Television

Source: Roald Dahl, ‘Television’, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1967, orig. pub. 1964)

Text:
The most important thing we’ve learned,
So far as children are concerned,
Is never, NEVER, NEVER let
Them near your television set –
Or better still, just don’t install
The idiotic thing at all.
In almost every house we’ve been,
We’ve watched them gaping at the screen.
They loll and slop and lounge about,
And stare until their eyes pop out.
(Last week in someone’s place we saw
A dozen eyeballs on the floor.)
They sit and stare and stare and sit
Until they’re hypnotised by it,
Until they’re absolutely drunk
With all that shocking ghastly junk.
Oh yes, we know it keeps them still,
They don’t climb out the window sill,
They never fight or kick or punch,
They leave you free to cook the lunch
And wash the dishes in the sink –
But did you ever stop to think,
To wonder just exactly what
This does to your beloved tot?
IT ROTS THE SENSE IN THE HEAD!
IT KILLS IMAGINATION DEAD!
IT CLOGS AND CLUTTERS UP THE MIND!
IT MAKES A CHILD SO DULL AND BLIND
HE CAN NO LONGER UNDERSTAND
A FANTASY, A FAIRYLAND!
HIS BRAIN BECOMES AS SOFT AS CHEESE!
HIS POWERS OF THINKING RUST AND FREEZE!
HE CANNOT THINK — HE ONLY SEES!
‘All right!’ you’ll cry. ‘All right!’ you’ll say,
‘But if we take the set away,
What shall we do to entertain
Our darling children? Please explain!’
We’ll answer this by asking you,
‘What used the darling ones to do?
‘How used they keep themselves contented
Before this monster was invented?’
Have you forgotten? Don’t you know?
We’ll say it very loud and slow:
THEY … USED … TO … READ! They’d READ and READ,
AND READ and READ, and then proceed
To READ some more. Great Scott! Gadzooks!
One half their lives was reading books!
The nursery shelves held books galore!
Books cluttered up the nursery floor!
And in the bedroom, by the bed,
More books were waiting to be read!
Such wondrous, fine, fantastic tales
Of dragons, gypsies, queens, and whales
And treasure isles, and distant shores
Where smugglers rowed with muffled oars,
And pirates wearing purple pants,
And sailing ships and elephants,
And cannibals crouching ’round the pot,
Stirring away at something hot.
(It smells so good, what can it be?
Good gracious, it’s Penelope.)
The younger ones had Beatrix Potter
With Mr. Tod, the dirty rotter,
And Squirrel Nutkin, Pigling Bland,
And Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and –
Just How The Camel Got His Hump,
And How the Monkey Lost His Rump,
And Mr. Toad, and bless my soul,
There’s Mr. Rat and Mr. Mole –
Oh, books, what books they used to know,
Those children living long ago!
So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall.
Then fill the shelves with lots of books,
Ignoring all the dirty looks,
The screams and yells, the bites and kicks,
And children hitting you with sticks –
Fear not, because we promise you
That, in about a week or two
Of having nothing else to do,
They’ll now begin to feel the need
Of having something to read.
And once they start – oh boy, oh boy!
You watch the slowly growing joy
That fills their hearts. They’ll grow so keen
They’ll wonder what they’d ever seen
In that ridiculous machine,
That nauseating, foul, unclean,
Repulsive television screen!
And later, each and every kid
Will love you more for what you did.

Comments: Roald Dahl (1916-1990) was a British writer of both adult and child fiction. ‘Television’ is a song sung by the Oompa Loompas in his children’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and echoes the distaste expressed in the novel for television, as exemplified by the television-watching and violence-obsessed character Mike Teavee.

Views of a Viewer

Source: Jean Bartlett, ‘Views of a Viewer’, The Radio Times, 4 June 1937, p. 3

Text: Perhaps other televiewers may be interested to read a brief account of the reactions of one household and its friends to the first six months of television. We ought to say, first of all, that we ourselves were enthusiastic amateurs in the old days of thirty-line television, and so were very excited at the prospect of seeing a larger, steadier, and brighter picture and were duly thrilled by the inaugural programme last November. Our modest criticisms of that and all subsequent programmes are made, we hope, with the realisation that television is still experimental. Not so, some of our friends who, having seen it once, sometimes inquire sympathetically, as if it were an invalid member of our family, how it is getting on, and then fade away to the cinema. But the loss is theirs.

The most important element of the television picture is, obviously, movement. The artists may be shatteringly beautiful, the lighting perfect, the scenery just right, but without movement it completely fails. We often say that if producers remembered this fact during every second of their preparations and rehearsals, every type of programme that has so far been televised would be successful and every failure could have been a hit. Programmes in our television vernacular, are either alive or dead. So many, among the alive, have been so good that it is almost impossible to select the best, or even the best type.

Talks are by unanimous vote the weakest point. (The Zoo talks are, of course, unique and all too short). They must be quite the most difficult programmes to present, and the difficulties have so far seemed insuperable. There seems to be no good reason why every broadcast programme should be translated into television. Why struggle with the impossible?

The subject of a talk may be profoundly interesting, but close-ups studies of the speaker’s face add nothing to it. With one exception – Sir Kingsley Wood – no speaker has appeared to enjoy television from the transmitting end.

Perhaps we are unduly prejudiced against pottery and masks, but there was surely a whole year’s supply provided in a few weeks recently. One talk on pottery was so dead that we blushed in the darkness, having invited some critical friends to their first experience of television. And then suddenly the screen came to life, and we looked at a potter working at his wheel, and talking as he made, spoilt, and remade a bowl. Such things are real television, and only when a talk can be illustrated throughout its length by dynamic pictures can it justifiably be televised. The appearance of the speaker at the beginning, and again, perhaps, at the close of his talk, is all that the average viewer wants of him.

We nearly always have a full house when ballet is included in the programme, and this is not just because we move in a circle of ballet fans, but because, in spite of the smallness of the figures compared with close-ups, good dancers can convey a wonderful sense of space, and make dance one of the most satisfying television subjects. The movements of the camera inevitably tend to destroy the dancers’ movements a little, but this effect is less noticeable when the scenery follows horizontal rather than vertical lines. The scenery is sometimes too elaborate for a picture in which everything is black and white, as, for instance, in the current television production of Casse-Noisette by the Vic-Wells ballet.

When an excerpt from a current West End production is part of an evening’s programme then we always have a large, self-invited audience and a very appreciative one that would like to see this become a regularly weekly feature. Shakespeare, on the other hand, invariably falls flat, even when distinguished artists are playing the selected arts, Non-Shakespeareans are frankly bored – they cannot get the hang of the thing before it is over; and lovers of Shakespeare are irritated by brief episodes suspended in mid-air and inevitably devoid of the play’s original stagecraft, and viewed from two camera alternately at rather uninteresting angles. The charming fairy and ballet scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, however, being easy to dissociate from the rest of the play, were also delightfully easy to watch.

Cabaret and light entertainment are attracting fans of their own who are gradually forgetting the earlier weeks when every item of this type lasted six times longer than anyone could bear. The difficulty here must be, as in ordinary broadcasting and the stage, to find really good comedians and entertainers with fresh material.

One amusing little point is provided by two rather deaf neighbours of ours. At home, they sit with their ears glued to a wireless set in full blast, and never, in ordinary conversation, hear a remark at the first time of speaking. Nevertheless, when they come to see and hear a television programme they are quite content with a volume that is guaranteed not to wake the baby, and they still hear every word. The picture evidently helps their hearing, and neighbours’ wireless sets can take heart – the television age is going to be a quieter one.

I suppose the greatest thrills of of all for television enthusiasts have been those rare relays from outside the studios – the boxing match from the Alexandra Palace ring, the model aeroplane display from the Palace grounds, the archery, fire-walking, and other outside broadcasts – and, of course, as a climax to them all, the televising of the Coronation procession from Hyde Park Corner on Coronation Day, when television broke from the apron srings that tied it to the Alexandra Palace and came into its own.

Comments: Jean Bartlett was an ordinary television viewer, though at a time when there were few television viewers at all, reception in the UK being restricted to a few thousands sets mostly owned by people living in London. The BBC began a regular television service on 2 November 1936. Kingsley Wood was a Conservative MP. Scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream were broadcast on 18 February 1937 and 23 April 1937. The coronation of King George VI took place on 12 May 1937 (the broadcast showed exteriors only, not scenes inside Westminster Abbey).

The Cinema Gains a Powerful Ally

Source: Northerner II, ‘This World of Ours: The Cinema Gains a Powerful Ally’, The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Mercury, 3 June 1953, p. 4

Text: I attended a revolution yesterday. I saw the triumph of large-screen television in the cinema. With about 2,000 other guests of J. Arthur Rank, I had been invited to the Odeon Theatre, Leeds, to watch the BBC’s television transmission of the Coronation – and we saw it on the largest screen in the country. The results were so good and the audience were so impressed that, as the show went on, the conviction grew that the magic box of the cinema had acquired a wonderful new trick. Television is certainly going to play an increasingly important part in bringing cinema audiences to the scenes of great events while they are actually taking place.

Yesterday’s show convinced Alderman H.M.G. McKay, Deputy Lord Mayor of Leeds, that the civic duties which had prevented him from going to London for the Coronation were a blessing in disguise. “I came into the theatre a disappointed man,” he said in a speech of thanks to the Odeon management. “My wife and I had been allocated tickets for seats on the Coronation procession route, but the Lord Mayor of Leeds’s Secretary is a hard-hearted man. He told me I could not got to London.

“The Lord Mayor and the Lady Mayoress are at the Abbey by Royal invitation – but I think we in this theatre are seeing a great deal more of the Abbey ceremony than they will see. It will give me great pleasure to tell the Lord Mayor all about it when he comes back to Leeds.”

Close-up of the Queen

The Odeon audience, who included old-age pensioners, nurses and representatives of many organisations in the city, shared Alderman MacKay’s enthusiasm. They applauded the Queen when she first appeared in the Royal Coach as it left Buckingham Palace. Their applause grew louder when a close-up shot made it appear as if she was smiling not at the cheering crowds who lined the streets but directly at us in the cinema.

They clapped Viscount Montgomery as he entered the Abbey in the procession. They clapped and cheered Sir Winston Churchill, who was wearing his most indomitable look. They gave a thunderous reception to the Duke of Edinburgh. But when the Queen entered, looking tense and serious, the cinema was hushed in sympathy with her for the ordeal that lay ahead.

For me the most moving part of the service was the singing of that noble hymn, “All people that on earth do dwell.” Some of the cinema audience softly joined in, and I am sure many more would have done so had the worlds of the hymn been flashed on the screen. I suggest that the BBC should adopt this practice on future occasions when people are asked to take part in the singing.

I can think of no other way in which the televising of the Coronation could have been improved. I thought the BBC carried out their extremely difficult task splendidly.

Comments: The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953 was broadcast live on BBC television, and played a major factor in popularising television in the United Kingdom. The live broadcast was also shown in some cinemas, holiday camps and other areas where large screens could be erected. Television in cinemas or theatres was not a new thing, however, having been first demonstrated by John Logie Baird at the Coliseum in London in 1930.

One Day in the Life of Television

Source: Nicola Johnson, quoted in Sean Day-Lewis (ed.), One Day in the Life of Television (London: British Film Institute, 1989), p. 194

Text: I switch the television on when I want and I turn the television off when I want. Sometimes if me and my sister are fighting over which side we want to watch my Mam turns it off … By television I have learnt how very dangerous fireworks are. I have also learnt a few answers for some questions what I never could have known. I also learnt how to make things like cakes and pies by watching cookery programmes.

Without television I would never have thought that someone could kill another person, or that there could be a ferry disaster or a car crash that could happen to a close friend or even me. If there was no television I suppose I would be pretty bored but I suppose I could find something to do like draw or listen to the radio …

Comments: One Day in the Life of Television was a project organised by the British Film Institute which documented one day’s television broadcasting in the UK (1 November 1988) with impressions specially recorded by hundreds of television professionals and ordinary viewers. Nicola Johnson was a 12-year-old schoolgirl from Wallsend, Tyne and Wear.

Nineteen Eighty-Four

Source: George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (London: Penguin, 2003 – orig. pub. 1949), pp. 4-5, 10-11

Text:Behind Winston’s back the voice from the telescreen was still babbling away about pig iron and the overfulfillment of the Ninth Three-Year Plan. The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plate commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. but at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You have to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised.

Winston kept his back turned to the telescreen. It was safer; though, as he well knew, even a back can be revealing. A kilometer away the Ministry of Truth, his place of work, towered vast and white above the grimy landscape. This, he thought with a sort of vague distaste – this was London, chief city of Airstrip One, itself the third most populous of the provinces of Oceania …

[Winston decides to write a secret diary]

… For some time he sat gazing stupidly at the paper. The telescreen had changed over to strident military music. It was curious that he seemed not merely to have lost the power of expressing himself, but even to have forgotten what it was that he had originally intended to say. For weeks past he had been making ready for this moment, and it had never crossed his mind that anything would be needed except courage. The actual writing would be easy. All he had to do was to transfer to paper the interminable restless monologue that had been running inside his head, literally for years. At this moment, however, even the monologue had dried up. At this moment, however, even the monologue had dried up. Moreover his varicose ulcer had begun itching unbearably. He dared not scratch it, because if he did so it always became inflamed. The seconds were ticking by. He was conscious of nothing except the blankness of the page in front of him, the itching of the skin above his ankle, the blaring of the music, and a slight booziness caused by the gin.

Suddenly he began writing in sheer panic, only imperfectly aware of what he was setting down. His small but childish handwriting straggled up and down the page, shedding first its capital letters and finally even its full stops:

April 4th, 1984. Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him, first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water, audience shouting with laughter when he sank. then you saw a lifeboat full of children with a helicopter hovering over it. there was a middle-aged woman might have been a jewess sitting up in the bow with a little boy about three years old in her arms. little boy screaming with fright and hiding his head between her breasts as if he was trying to burrow right into her and the woman putting her arms round him and comforting him although she was blue with fright herself, all the time covering him up as much as possible as if she thought her arms could keep the bullets off him. then the helicopter planted a 20 kilo bomb in among them terrific flash and the boat went all to matchwood. then there was a wonderful shot of a child’s arm going up up up right up into the air a helicopter with a camera in its nose must have followed it up and there was a lot of applause from the party seats but a woman down in the prole part of the house suddenly started kicking up a fuss and shouting they didnt oughter of showed it not in front of kids they didnt it aint right not in front of kids it aint until the police turned her turned her out i dont suppose anything happened to her nobody cares what the proles say typical prole reaction they never —

Winston stopped writing, partly because he was suffering from cramp. He did not know what had made him pour out this stream of rubbish. But the curious thing was that while he was doing so a totally different memory had clarified itself in his mind, to the point where he almost felt equal to writing it down. It was, he now realized, because of this other incident that he had suddenly decided to come home and begin the diary today.

Comments: George Orwell was the pen name of Eric Blair (1903-1950), British novelist and essayist. His dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is set in the future but serves as a satire of the time in which is was written (1948) and life under totalitarianism. Winston Smith is the novel’s rebellious protagonist. The act of writing a diary would be punished by death or twenty-five years in a forced-labour camp. Telescreens function both as means to broadcast programmes and as surveillance devices. The lower classes are referred to as ‘proles’.

The Philosophy of Andy Warhol

Source: Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (London: Penguin, 2007 – org. pub. 1975), p. 91

Text: Before I was shot I always thought that I was more half-there than all-there – I always suspected that I was watching TV instead of living life. People sometimes say that the way things happen in the movies is unreal, but actually it’s the way things happen to you in life that’s unreal. The movies make emotions look so strong and real, whereas when things really do happen to you, it’s like watching television – you don’t feel anything.

Right when I was being shot and ever since, I knew that I was watching television. The channels switch, but it’s all television. When you’re really really involved with something, you’re usually thinking about something else. When something’s happening, you fantasize about other things. When I woke up somewhere – I didn’t know it was at the hospital and that Bobby Kennedy had been shot the day after I was – I heard fantasy words about thousands of people being in St. Patrick’s Cathedral praying and carrying on, and then I heard the word “Kennedy” and that brought me back to the television world again because then I realized, well, here I was, in pain.

Comments: Andy Warhol (1928-1987) was an American artist and filmmaker. He was shot and seriously wounded by radical feminist Valerie Solanas on 3 June 1968, at his studio. The incident was later filmed as I Shot Andy Warhol (USA 1996 d. Mary Harron). The Philosophy of Andy Warhol is a random selection of thoughts and memoir edited from telephone conversations between Warhol and editor Pat Hackett.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

Source: Bill Bryson, extract from The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (London: Doubleday, 2007), pp. 54-56

Text: Saturdays and Sundays were the longest days in Kid World. Sunday mornings alone could last for up to three months depending on season. In central Iowa for much of the 1950s there was no television at all on Sunday mornings, so generally you just sat with a bowl of soggy Cheerios watching a test pattern until WOI-TV spluttered to life some time between about 11.25 and noon -they were fairly relaxed about Sunday starts at WOI – with an episode of Sky King, starring the neatly kerchiefed Kirby Grant, ‘America’s favourite flying cowboy’ (also its only flying cowboy; also the only one with reversible names). Sky was a rancher by trade, but spent most of his time cruising the Arizona skies in his beloved Cessna, The Songbird, spotting cattle rustlers and other earth-bound miscreants. He was assisted in these endeavours by his dimple-cheeked, pertly buttocked niece Penny, who provided many of us with our first tingly inkling that we were indeed on the road to robust heterosexuality.

Even at six years old, and even in an age as intellectually undemanding as the 1950s, you didn’t hav to be hugely astute to see that a flying cowboy was a fairly flimsy premise for an action series. Sky could only capture villains who lingered at the edge of grassy landing strips and to whom it didn’t occur to run for it until Sky had landed, taxied to a safe halt, climbed down from the cockpit, assumed an authoritative stance and shouted: ‘OK, boys, freeze!’ – a process that took a minute or two, for Kirby Grant was not, it must be said, in the first flush of youth. In consequence, the series was cancelled after just a year, so only about twenty episodes were made, all practically identical anyway. These WOI tirelessly (and, one presumes, economically) repeated for the first dozen years of my life and probably a good deal beyond. Almost the only thing that could be said in their favour was that they were more diverting than a test pattern.

Comments: Bill Bryson (born 1951) is an American travel writer. His memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid documents his 1950s childhood in Des Moines, Iowa. Sky King began as a radio show in 1946. It was first shown as a television series in 1951. It was cancelled in 1954, but new episodes were produced when it went into syndication in 1955, continuing to 1959. There were 72 episodes in total. Penny was played by Gloria Winters.

Links: Official Sky King website

Watching War Films With My Dad

Source: Al Murray, Watching War Films With My Dad (London: Random House, 2013), pp. 12-15

Text: War films were a mainstay of British male popular culture when I was growing up in the Seventies. To some the Seventies is all about flares and disco, or Mohican haircuts and punk or, worst of all, ABBA – but to me the Seventies is war films on the telly. I was blissfully ignorant of the idea that the movies were a way of British culture processing what had happened to it during World War Two: the nine-year-old me had little sensitivity (or even an atom of it) to what my grandmother who had lost her husband and brother in the war might make of my enthusiasm for war films. Or my mum, who’d never known her father or uncle. They were made for men, about men, with men in them. That’s certainly how I saw them when I was a boy – though I know I didn’t think about it too hard, either.

[…]

I have a clear memory of being taken to see A Bridge Too Far at the cinema when I was nine. It was a really big deal – we didn’t go to the cinema much, and this was a major dad-and-lad event. I think we went to Bletchley but I could be wrong. It might have been the bright lights of Aylesbury, possibly Luton. These were the days of the B-feature, huge cinemas that you could stay in of an afternoon and watch the whole programme all the way round again. I remember seeing The Eagle Has Landed like this: we’d missed the start so stayed and caught the painfully slow first half of exposition and plotting. That was definitely in Luton. And the B-feature was a short about trains.

Now a Sunday-afternoon teatime staple, A Bridge Too Far tells the story of Operation Market Garden. Every male human of my ilk has seen this star-studded war epic, a tale of British pluck and tea, American guts and glory, immaculate German uniforms and ruthlessness, lofty failure, etc., etc. And when I say star-studded I mean star-studded: Connery, Redford, Hackman, Bogarde, Caine, Hopkins, Caan, Olivier – and loads of other people you need the first names for. And Cliff from Cheers in a cameo that irresistibly draws the eye away from Robert Redford, proving that a spud-faced bloke is better than any handsome git any day. Directed epically in an epic style by Dickie Attenborough, with an epic script by William Goldman, it tells the epic tale of the failed Operation Market Garden at a personal as well as, um, epic level. It has tons of guts, tons of glory and stars vying for screen time. It ends poignantly, asking us to ask: why? And it is, like all historical films, shot through with inaccuracies, riddled like a machine-gunned evil Nazi’s corpse. Some of them proper howlers.

And A Bridge Too Far was a big cinematic event for my father, too; living, as we did, in a village in Buckinghamshire with one bus a week. It also wasn’t dad’s thing much – he has always had a restless energy and concetration that didn’t suit the essential passivity of sitting in a cinema seat.

My Dad was an airborne sapper (engineer) officer from the 1950s through to the 1970s and the battle at Arnhem is probably the central event in British airborne culture and history. He knew many of the men who had been there – he did his National Service in the 1950s and then stayed on in the TA. So how Arnhem was represented on the big screen was a properly big deal. He also knew and still knows the battle backwards. An essential truth, how the men fought at Arnhem – bravely and against increasingly overwhelming odds – is in the film, no doubt about it. But it has to be right. Aged nine, I was a willingly thirsty sponge for all of this. But old habits die hard. When I first broached with my father that I’d be writing this book he muttered about how he’d seen War Horse the night before and how most of that was wrong. So watch a war film with me or my dad, or, worse still, me and my dad – at your peril …

Comments: Al Murray (born 1968) is a British comedian, best known for his ‘The Pub Landlord’ character. His memoir Watching Films With My Dad is predominantly about watching war films on television, and their relationship to true history. The chapter goes on to detail the historical inaccuracies in A Bridge Too Far and several other war films of its period.

Babycham Night

Source: Philip Norman, Babycham Night (London: Macmillan, 2003), pp. 148-149

Text: To help the little invalid through these long daytime hours, my mother rented a television, a Ferguson model with a seventeen-inch screen and twin frontal knobs set in a strip of gold mesh. But it was an inconstant companion. The solitary black-and-white BBC channel usually did not begin service until mid-afternoon and there were frequent shutdowns, or ‘interludes’, when they killed time with film sequences of a clay pot being thrown on a wheel, or a punt-prow gliding somnambulistically through plantations of river reeds. Unless you lived within a couple of miles of the BBC’s London transmitter, reception tended to be poor; on the Isle of Wight, it was atrocious. At regular intervals, the picture would collapse sideways into horizontal black and grey stripes, or flick downwards in individual squares like frames of film. The only person we knew who could put it right was a taxi-driver from the Esplanade rank named Mr Stiles. We’d have to wait for hours, or even days, until Mr Stiles had time to drop by, in his peaked chauffeur’s cap, and twiddle knobs until the picture stabilized again.

With the television’s arrival, I ceased to be totally bedridden and became capable of the few brave steps from my parents’ bedroom into the adjacent sitting-room, where I would lie on the big brocade Chesterfield sofa, covered with a rug. In the curtain-drawn twilight considered necessary for TV-viewing in those days, I watched all of what little was on – Test cricket, Russian ballet, the afternoon adventures of puppets like Andy Pandy, Mr Turnip and Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men. I knew every note of the long drawn-out overture played as a sound track to the test card before transmission began. Beside me in the darkness watched Mrs Kennie, knitting-needles ever in play. ‘Verra gude,’ was her invariable judgement on everything.

Comments: Philip Norman (born 1943) is a British novelist, biographer and journalist. He was brought up in Ryde, on the Isle of Wight. Babycham Night is an account of his 1950s childhood. This passage dates from the early 1950s. Andy Pandy was first broadcast in 1950; Mr Turnip was a character in Whirligig (first broadcast 1950); Bill and Ben were the lead characters in The Flower Pot Men, first broadcast 1952. Norman’s ‘illness’ was feigned.

Seeing at a Distance

Source: Extracts from ‘Seeing at a Distance’, opening chapter of G.V. Dowding (ed.), Book of Practical Television (London: The Amalgamated Press, 1935), pp. 9-16

Text: So far relatively few people have witnessed the modern television under domestic conditions. No doubt the generally accepted ideas is that it is pretty crude and is little more than a tiny, dim flickering picture which is tiring to the eyes and doesn’t show much more than shimmering spots and splotches. Probably many will decide to wait for “improvements,” believing that everything must at its very beginning be only a ghostly precursor of better things to come. […]

The new television is transmitted with a “pictures per second” standard higher than the modern films. Therefore, its smoothness of action or picture movement, to use familiar if not quite technically correct words, is very good. The technical difficulties are greater than in the films, but by means of ingenious systems of interlaced scanning and so on, results fully comparable are obtainable. The definition, too, is largely a function of the transmission and not of reception. And it is “high definition” as all will know. That terms means what it says. The details of the pictures is comparable to the detail given by a good newspaper illustration, that is, on all but the poorest receiving apparatus.

Brightness and Size. The brightness and size of pictures is a purely reception limitation. On first rate gear black and white pictures bright enough to show clearly in a lighted room are possible on a screen twelve by nine inches, and even larger. Lower down the scale screens of but four or five inches or so square are met with and illumination making it desirable for the pictures to be witnessed in a dark room for comfortable “looking”.

Nevertheless, the mistake should not be made of discounting entirely these smaller and dimmer pictures. It should be remembered that they are “talkies” and not silent pictures. There is a great difference between these, a difference that is psychological of course, but none the less real. It has been said that television can provide nothing more than a talking cabinet photograph. But size is not an all-important factor in the creation of illusion, though naturally it plays some part, and when it is controllable within wide limits as in a cinema, it is an art-quality that is employed generously. The question may well be asked that if a small television picture must inevitably militate against the creation of perfect illusion, why shouldn’t a giant close-up on a cinema screen also do that?

Cinema Comparisons. In the course of any celluloid drama the glamorous features of one or more of the stars are reproduced in such dimensions that they practically fill the screen. But the audience is not at once aware of anything particularly incongruous in having the talking image of a giant face, perhaps forty feet in diameter, thrust before it, with cavernous mouth opening to reveal teeth truly as large as tombstones, and false eyelashes as big as cricket stumps waving with exaggerated emotion.

The fact is that the human imagination is immensely adaptable, and in those few words you have the answer to what many find to be an extremely perplexing problem, that is, if they ever think about this matter of film picture sizes at all; we would hazard the guess that very few do. There is a widespread belief that the bigger you make a picture the better it becomes. Certainly you will see more of the detail of a gnat’s geography if you place him underneath a microscope, but the same reasoning does not apply to film pictures.

You can test this simply enough for yourself. Study a good postcard of your favourite film star, or any clear photo for that matter, and then when you go to the cinema the next time carefully examine one of the huge close-ups which are flashed on the screen. The relative magnification will be something equal to that applied by a fairly high-powered microscope, but you won’t see much, if any, exaggeration of detail. It is a good job too, otherwise the huge screen image would reveal such things as the sweat glands of the skin and other pathological details, which would in truth destroy many illusions!

Television Definition a Fixed Quality. If the cinema projector could be moved nearer and nearer to the screen the while you too moved closer in order to accommodate yourself to the smaller picture that resulted, you would find that the diminishing size was followed by an apparent increase in the sharpness of its definition, though you wouldn’t see any more detail. This is a vital fact to note and the cause of it is that this definition of television is fixed in the transmission. No amount of juggling with screen sizes, etc., at the receiving end can add to the definition of the pictures.

It has also been said that while the compass of the ear is limited to a mere handful of different notes ranging from an organ’s bass rumble to the squeak of a piccolo or violin top note, the compass of the eye can never be extended to its limits except by the broad open spaces of nature. And that any attempt to satisfy the eye with small pictures on a screen is bound to fail leaving the owner of that eye fully conscious all the time that he is in fact merely looking at a small picture. This may be right up to a point, and it depends upon the imaginative pliability of the looker as to how much he will be able to immerse himself in the subject of the picture and forget the vehicle which brings it before his eyes.

If it were possible for any of us to become subjective lookers, cinematography would have had a short life limited to its novelty appeal. When this is remembered no conflict with the purely scientific optical laws […] need be suspected. We are concerned here with rather more abstract things – imagination for example. But the reality of the part imagination plays in the cinematographic art is considerable and is easily illustrated.

A “Silly Symphony” Example. It is common knowledge that the Mickey Mouse cartoons are nothing but clever drawings (about fifteen thousand of theme to each episode) and yet such is the power of the of the human imagination that Mickey Mouse, Pluto, Donald the Duck and others of the ingenious Walt Disney creations have assumed almost human qualities in the minds of a large number of films fans. Some of the Silly Symphonies have been so successful in the creation of illusion that tears of emotion have been extracted from the eyes of audiences in sympathy with the plight of cartooned grasshoppers and other such fantasies. Cartooned grasshoppers, mark you, with no parallel in reality, grotesque sketches of grasshoppers as big as horses or as “small” as mice. Any screen personality or object is liable to shrink or expand at any moment and yet the audience remains quite enthralled. No jarring note of artificiality seems to be struck if the practised producer of a film decides to dodge about with his dimensions. On the contrary, with so much of it having been done, if a film presenting all of its actors and actresses at a fixed distance from the camera’s eyes were shown, then no doubt the audience would consider that something was wrong!

uncomfortably _close

The comparatively small television screen is, therefore, not in itself any insuperable limitation to the creation of illusion. It can only show talking human beings of doll-like size but the looker will not find himself feeling any sense of incongruity so long as the subject is of good entertainment value. If this were not the case then it could be as equally argued that the receiving television screen should prove a better medium for Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies than the full size cinema screen, for his delightful insect and animal absurdities would for the most part appear in sizes nearer to the dimensions of the things cartooned. […]

angle_of_view

Easy looking. Would you get easy looking if you television screen were as big as the side of the room? Decidedly not. You would be “too close to the picture.” You would feel the urge to get back farther and farther back so that you did not have to wave your head about from side to side and up and down continuously in order to be able to comprehend the whole of the picture and all that was taking part in it. These points are illustrated in Fig. I and Fig. Ia.

A screen of six by eight inches can provide “easy looking” for as many people as would normally be present in a normal household to see what was coming over in the way of television. Going back again to the cinema we can now appreciate the reason why those gigantic close-ups do not strike a note of incongruity so long as the film drama has been scientifically produced. […] It is very difficult to define hard and fast limits, but we would hazard the opinion that at a distance of ten feet, and most of us cannot get much farther away than that in the room in which we listen and look-in at home, there is no advantage in having a screen larger than, say, four feet square and that a screen appreciably bigger might in fact militate against easy looking. With smaller screens you can go closer, but, on the other hand anything smaller than the six by eight inches may certainly cramp the illusion, for the detail of the pictures will crowd together and lose apparent clarity and you will become conscious that it is a small reproduction. […]

Perfect Home Entertainment. No, you do not need to stretch your imagination in order to derive entertainment from the modern television. Our case for it may or may not sound convincing to those who have not yet enjoyed an hour or two of looking. Those who have done so will agree that one of the better Silly Symphonies or a good straightforward talkie or an entertaining variety act is every bit as absorbing on the television screen as it is in a music hall or movie theatre. Perhaps rather more so, because there are quieter conditions. No deafening roars of laughter, drowning parts of the dialogue, no coughing from all angles, no kicking at the back of the seat, but plenty of room to stretch your legs from a comfortable chair and a position relative to the screen which can be chosen to a nicety. In short, television in the home is the ideal and perfect medium of entertainment, and it remains in the hands of the B.B.C. to see that the substance is worthy of the medium! …

Comments: The essay is unsigned but is presumably by the book’s editor G.V. Dowding. In 1935 the BBC was producing regular demonstration broadcasts (to an audience of a few thousand) using the Baird’s 30-line electromechanical system, broadcasts which continued until 11 September 1935. This essay however refers to higher definition broadcasts, which were first seen by the public when the BBC launched a regular service on 2 November 1936, alternating between a Baird mechanical system with 240 lines and an EMI electronic system with 405 lines. The latter was found to be far superior and was the only system used after February 1937. Early accounts of television often refers to ‘lookers’; the term ‘viewers’ was only adopted later.