaps, instead of Morecambe and Wise bringing the nation together in laughter, they made 100,000 people turn off or switch over when they came on.

The point, though, is that people really want to believe there was a moment when most of the nation congregated around the TV, and this yearning for community runs counter to the market logic of the last three decades. Ever since the Annan Committee on Broadcasting reported in 1977, the received wisdom of government has been that broadcasters are an unelected elite imposing their uniform vision of the world on the rest of us. Thatcherism championed the notion of consumer choice against this BBC-ITV duopoly. The irony is that, in the less regulated, market-led environment created by the 1990 Broadcasting Act, those who watched television the most - old people - were the most ignored because they were least appealing to advertisers. Instead broadcasters wooed the ELVs or “elusive light viewers”, such as teenagers and young singles with disposable incomes. Then, with the rise of digital and catch-up television in the 2000s, the era of “linear viewing” was supposed to come to a definitive end. Just as we could create our own playlists on an iPod, we could now personalise an evening’s viewing like the atomised individual consumers the post-Thatcherite market wanted us to be.

Only it hasn’t happened. Saturday night event television like the X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing has revived the concept of live shows watched by whole families. True, the viewing figures are smaller than in the 1970s but in some ways the potential for collective involvement is greater because there are so many opportunities to comment and participate. Twitter, with its improvised invention of the hashtag to allow similar content to be searched and tracked, has allowed vast virtual communities to meet to discuss shows while they are being broadcast. There is also far more discussion of popular culture in serious newspapers and so even people who have never seen the X Factor know more than they would like to know about it. For better or worse, such shows revive Dennis Potter’s vision of television as a mass democratic form that could break through the intellectual and class hierarchies of theatre and print culture.

One of the defining qualities of TV remains that it can be viewed by lots of people at exactly the same time. Over the next few days it will once again create this ephemeral, undemanding form of togetherness as millions of viewers sit down to watch the Doctor Who Christmas Special, the new version of Upstairs, Downstairs and the Top Gear team driving to Bethlehem. Even as our politicians continue to recite the mantra of individual choice, the continued popularity of Christmas telly points to this longing for a collective life.

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