Dennis Potter would have been 80 today, and in honour of the occasion here’s a rare article he wrote in October 1969 for the short-lived Mirror Magazine. It shows Potter in typically combative mood as he contemplates four decades of television since the birth of the BBC. This is exclusive to the Oberon Books blog but you can find plenty more of Potter’s thoughts on television in The Art of Invective. Our thanks go to William Ham Bevan who brought the article to light.
11 October 1969
All television’s yesterdays… one September day in 1929, the first BBC television transmission was made using John Logie Baird’s equipment from station 2LO high on the roof of Selfridges in London. Dennis Potter, prize-winning author of the Nigel Barton plays and the controversial Son of Man, looks back on forty years.
If those well-heeled ladies and gentlemen shopping in Selfridges forty years ago had gone home and found tonight’s programmes awaiting them they would either clap their hands in exultation or – more likely – cower in terror behind their furniture.
For TV is both the wonder and the disgrace of our times. A magic paintbox and a dreary bore. A window on the universe and just another humdrum, pap-fed domestic appliance.
Licensed like a dog, a mad dog, it squats in the corner of the living room, a wall-eyed beast which sicks up the world on to our nylon carpets. You can put on your slippers, sink into your favourite armchair, sip a nice hot cup of tea, and watch a man being burnt to death.
Don’t choke. In a minute or two a row of teeth will smile at you, mouthing a reassuring bromide. Or you can switch channels and sweep into the sweeter world of the commercials: striped toothpaste, coloured toilet rolls and extra-mileage ingredients, the hip-hip-happy moods of what is called, by Act of Parliament, a natural break.
Every night of the week, every week of the year, the pictures go swirling by – a ship breaking its back on the rocks, a bomber dropping napalm on Asian peasants, tea with the Queen, a Hollywood cowboy sprawled on a plastic rock, spangled dancing girls, football from South America, an assassin weeping in the death cell, a pub in a Lancashire backstreet or an American hopping on the moon.
Hey diddle-diddle, the quiz
and the twaddle,
The telly jumps over the moon
Hughie Green laughs to see
For the tosh runs away with
Our children take the technical marvels for granted. They have grown up with what used to be called, defensively, the gogglebox. They are not in the least bit astonished by the sight of a toothbrush floating in a capsule half way to the moon. As far as they are concerned, water comes out of the tap, gas out of the cooker, and pictures out of the TV set. An ordinary sort of machine. Something to pass the time when it is raining.
But years ago, on a very boozy Christmas day, I had a tipsy uncle who was so overcome by the sight of the Queen delivering her stilted seasonal message that he hiccupped, lurched forward to the set, kissed the flickering image with two resounding smacks and, unable to stop his momentum, cut his lip badly on the little table which carried the TV and Her Majesty.
‘I ne-ne-never thought I’d l-l-live to see such a thing!’ he burbled through the hilarity and the blood. It is about the only time I have seen anyone so physically moved by something pumping out of the telly.
Equally bizarre reactions can still be provoked by the box, though. The death of a sour, stout-swilling old lady in Coronation Street a few years ago allegedly brought forth wreaths and heartbroken telegrams of condolence and letters of protest to Granada.
Hundreds of viewers can telephone the BBC in apoplectic rage after a Wednesday Play.
I know, because after the first screening of my play about Christ, Son of Man, one indignant lady complained in shocked tones that Jesus ‘actually had hair on his chest!’
Perhaps we all ought to retain a little of this sense of involvement, or the old feeling of wonder – if only because it might also increase our anger and shame about the multitude of ways TV so often and so disgustingly falls short of its true potential, its genuine magic.
In America, television is now dismissed as mere ‘chewing gum for the eyes.’ A thing which virtually ceases to engage the mind or any real emotions during those huge deserts of time called the ‘peak hours’ by those phrenetic rating-conscious entertainment merchants.
They sell the machine-turned programme fodder like detergents, with blue specks for titillation. An act of violence every nine minutes. A killing every forty-four minutes. And a hundred commercials in between.
Fifteen or twenty years ago this would not have mattered so much. Television was just an expensive toy, an eleven-inch tube encased in walnut, suitable for children and the lower orders. Sniffy intellectuals were ashamed to admit that they watched such stuff. ‘Idiot’s lantern’ they called it, noses in the air.
About the most exciting thing you could expect to see was dear old Gilbert Harding losing his temper in a witless panel game. Sooner or later, everyone felt, he would lumber across the cable-snaking studio floor and thump affable Eamonn Andrews round the blarney. Alas, it never happened.
Politeness, caution and paternalism flickered out of the tiny screens in the studio-bound days of the BBC monopoly. The announcers wore bow ties and spoke like superannuated clergymen. It wasn’t only Muffin the Mule which made one think the service was run by gentle, sad-eyed seaside donkeys.
There were even certain people who were not to be invited into our homes in case they offended our sensibilities. Among them, I believe, Mr Malcolm Muggeridge, who was thought to be a malignant garden gnome for daring to criticise the monarchy.
Television, then, seemed to be all talking heads, and the talk was parlour chatter at its most banal. Controversy was severely restricted by the bootlicking need to keep total ‘balance’ within the programmes, so that almost every respectable point of view had to be countered immediately by its equally respectable opposite.
Most programmes were trapped in the studio, squashed behind cardboard sets and cardboard ideas. It was a headline-making event when Lady Somebody-or-Other lost her pearl earring during one of the panel games. These were truly the days when TV had scarcely begun to clamber free of its magic-lantern origins.
As far as the BBC was concerned, radio was still the dominant medium. Senior executives insisted that TV was quite incapable of conveying ‘ideas.’ The Director General had his office at Broadcasting House and occasionally visited shabby old Lime Grove with the air of colonial governor inspecting, and demanding the strict allegiance of, some rather primitive and potentially savage bunch of weird tribesmen.
Even so, the TV commentators of the time had a built-in curtsey as well as a plumstone in their voices. The News (and there was great opposition to the pernicious idea of having the reader in vision at all) usually began with some asinine item about the Royal Family. Derided by most intelligent people, TV was at the very least determined to be utterly and paralysingly respectable. Even Muffin the Mule was not allowed to have genitals.
Characteristically, it was a glittering extravaganza of a royal event which first made many people realise that poor little television could do something more spectacular than play with mules and mutton-heads. The Queen’s Coronation brought scores of cameras out into the flag-decked streets, lenses swivelling desperately after the pantomimic golden coach. A gigantic, colourful ceremony was caught in a little monochrome tube. People began to use the phrase ‘window on the world’ without sniggering. And aerials were spiking the sky-line in more and more areas of the land.
Richard Dimbleby walked slowly through Calais, a cable slithering behind him, and announced to incredulous viewers that at last live pictures were being sent from a foreign country. The electronic frontiers had begun to push outwards. A few demented dreamers began to imagine the far-distant time when live pictures would bounce across oceans and continents.
TV, they thought, could turn from glorified goldfish bowl into the theatre, cinema, sports arena, newspaper and public conscience of the world. A medium whereby the whole world could show itself to itself. The still proliferating rooftop aerials would be able to pluck a cornucopia of wonders out of the air, fed by all five continents.
Dare you measure the reality of such a dream by switching on tonight?
But it was the Television Act of 1954 rather than the teasing glimpse of distant frontiers which really shook the BBC to its prissy core. ITV burst on the scene like a red-nosed comic gatecrashing a vicarage garden party. Vulgar, brash, colloquial, the money-minting commercial stations were primarily concerned with grabbing the biggest possible audience for the greatest amount of time. And the BBC reaped in full the bitter fruits of its old, condescending, plum-voiced Auntie image.
Quiz shows, soapbox serials, beat-the-clock, tinsel and tat. ITV seemed intent on turning the medium into a wasteland of lost opportunities. Yet those ever-chinking cash registers could not altogether hide some determined and talented innovators.
The TV play, for example, was rescued from the proscenium arch of the theatre in the first, pioneering seasons of Armchair Theatre. ITN shows that the news did not have to be delivered by somebody imitating an undertaker’s mute.
And then good old Coronation Street arrived to reveal more-or-less ordinary people doing recognisably everyday things in a familiar backstreet setting, complete with pub and a gossipy old crone in a hairnet who captivated the nation. A sort of withered Shirley Temple of our times.
By now, of course, TV had penetrated almost every nook and corner of the land. The most distant cottage put up a tangle of wire to plug itself in to the metropolis. Audiences were counted in tens of millions. The box in the corner changed our habits, our expectations and our whole culture. It was the biggest, if most crowded platform ever provided in the history of mankind.
Even an average TV play is seen by enough people to fill a West End theatre for ten years. And now, with communications satellites hovering above the earth, an international football match can be seen by hundreds of millions. The fact is so shattering in its implications that hard-bitten philosophers twist away from the thought in something approaching blind terror. How can we digest such staggering enormities?
Don’t try. A few hours’ viewing will soon bring you down to earth. The pop singer eats his microphone. The visiting celebrity tells us he loves us. Coronation Street, long since emptied of its original novelty, grinds on and on. Cowboys and dancing girls and panel games still nudge each other for screen-time. This is Your Life is resuscitated. The quiz shows have slunk back into the autumn schedules. Look – say the cynical programme planners – we have built a Taj Mahal whose minarets extend to outer space and we are filling it with performing fleas.
I write TV plays. Some of them have been successful. Once, indeed, Earl Mountbatten stood up in front of the band at the Dorchester Hotel, in London, and proferred me his hand to shake.
In return I got a misshapen chunk of metal inscribed, totally incorrectly, Writer of the Year. It was for Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton, a play nervously taken out of the schedules and then fought over, line by line, with what seemed to be endless rows of bureaucrats until, in mutilated form, you were finally allowed to see it.
After various other award-winners had submitted with varying degrees of distress to the same ordeal, a toast was called for us all. Be upstanding. I raised my champagne glass, hoping to see a chandelier reflected in one of the bubbles.
‘You don’t toast yourself!’ hissed a very big, very powerful TV executive, who was at the same table. Impresarios know their manners.
‘No? That,’ I thought, ‘is what you bloody think!’
Etiquette is no help at all in electronics. Those who want to make TV the wonder and the delight it could be have got to fight like terriers.
But it is a fight which depends on you, the viewer. The next time some dreary chat-show affronts your taste or intelligence, pad across the room and use the OFF switch.
How nice to see Simon or Eamonn or a dozen others collapse into a single dot on a blank screen. Like the Cheshire Cat, the grin will no doubt persist when the image has disappeared. But you will have the last laugh, the mocking sound which will remind the telly-bosses that they have turned a miracle into a muck-up.
- The Art of Invective: Selected Non-Fiction 1953-1994 is out now – it is the first book of its kind, an anthology dedicated to Dennis Potter’s extensive career as a journalist, collecting the best of his TV criticism, essays and non-fiction.The editors are Ian Greaves, David Rolinson and John Williams.