Saturday, 29 September 2012

Armchair nation

I've just finished a history of watching television called Armchair Nation: An Intimate History of Britain in front of the TV, although it probably won't be out till next autumn. I hope to be blogging some of the stuff that didn't make it into the book over the next few months. One of the more surprisingly enjoyable days I spent researching it was at theNational Archives at Kew, looking at old Home Office files on the politics and aesthetics of the new transmitters built in the 1940s and 1950s at places like Holme Moss, Winter Hill, Caradon and Kirk O'Shotts. These masts were seen at the time as modern-day cathedral spires, announcing the arrival of the new god, television, into the region. I found this by one of my favourite contemporary poets:

The transmitter stands lonely in my mind,
Remote and cold, beyond the aerials
Of gable-ends and guttering, beyond
Ideas of Eiffels casting silvery bolts;

Remote as the front that brought snowfall
to The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau;
apologies from high on distant Pennines,
though something of a signal still gets through.

Paul Farley, ‘Winter Hill’

Mundane quote for the day: 'Last night I went to Elsa Lanchester's. Oh the horror of TV! It is so utterly, utterly inferior, yet just enough to keep you enslaved, entrapped, on the lower levels of consciousness - for a whole lifetime, if necessary. It is a bondage like that of Tennyson's Lady of Shalott.' - Christopher Isherwood's diary, 28 September 1959

Thursday, 6 September 2012

No longer a secret vice

I wrote this on the return of Dallas for Saturday's Guardian:
According to Michael Palin’s diary for Saturday 9 January 1982, at 9 o’clock that evening he rang his friend George Harrison. After a few monosyllabic responses, Harrison said pointedly, “You’re obviously not a Dallas fan, then.” 30 years ago, in a country with only three TV channels, everyone except Michael Palin seemed to be watching Dallas. Ed Miliband has said that it was his “secret vice”, which alarmed his father, the Marxist academic Ralph Miliband, who worried he might be “planning a future in Big Oil”. David Cameron, probably without generating similar parental alarm, watched Dallas while at Eton.

America was a long way away. Freddie Laker’s transatlantic Skytrain had been offering cheap, no-frills flights since 1977, but that went into liquidation five years later. The Atlantic really was an ocean, culturally as well as geographically, and most Britons saw America only through their television sets. For them Dallas must have seemed like a vision of otherness and excess, with big hair, big shoulder pads and big plotlines. To others it felt like a cultural invasion, American imperialism by other means. Nowadays, of course, our talent show franchises have ensured that the trash doesn’t just travel one way.

The new series of Dallas, which begins on 5 September after a 21-year break, returns to a very different cultural landscape. The Sunday Telegraph’s long-serving TV critic Philip Purser wrote in his 1992 autobiography, Done Viewing, that “the gravest disservice that Dallas did television was to create an appetite for flavours so strong and artificial that the palate was ruined for more subtle and natural tastes”. But this isn’t quite what happened.

Dallas was a world in which every villain was irredeemable, every emotion was signposted and everything happened for a reason, even if it was only that it was all a dream. But most of the successful dramas imported from the US since Dallas have been the opposite: multi-stranded, self-consciously clever narratives that demand more intellectual and emotional work from viewers and do not always reward them with clear resolutions. In his book Everything Bad Is Good for You, the American cultural critic Steven Johnson argued that this kind of complex drama had developed to stand up to repetition, as shows were repeated on the multiplying number of channels and had an afterlife as DVD box sets.

The prototype for this type of series was Hill Street Blues, a programme that began three years after Dallas. Dallas also had its clones, like Dynasty and Falcon Crest, but they all predeceased it. Now we have become habituated to the subtle, natural-seeming flavours of The Wire and Mad Men, they may have ruined our palates for characters who say “You don’t care how many lives you destroy if you get what you want!” and “You bought me once, you can’t do it anymore!” to a swelling background chorus of woodwind and grand piano.

In another sense, though, Dallas in its first incarnation may have created the conditions for it to be a success second time around. For it was one of the first shows that British viewers watched with a squint, with an awareness that it was both addictive and absurd. This peculiarly British compromise was actually engineered by two expats: Terry Wogan and Clive James. On his Radio 2 show, Wogan treated Dallas as “a weekly Eurovision Song Contest” and mocked the way that the oil-rich Ewings could only afford a single telephone in the hall. In his Observer TV column, Clive James homed in on Dallas’s strange, compelling details, from its southern pronunciations (prarlm for problem, lernch for lunch) to the way that Sue Ellen moved her mouth in different directions to convey emotion.

This professionally flippant, slyly populist voice, accepting of kitsch and able to rework it into unintentional comedy, has become the default style not only of TV reviewers but also of viewers. We have learnt to read programmes against the grain, to mine enjoyment from them that may never have been intended by their makers. And thanks to this, Ed Miliband may like to note, watching Dallas need no longer be a secret vice.