Televiewing

Source: J.B. Priestley, ‘Televiewing’, in Thoughts in the Wilderness (London: Heinemann, 1957), pp. 194-201

Text: Down here on the island, where I have rented a fine large set and where we have a powerful transmitting mast not far away, I am a Viewer. We keep the set in a room originally intended for music, and I can sit in the dark there, viewing and viewing, without disturbing the rest of the household. I lie back in an armchair, put my feet upon a stool, and smoke and view away. Except when there are Test Matches, I do all my viewing after dinner. Wheezing a bit, heavy with food and drink, I waddle along the hall, switch on the set, drop into my chair and put my feet up, then peer into my magic mirror like a fourteen-stone cigar-smoking Lady of Shalott. At first I told myself that I watched the set and its antics for strictly professional and technical reasons, but lately I have not had even a shadow of that excuse. I am simply one of the Viewers. I have already passed uncounted hours half-hypnotised by the jiggling and noisy images. Sometimes I wonder if I am going out of my mind. We have been told that the worst is over after about four years, but long before that my outlook will have been so completely changed that I shall be a different person. I shall probably be removed to an old man’s home. Let us hope these places are equipped with good TV sets.

In my capacity as a Viewer, I have no intention of criticising adversely and in detail the way things are done. Given this strange medium and their own particular responsibilities, the people directing and handling the medium do almost all that can be reasonably expected of them. Most of them, I know, are enthusiasts; if removed from TV they would feel they were in exile. I don’t imagine I could do it better myself. I think I would be far worse than they are. Most of the familiar jeers and sneer sat their efforts seem to me quite unfair. The difficulties they have to face are too lightly disregarded. The critics who attack them make little or no allowance for the black magic of the medium itself, always discussing the entertainment provided as if they had not been staring at a set but sitting in a theatre, a cinema, a concert hall, a cabaret. So not a word that follows must be taken as unfriendly criticism of TV personnel. Good luck to you, boys and girls! Thanks a lot, Mary, Peter, Sylvia, Derek! But I am a Viewer too, one of the regular customers, even though I never ring up to complain that one of my precious prejudices has been ignored, and now I feel I must explain, as honestly as I know how, what the thing is doing to me. The general line about TV—I took it myself before I became a Viewer—is that it is terrifically exciting, immensely powerful, potentially very dangerous. Here is this miraculous medium that pours into the home, hour after hour, night after night, images so dazzling and enticing that it immediately outbids all other media for its tenancy of the mind and imagination. It can transform any licence-holder into a well-informed and thoughtful student of all public affairs. It can turn children into future scholars of Trinity and Girton or into gunmen and molls. So we are playing with fire and dynamite—but what fire, what dynamite! This is the kind of stuff I wrote and talked myself before I became a real Viewer. Now that I know what happens, I can no longer write and talk in this strain. Certainly the medium produces its own particular effects, undoubtedly has an influence all its own; but these effects and this influence are very different from what they are generally imagined to be. Unless I am a very peculiar Viewer, the alarmists have all been looking in the wrong direction. They are like a man who expects a wolf at the door when he ought to be attending to the death watch beetle in the woodwork.

Instal a set, turn a switch—and hey presto!—here in a corner of the living-room is an ever-changing image of the whole wide, glittering, roaring world. Or so they say. But that is not quite how my viewing works. To begin with, it does not seem to bring the outside world closer to me but pushes it further away. There are times, after I have played the Lady of Shalott longer than usual, when this world is not here at all; I feel I am taking a series of peeps, perhaps from the darkened smoke room of a giant space-ship, at another planet, with whose noisy affairs I am not involved at all. Let me stare and idly listen long enough and I seem to have arrived at some theosophical astral-body-life-after-death. I am as little involved in or perturbed by all these conferences, departures and arrivals of shadowy Ministers, crashes and floods, strikes and lock-outs, aircraft and racing cars, atomic plants or fishing villages, scientists and film stars, as some Great White Master, a thousand years old, gazing into a crystal ball in Tibet. At most, these are—as one of Yeats’s characters observed in another connection—the dreams the drowsy gods breathe on the burnished mirror of the world. I remember an old retired nannie, rather weak in the head, who when she visited the silent films thought everything she saw was part of one vast confused programme, an astonishing but acceptable mixture of the Prince of Wales and cowboys and Indians and Stanley Baldwin and sinking ships and It-girls and the Lord Mayor of London. She was an early Viewer. I know now exactly what she felt. Perhaps I am rather weak in the head too.

No sooner is any subject under review and discussion on the screen than it is drained of all reality. The instrument itself, probably guided by some satanic intelligence hostile to our species, adds a fatal dream effect. Even what I thought were urgent burning problems stop being problems at all. They are not settled, but their hash is. Somehow I no longer care what happens about Oil or Married Women At Work or Youth And The Churches Today or What We Do With The Old People or Whither Britain. I just view them. They might be bits from untidy and badly acted plays. Sometimes I don’t know—and don’t care—if the gesticulating image of a Foreign Minister belongs to a real Foreign Minister or to an actor in one of those political plays we are always having. Here on the screen the difference between Yugoslavia and Ruritania is hardly worth bothering about. After half-an-hour of The Future Of Our Fisheries or Africa At The Crossroads, the programme personalities, bursting with fisheries or Africa, stare accusingly at me and ask me what I propose to do about it. They might as well know now that, as a Viewer, I don’t propose to do anything about it. After they have given me a final earnest look and asked their last question, I stare at the credit titles, listen dreamily to the end music, wonder idly why Malcolm Muggeridge looks handsomer on the screen than off, where Woodrow Wyatt has acquired his new haughty accent, light another pipe, and float into the next programme.

Perhaps it is Picture Parade or something of the sort, in which all the imbecilities of the film studio hand-outs and the fan magazines are given a kind of idiot dream life, especially—ah what golden moments!—in the foyer at a gala premiére where celebrities of screen and stage consent to smile at us and tell us how exciting it all is, as if we didn’t know, and are wished lots of luck. As a Viewer I try not to miss one of these occasions. To view one, smoking in the darkened room with your feet up, is much better than actually being there, what with all the dressing up, the heat and fuss, the pushing and shoving to get nearer the mike or the Press photographers. It is a dream glimpse, carefully focused and timed, of a dream world. But it is all so exciting, as everybody keeps telling us Viewers. Perhaps that is why I so often find myself laughing—all alone, there in the dark—probably only a nervous excitement.

Some nights there seem to be dozens and dozens and dozens of people being interviewed, not just about films but about everything. We go all over the place—inside and outside Ministries, home and abroad, to airports and railway stations, to sports grounds and factories. The organisation of it all, the sheer technical achievements, area credit to our civilisation. The courtesy and friendliness are admirable: all the persons interviewed are for ever being thanked and wished good luck. People under Cabinet rank and sixty years of age are on Christian name terms at once. It is a wonderful and happy world, this of TV interviews. And perhaps that is why it is not a world in which anybody ever says anything. That might spoil it. Between the cordial Hellos and the charming Good-byes nothing much seems to happen. We are either going to the interview or coming away from it. “Let us,”’ they say proudly, “go to Coketown and talk to the Mayor himself—so now It’s Over To Coketown—This is Coketown and herein the studio is the Mayor of Coketown, who has kindly consented to talk to us—Very good of you, Mr. Mayor—er what about this er campaign of yours, Mr. Mayor ?—Well, Reg, I think er I can say er we here in Coketown er hope to get it started fairly soon—Thank you, Mr. Mayor, and the best of luck—Thank you, Reg—And now we return you to London—This is London and that was the Mayor of Coketown being interviewed by our representative, Reg Rowbottom—and now———”

At first, when I was a new Viewer, a stranger in this magic world, I wanted the Mayor to say something, if only to justify all the trouble that had been taken to flash his image across the country. Now I know that this does not matter at all, that what is important is that we should keep jumping around, stare at a fresh face for a moment or two, then be off again. The instrument likes to do this, and it is the instrument that has us in its power. In this world of the magic tube, all the values are different. Here we are more interested in what the interviewer sounds and looks like than we are in what the interviewed person says. Viewing, I accept these topsy-turvy values. It is only afterwards, coming to my senses and thinking things over, I begin to question them. Staring at the set, my mind almost a blank, I am quite ready to believe in TV personalities, the élite and aristocracy of this dream world. I do not ask what they have done, what massive talents they possess. They still have personalities where I, as a Viewer, a captive of the screen, have little or none. Not this Christmas but possibly the next, when I may have said good-bye to reality, I shall have no party of my own, perhaps will no longer understand what arrangements could be made for one; I will attend, as a Viewer, a party of TV personalities, to enjoy the sparkle of the wine in their glasses, to listen with joy to the crunching of their mince pies; and one or two of them may look straight in my direction, to wish me a Merry Christmas Programme, a Happy New Year’s Viewing.

Meanwhile, sitting in the dark with my feet up, I feel I have had Fisheries or Africa or Youth And ‘The Churches Today. I couldn’t agree more about Married Women At Work or What We Do With The Old People or Whither Britain, and could hardly care less. We Viewers know now that we are such stuff as dreams are made on, that all is Maya, that For in and out, above, below, ‘Tis nothing but a magic shadow-show. So it is easy to imagine oneself viewing the next war, dreamily watching whole cities crumble to radioactive dust, catching a last glimpse of Manchester or Leeds in between a thirty-minute detective play and some light music and a gipsy dancer. Never did a medium of information and entertainment arrive more opportunely, to soothe the tormented mind, to ease the bewilderment of the soul. We may emerge from our four or five years’ bondage to it, having at last achieved detachment, for ever untroubled and smiling, finally victorious over the technique and the instrument. Already we Viewers, when not viewing, have begun to whisper to one another that the more we elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate. Some words on a page can be un-forgettable. The memory of an actor, moving and speaking on a platform, may haunt us all our lives. Then the inventors and technicians arrive, the costs rise prodigiously, the complication sets in, and we get film and radio, far less potent and memorable. The inventors and technicians, in a frenzy, with millions of money behind them, invade the home with TV, adding more and more images to sound, performing miracles with time and space, bringing in colour, stereoscopic sight, everything. And out of this mountain of invention and technique, finance and organisation, comes a little dream mouse. “Not bad,” we Viewers cry. ‘“What next?”

Comments: John Boynton Priestley (1894-1984) was a British novelist and playwright, known for Time and the Conways, An Inspector Calls and The Good Companions. Thoughts in the Wilderness is a collection of essays.

New Chapter in Wireless History

Source: ‘A Wireless Correspondent’, ‘New Chapter in Wireless History’, Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 1 October 1929, p. 5

Text: NEW CHAPTER IN WIRELESS HISTORY.

Television Demonstrated.

SEEING AND HEARING AT THE SAME TIME.

[By a Wireless Correspondent].

The first public broadcast of television took place yesterday, the transmission being sent out from the 2LO aerial in Oxford Street.

I was one of the few who were able to listen in and “look in” at the same time. We were gathered in a room the headquarters of the Baird Television Development Company in Long Acre, London. There was installed a Baird television receiver, and while we heard the speech and music issuing from a loud speaker which formed part of the apparatus, looking into a glass screen on the front of the cabinet we were able to sec the devised faces of the speakers and the artists, among whom were Sir Ambrose Fleming, tho distinguished scientist and inventor of the wireless valve; Professor E.N. de C. Andrade, another well-known scientist; Mr. Sydney Howard, the comedian; and Miss Lulu Stanley. The studio was connected by land line to Savoy Hill, and tho televised faces were passed on to the Oxford Street transmitter, where they were broadcast in the ordinary way.

Two wave lengths are necessary, however, for television listeners to hear and see the broadcasts simultaneously, and at present the B.B.C. only have one wave length available. Hence any listeners who were in possession of Baird television receivers yesterday were able only to hear and see alternately. It is hoped that when the twin-wave length transmitter is in operation, simultaneous transmission will tako place enabling listeners to see and hear at the same time. We were able to this yesterday because there was a special line connecting tho receiver to tho studio, so that while the B.B.C. were broadcasting the televised face of the speaker, his words came through the loud speaker. The televised image was “picked up” by means of an ordinary aerial on the roof of the building.

Features Recognised.

At the outset, a letter was read from Mr. William Graham, President of the Board of Trade, who stated that he looked this new applied science to encourage and provide a new industry not only for Britain and the British Empire, but for the whole world. “This new industry,” he added, “will provide employment for a large number our people, and will prove the prestige of British creative energy.” In an introductory speech, Sir Ambrose Fleming, who is the president of the Television Society, remarked that television would contribute to the pleasure of countless persons. After Sir Ambrose came Professor Andrade and then Mr. Sydney Howard, whose features were easily recognisable. We could see clearly the movement of his lips as he spoke and his varying expressions as he moved about in front of thee televisor. “This is Television Monday.” he said, “and I am the vision,” and we could see him smiling he said it. “Really I not know why people should have my ‘mug’ inflicted on them,” he added. Next came Miss King, who is member of the Baird staff, and Miss Lulu Stanley, both of whom sang before the televisor. We heard their voices and saw their changing expressions as they sang.

Not Perfect Yet.

Sir Ambrose Fleming summed up the situation in a nutshell when he said me afterwards “At the present time, the B.B.C. have a vast music-hall for the blind in which people can hear but see nothing. What Mr. Baird has done is to provide them with opera glasses or spectacles in which the audience can see well as hear.” It is obvious, of course, that much progress will have to be made before the same degree of perfection reached with television is now attained with ordinary speech broadcasts, but yesterday’s demonstration showed that much has already been done, the televised faces of to-day being marked improvement on the image the early television experiments. Mr. Baird told me that he was perfectly satisfied with the broadcast, and he was particularly glad that he had now been afforded opportunity making a public broadcast. “Men’s faces broadcast better than women’s,” he remarked. “Some men’s faces come out better than others because their features are more marked.” He added that they do not propose that there should any television on a large scale until a satisfactory television service can be provided. At present, very few television sets are in existence.

Comments: The Baird Televisor was first demonstrated to an invited audience in 1926. The BBC began experimental broadcasts using inventor John Logie Baird’s system on 30 September 1929 (a Monday), at 11:00am, in Long Acre, London.

Links: Copy at British Newspaper Archive (subscription site)

An Enquiry into Television Viewing

Source: Robert Silvey, An Enquiry in Television Viewing (BBC, 1948)

Text: In the autumn of 1948, when the post-war Television Service had passed into its third year and TV licences were approaching the 100,000 mark, the B.B.C. set on foot the first of what it is hoped will be a series of enquiries into the nature of the television public and the impact of the new medium upon its leisure habits. A random sample of TV households was selected —1,000 in all— and each was visited by an interviewer. In nearly 900 of these households interviewers were successful in enlisting the co-operation of a responsible adult. The age and nature of the TV set, and data upon which the socio-economic grade of the family could be estimated, were recorded and an enumeration made of the members of the household, their age, sex and education. The informant was then asked to arrange for each member of the household over the age of sixteen to keep a record of his or her activities during the evenings of one week. Special ‘log books’ were supplied in which each evening was sub-divided into quarter-hours. Spaces were provided for showing what programme, if any, had been listened to or viewed, and which of nine types of activity had been pursued, whether coincidently with listening or not. To provide a Control Group, interviewers were instructed to select, whenever they made an effective contact with a TV household, the nearest non-TV household they could find and there to go through the same procedure.

Interviewers paid two more calls on each home—one during the course of the week to see that the logs were in fact being completed, and a final call to collect them. Interviewing was spread over three discrete weeks, and finished early in December 1948. The final report was based on a Television Group of 873 TV households, with a population of 2,724, and a Control Group of 856 non-TV households, with a population of 2,628, while the total number of evening ‘logs’ completed by the adults of the TV Group was 15,869 and by those of the Control Group was 11,434.

It was found that the overwhelming majority of TV households (82 per cent.) possessed separate TV receivers and nearly all of these had sound receivers as well. Only 18 per cent. possessed combined TV and sound receivers (all the Control Group possessed sound receivers). More than half the TV receivers in use had 6 inch by 7} inch screens, 29 per cent. had 8 inch by 10 inch and 11 per cent. 10 inch by 12 inch screens.

The enquiry revealed that television was no longer, if indeed it ever had been, a rich man’s toy. More than half the TV homes were found to be lower middle or working class. Although there was clearly a long way to go before T’V was evenly spread throughout all socio-economic classes, there was unmistakable evidence that television was spreading ‘downwards’ through the social pyramid. Thus, whereas 57 per cent. of those families which possessed TV sets when the Television Service was resumed in 1946 were well-to-do or upper middle class and the remaining 43 per cent. lower middle or working class, the corresponding proportions of 1948 buyers were 39 per cent. and 61 per cent.

Comparison between the TV and Control Groups showed that although these groups were built up of pairs of families living side by side, to the outward eye differing from one another in the single respect of possessing or not possessing a TV set, there were in fact significant differences between them. It was found that neighbouring families do not enjoy the same socio-economic status to anything like the same extent as might have been anticipated. The TV Group, for example, included 21 per cent. who could be classified as well-to-do, whereas among their next-door neighbours only to per cent. could be so described. At the other end of the scale only 18 per cent. of the TV Group consisted of the families of manual workers, whereas the Control Group included 35 per cent. There was, however, far less difference between the educational level of the TV and Control Groups. Indeed it was clear that in the well-to-do and middle class strata television was rather more likely to be found in the homes where the educational level was the lower. This tendency was reversed in the manual working class; there the higher the level of education the greater the probability of finding a television set. For the sociologist the conclusion would seem to be that although population of London and the Home Counties is far from homogeneously housed in terms of income, homogeneity in terms of educational level is much more nearly approached.

Another difference between the TV and Control Groups was that in the middle classes, and especially among the well-to-do, families with television sets tended to be larger than those without them, having more children and old people. In the manual working class, on the other hand, TV tends to be found in those homes where, although there may be rather more old people, there are fewer children and young adults and more adults of full working age. This suggests that the presence of children in a home and the presence of old people each act as a stimulus to acquire television, but that the gratification of children’s wishes to have a television set is more dependent upon the economic circumstances of the family.

Fortunately analysis showed that these differences between the groups with and without TV were not of sufficient magnitude to invalidate comparisons of their leisure habits. It is in fact fair to regard the pattern of behaviour disclosed by the logs kept by the Control Group as a picture of how the T’V Group would have behaved had they not acquired television sets.

This comparison shows that families which had TV did not on that account listen to sound broadcasting materially less between 6.00 and 8.00 p.m. and between 11.00 p.m. and midnight. Their listening in the half-hours before and after the evening TV transmission was, however, appreciably diminished. But during the period of the TV transmission an average of only 14 per cent. were listening—less than one-third as many as would have done so had there been no television set—while 49 per cent. viewed—an audience made up of 32 per cent. drawn from sound, together with 17 per cent. diverted from other activities.

AlJ three sound services—Home, Light and Third Programme—yield up their quota to television. Indeed one of the most significant findings of this enquiry was that the depredations of TV affected each of the three sound services to an equal degree. As to the 17 per cent. who were diverted from other activities, by far the larger proportion (14 per cent.) were people who would have been at home in any case. This category—those ‘at home but not listening’ between 8.30 and 10.00 p.m.—averaged 32 per cent. of the Control Group, whereas among the TV Group the proportion at home but neither listening nor viewing averaged only 18 per cent.

Starting as it does at 8.30, the evening TV transmission has comparatively little effect on the meal-time habits of viewers. (Even in London and the Home Counties, apparently, there are few people who are still eating their evening meal as late as 7.30 p.m.) Television tends to thrust such activities as reading, writing letters and social activities, into the earlier and, to some extent, the later part of the evening, without diminishing their frequency, but it does appear to reduce the total amount of time spent in domestic duties in the evening. When the displaced duties are performed, if they are performed at all, is not clear. They may perhaps be undertaken during the day-time and therefore outside the purview of their enquiry, or it may be that the promise of watching television causes them to be done more expeditiously in the early evening.

If possessing a TV set causes substantial modifications in the habits of those who are at home, it appears to have comparatively little power to keep at home those who would otherwise go out. Thus, whereas the average proportion of the Control Group who were not at home between 8.30 and 10.00 p.m. was 22 per cent., the corresponding proportion of the TV Group was 19 per cent.—only 3 per cent. less. Among the many activities in which those not at home were engaged was cinema-going. This did not in fact account for more than a small proportion, but this is of less significance than the fact that the differences between the Control Group’s and the TV Group’s cinema-going was substantial. Whereas an average of 3.3 per cent. of the Control Group were at the cinema during television transmission hours, the corresponding proportion of the TV Group was only two-thirds of this figure—2.2 per cent.

In all that has been said so far the TV Group has been considered as a whole; but it is of the first importance that variations between the behaviour of one type of viewer and another should be examined; for the television public is growing, and its composition changing, and if, for example, there are marked differences between the behaviour of new and ‘veteran’ viewers, or between that of viewers of various socio-economic classes, the pattern of behaviour of the TV public as a whole will alter as the balance between its component elements shifts.
Analysis in terms of the length of time that viewers had possessed their television sets revealed the extent to which, as the novelty of TV ownership wears off, viewing diminishes and old habits re-assert themselves. For example, among viewers who had had TV sets for less than a year, 51 per cent. were viewing and 11 per cent. listening at TV times, 19 per cent. were at home but neither viewing nor listening and the remaining I9 per cent. were out (including 2 per cent. at the cinema); but among viewers who had had their sets for at least two years, 41 per cent. were viewing, 16 per cent. were listening, 21 per cent. were at home but doing neither and 22 per cent. were out (including 3 per cent at the cinema). Thus viewing had diminished by one-fifth, and listening had increased by half as much again, though still of course remaining far below its Control Group level. The proportion out (including at the cinema) had reverted to a level not far short of that of the Control Group; which, by definition, had never possessed TV sets.

It may be remarked parenthetically that even if, as this evidence suggests, cinema-going habits are only temporarily disturbed by the acquisition of a T’V set, and that in a comparatively short time viewers are going to the movies as frequently as they ever did, viewers are week by week exposed to television for far longer than they are at the cinema. The enquiry shows that even the veteran viewers whose cinema-going habits had almost reverted to normal, were on the average watching sixteen evening TV transmissions for every visit to the pictures. The social implications of this fact are too obvious to need stressing.

Analysis by socio-economic group showed some equally important differences, important because it is to be expected that, as time passes, the lower socio-economic groups will constitute an increasing proportion of the TV public. A comparison of the well-to-do viewers on the one hand and of the manual working class viewers on the other showed that when among the well-to-do 37 per cent. were viewing, 16 per cent. listening, 24 per cent. at home but doing neither and the remaining 23 per cent. were out, among the working class the corresponding proportions were 51 per cent., 14 per cent., 18 per cent. and 17 per cent. Thus viewers in the highest socio-economic class were viewing less, but listening more, were more often prepared, though at home, to leave their radio and TV sets silent altogether, and were also more often out, than were viewers in the lowest socio-economic class. (Analysis showed that the differences described above were greater than could be accounted for by the fact that working class viewers were more prevalent among new than among veteran viewers.

Besides showing that viewers, even after the first novelty of ownership has worn off, watch TV far more often than they would have listened to sound broadcasting, the enquiry also showed that viewers discriminate between programmes much less than do listeners —and this tendency is just as apparent among veteran as among new viewers. To some extent, no doubt, this is attributable to the absence of any choice, and the limited length of the TV transmission. If the viewer wants to watch television then there is at present only one programme he can view, and the normal period of evening transmission is only an hour and a half.

It seems very doubtful, however, if this is the whole explanation, for another factor must be taken into account. Since television engages the sense of sight as well as the sense of hearing, its capacity to hold the attention of its audience is incomparably greater than that of sound broadcasting, which must perpetually compete with visual counter-attractions. The enquiry was able to express the effect of this in quantitative terms. Only one viewer in twenty intimated that while he watched TV he made an attempt to do something else at the same time; whereas eleven listeners in twenty showed that when listening in the peak hours of the evening they were simultaneously engaged in some other activity. But, whatever may be their relative importance, it seems clear that the absence of alternative TV programmes, the limited period of present TV transmissions, and TVs claim upon both eye and ear, together have brought about a situation which sharply differentiates viewing from listening, namely that viewing, far more than listening, is indulged in as an end in itself. In practical terms this means that, even after its novelty has worn off, people watch TV irrespective of programme content to a far greater extent than they listen with similar pliancy to sound broadcasting.

It would, of course, be very unwise to assume that conclusions drawn from observations on the phenomenon of viewing today are going to be valid for tomorrow. Whatever else is in doubt it is certain that television programmes will not remain the same, and so long as new forms are being evolved TV will in a sense continue to be novel. Furthermore, TV is still so young that viewers who have had their sets only two or three years have to be regarded as ‘veterans’. It may therefore be some years before it will be possible to say with certainty that there are viewers for whom the novelty of TV has entirely worn off. Nevertheless, if viewing continues to be regarded not only as a means to an end but also as an end in itself, then as television becomes more widespread there will be more and more people who are as viewers far readier than they were as listeners to pay heed to programmes which are unfamiliar, and perhaps at first uncongenial, to them. Highbrows and lowbrows may each be expected to view with greater catholicity than they have in the past been prepared to listen—though whether with greater tolerance remains to be seen. It must be left to others to speculate upon the possible future role of television as a catalytic agent in changing the pattern of contemporary culture.

Comments: Robert Silvey (1905-1981) was Head of Listener Research at the BBC. This in-house report, held at the BBC’s Written Archive Centre, was produced in 1948, two years after the fledging BBC Television service had returned following its closure throughout the period of the Second World War. At this period the regular broadcasting pattern was 3-4pm and two hours in the evening from 8.30pm.

Links: Copy at The Birth of TV

Hugging the Shore

Source: John Updike, Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), p. 843

Text: I went to the movies pretty intensely from about 1938, when I was six years old, to 1954, when I graduated from college. My moviegoing has fallen off since, as my willing suspension of disbelief becomes more and more grudging. Of the many movies I did see in my youth, however, I received an ultimate impression – a moral ideal, we may say – of debonair grace, whether it was Fred Astaire gliding in white tie and tails across a stage of lovelies, or Errol Flynn leading a band of merry men through Sherwood Forest with that little half-smile beneath his mustache, or George Sanders drawling a riposte in his role as the Saint. In my own clumsy way I have tried all my life to be similarly debonair. Also I got an impression of a world where everything works out for the best and even small flaws in character are punished with a hideous rigor. And also, of course, of sex, symbolized by beautiful round-armed women taking baths in champagne or being threatened, in Roman or Biblical contexts, by murder or conversion. When one reads, nowadays, of how much actual sex was being pursued and accomplished by the makers of those movies, their delicately honed symbolizations seem almost hypocrisy – but the message got through, to us adolescents out there, and the eroticization of America is (in large part) a cinematic achievement. The Eros is still there, but I do miss in contemporary movies the debonairness, the what Hemingway called grace under pressure, a certain masculine economy and understatement in the design of those films, now all gone to scatter and rumpus in the fight with television for the lowest denominator.

Comments: John Updike (1932-2009) was an American novelist and critic. This untitled memoir of his cinemagoing was written in August 1979 in reply to a query from George Christy, editor of The Hollywood Reporter Annual, who wanted to know “how Hollywood has influenced you, your work, your artistic vision”.

Old Glory

Source: Jonathan Raban, Old Glory: An American Voyage (London: Collins, 1981), pp. 94-95

Text: I tried the wardrobe, a handsome reproduction piece of pine colonial. The drawers, when I pulled at them, turned out to be doors, and opened on an enormous colour television. I found my weather report. Nothing does so much justice to the gargantuan scale of American life as its national weather maps. In Europe, one is allowed to see the weather only as scraps and fragments: a cake-slice of a depression here; a banded triangle of a ridge of high pressure there. In the United States I was enthralled by the epic sweep of whole weather systems as they rolled across the country from the Pacific to the Atlantic, or coasted down from the Arctic Circle, or swirled up from Mexico and Cuba. The weathermen tapped their maps with sticks. Without betraying the slightest flicker of wonder or concern, they announced that people were being frozen to death in Butte, roasted in Flagstaff and blown off their feet in Tallahassee. Each day they rattled off every conceivable variety of climactic extremity in a blasé drawl. I’d never seen so much weather at once, and was deeply impressed. I shivered vicariously for the Montanans, sweated for the Texans and ran for shelter with the Floridans.

Comments: Jonathan Raban (1942 – ) is a British travel writer and novelists. Old Glory records a journey he takes down the Mississippi River, including this visit to a Minneapolis hotel.

All Pals Together

Source: Terry Staples, All Pals Together: The Story of Children’s Cinema (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997), p. 233

Text: Living as kids in rural Wiltshire, we never had a chance to go to a cinema there. But every summer we were packed off to our grandparents in Falkirk, and they sent us to the ABC every Saturday morning. In my memory of what I saw in those years cinema and telly are all mixed up, but I remember the atmosphere of the cinema clearly enough. There seemed to be hundreds and hundreds in the Falkirk ABC, and a lot of excitement and enthusiasm, but I don’t think things were being thrown around. It was lively, but not rowdy. At home in Wiltshire we watched telly on Saturday mornings – Tiswas or Swap Shop – and doing that I felt essentially alone. In Falkirk I was part of a crowd. I’d get dressed for the ABC, but not for the telly. The queuing and the anticipation were much more exciting than just walking across the room to turn on the telly. We bought lollipops or liquorice or toffees at the cinema, or we might have taken our own tablet (a very sweet kind of fudge, peculiar to Scotland). For us, the cinema was full of strangeness, specialness and fun.

Comments: All Pals Together is a history of children’s cinema in the UK. It contains many evocative memoir passages such as this, mostly conducted for the book, though they are uncredited (there is a list of the names of the interviewees given at the front of the book). The unnamed interviewee here was a member of the ABC Minors club, to which many cinemagoing children belonged. Tiswas (ITV, 1974-1982) and Multi-Coloured Swap Shop (BBC, 1976-1982) were two highly popular children’s television programmes shown on Saturday mornings. They are generally seen as having played a major part in bringing about the long tradition of children’s cinema in the UK to an end.

Play All

Source: Clive James, Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2016), pp. 43-44

Text: The natural modus operandi of the binge watcher, having selected Play All in order to view a whole bunch of episodes on a disc, is to skip through the standard opening title sequence on each episode, especially when watching a show for the second or third time. But for at least two shows I have never done this, and have always watched the title sequence right through. One is The Sopranos, where the opening music – a piece of British rock and roll, oddly enough – is perpetually renewable in its pulse and color. The cutting from skyline to skyline of the drive through New Jersey seems part of the score, and you get to know its every bar so well that you know exactly where the twin towers should have been when they disappeared after the 9/11 disaster. The other is Band of Brothers. The opening sequence is so authoritative that Lucinda and I watch the whole thing every time. We are agreed that the way the stills and slo-mo clips are matched to the music couldn’t be improved, and that the music is uncannily beautiful. Thus the range of tragic lyricism in which the young men, the airborne brothers in arms, will risk their lives together in combat, and some will die and some will not, is established at the start of each episode. For my generation, who were infants when our fathers left us behind at home and went away to fight, this pictured music, or musical picture, is intensely recognizable, as deeply serious as something so aesthetically satisfactory could be. But I was surprised to find that Lucinda felt the same. Her knowledge of World War II is all from books – Anthony Beevor’s book The Battle of Stalingrad was her idea of a birthday present – but it is detailed and nuanced, and her standards of authenticity are high. It was from her reaction, not my own, that I reached a proper measure of the show’s success in transmitting, without dilution or trivilization, the texture of the past into the future.

Comments: Clive James (born 1939) is an Australian broadcaster, critic, poet and essayist. Play All is a collection of essays on the ‘boxed set’ phenomenon of television series viewable as DVD sets or through online video services. Lucinda is his daughter, and he lives in Cambridge. Band of Brothers (2001) was a ten-part American miniseries depicting the experiences of an American battalion in Europe during the Second World War. The Sopranos (1999, pilot episode 1997) was an 86-part, six season American series about the American mafia.

Television

Production still for Julius Caesar (1938), via BBC Genome blog

Source: Thomas Baird, ‘Television’, World Film News, vol. 3 no. 4 (August 1938), p. 188

Text: An American visitor to this country, when asked what he thought of the Derby, guessed that it had come to stay. Something of the same might be said about television; the fact is that television is no longer merely experimental; it is an amazingly accomplished fact.

It is true, of course, that television must remain experimental so long as it is limited by the money the Department has to spend, and as it is expensive listening hours must be, for the time at least, limited. It is also true that television sets are expensive and we must not expect to find one in every back parlour just yet. But the same was true of gramophones and wireless sets and is still true in a degree of home film projectors. But one experience of an outside broadcast by television is quite sufficient to convince anyone that television has come to stay.

I can remember, it must have been about 1922, hearing a man say, when listening to a crystal set, that he did not believe for a moment that the B.B.C. were so foolish as to have an orchestra in the studio. He was convinced that when the announcer told us that we were to hear a Symphony Orchestra that an engineer merely played a gramophone record. He failed to appreciate that the playing of a gramophone record did not detract from the miracle of radio but, if anything, added to it. The B.B.C. have since proved this. The significant fact is that radio is a means of mass communication and that while the old gramophone filled the homes of individuals, the gramophone by radio filled the homes of the nation. It will therefore be no detraction from the marvel of television if the B.B.C. make use of film, and indeed I hope they will make more and more use of film. If they did little more than carry the already considerable mass of documentary, instructional and travel films to the millions of people whom these films normally pass by, they will have done something worthy of achievement.

But already they are doing much more than this. Radio in general, in spite of the arty and crafty hokum which has surrounded a number of programmes, continues to be significant for two reasons. One is that it is the most universal means of mass communication, and second there is its immediacy. Radio can report within the split second; so, too, can television. The most exciting broadcasts have been the outside ones such as The Derby, The Trooping of the Colour and The Boat Race. While the mass communication of these programmes might be limited to merely thousands of sets, the immediacy was electric. Newsreels seemed historical records the day after one had seen the Derby by television. The Test Match broadcast indeed made most newsreels look pretty silly. Here, with no time lag, was a brilliant account of the excitement of the game, and the amount of detail picked up by the carefully handled cameras was magnificent. The television camera cannot make a cut in the film sense but the quick mix from bowler to batsman was an indication that television had something of its own to offer. All this is merely a confirmation of something that radio has demonstrated again and again. The biggest listening audiences, I believe, are for the King’s speech on Christmas Day and for the nine o’clock broadcast of football pools results from non-B.B.C. stations. Research figures are reputed to show that there is a very large audience for the news bulletin, the weather forecast and for any major sport event. This seems to indicate that the public do rely on radio in the first place as a news agency in the widest sense of the word. In spite, therefore, of the enthusiasms of some for the Foundations of Music and the Experimental Drama hour, I remain convinced that the very stuff of radio can be made out of its ability to tell all the people all about everything all the time — and no fooling. Television, even in its present form, does this admirably with an immediacy and an intimacy denied to any other medium. It would be well if the television department concentrated on this signal service in their near developments.

The version of Julius Caesar broadcast on Sunday, 24th July, illustrated this point admirably. There were three points of interest in the production:

(1) It was a play which we all knew.

(2) It was done in modern dress.

(3) It introduced the penumbrascope.

It is a great play. As it is written it depends chiefly on the actors and the words. On or off the stage the same criterion applies to the speeches. If they are well spoken half the battle is won. Most of the actors did well, but as usual, Caesar himself proved the most difficult part and as usual was the least satisfying. So much for the criticism which must obtain in any presentation. What had Television to offer that the stage had not? Mr. Dallas Bower, who claims some affinity with the cinema, was able to add a point or two. He dubbed the soliloquies, which was a good idea, but he did not make the distinction between the oratorical soliloquies and the subjective ones. His technique was successful so long as it represented the sub-conscious prompting of the mind in Cassius and Brutus but it failed when applied to the soliloquies which served as Chorus. Mark Antony informed the audience of the progress of his plan through sealed lips.

The super-imposed ghost, the rioting scenes and the war scenes taken from film were the kind of things we expect Television to produce, and the standard offered by film must be, if not the criterion, then the objective.

There was nothing significantly televisual in the modern dress approach but it was a good idea and worked out as well as the text would allow, though why Brutus and Cassius did not use their six-shooters on Caesar I cannot imagine.

The penumbrascope, on the other hand, suggests great possibilities. Space and depth are difficult in a small studio and these limits bind the scope of any production. The penumbrascope which produces a shadow cyclorama does not yet give scale to the small studio but it does produce a method of quick change of scene in close-up and mid-shot. It can change mood with increased facility and I fancy it is less expensive than scenery. It needs to be worked out with more regard for the general lighting scheme and it would probably show up better with simpler foreground lighting.

There were times when the stage seemed very crowded and I wondered why Mr. Bower did not raise one of his cameras to a higher angle after the fashion that the newsreel camera oversees a procession. A wider angle of incidence of the cameras would improve the difficult mix from close-up to long shot.

I can imagine that their Drama will require to invest itself with something of this spirit if it is to be anything different from the stage or from the cinema. On the grounds of mass communication I can see no reason why television should not broadcast films or broadcast stage plays. I think they are perfectly justified to spread these two media in a fashion which is within its power only. In these cases the test of quality beyond technicalities must obviously be the test supplied normally to the stage and to films. Already we have had evidence of this. Well-written stage plays televise well: badly-written stage plays are equally bad on the air.

When we come up against something like D.H. Monro’s version of a Russian Ballet rehearsal, we have got something which is bringing alive this peculiar quality with a spontaneity and immediacy which belongs lo television. This production eavesdropped on reality. It was television doing its own peculiar job and therefore television at its own very best.

Comments: Thomas Baird was a British film journalist and documentary film executive, who worked for the Ministry of Information in the 1940s as its non-theatrical film supervisor. He wrote a monthly column for World Film News on the new medium of television. Dallas Bower, one of the pioneering creative figures of British television drama, directed and produced a 110-minute production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in modern-dress (reflecting Nazi Germany), broadcast by the BBC on 24 July 1938. Ernest Milton played Caesar. Penumbrascope was a form of shadow projection. Direct cuts between shots were not possible with television studio technology at this time; instead there would be a transitional ‘mix’ between shots which could take between two and four seconds.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive (c/o Media History Digital Library)

T.V. Talkin' Song

Source: Bob Dylan, ‘T.V. Talkin’ Song’, from Under the Red Sky (1990), lyrics via http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/tv-talkin-song/

Text: One time in London I’d gone out for a walk
Past a place called Hyde Park where people talk
’Bout all kinds of different gods, they have their point of view
To anyone passing by, that’s who they’re talking to

There was someone on a platform talking to the folks
About the T.V. god and all the pain that it invokes
“It’s too bright a light,” he said, “for anybody’s eyes
If you’ve never seen one it’s a blessing in disguise”

I moved in closer, got up on my toes
Two men in front of me were coming to blows
The man was saying something ’bout children when they’re young
Being sacrificed to it while lullabies are being sung

“The news of the day is on all the time
All the latest gossip, all the latest rhyme
Your mind is your temple, keep it beautiful and free
Don’t let an egg get laid in it by something you can’t see”

“Pray for peace!” he said. You could feel it in the crowd
My thoughts began to wander. His voice was ringing loud
“It will destroy your family, your happy home is gone
No one can protect you from it once you turn it on”

“It will lead you into some strange pursuits
Lead you to the land of forbidden fruits
It will scramble up your head and drag your brain about
Sometimes you gotta do like Elvis did and shoot the damn thing out”

“It’s all been designed,” he said, “to make you lose your mind
And when you go back to find it, there’s nothing there to find
Every time you look at it, your situation’s worse
If you feel it grabbing out for you, send for the nurse”

The crowd began to riot and they grabbed hold of the man
There was pushing, there was shoving and everybody ran
The T.V. crew was there to film it, they jumped right over me
Later on that evening, I watched it on T.V.

Comments: Bob Dylan (1941 – ) is an American singer and artist, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. The album from which the song comes, Under the Red Sky (generally regarded as one of his weakest) was released in September 1990; prior to that he had last been in London when he played several dates at the Hammersmith Odeon in February 1990.

Television

Source: George Audit, ‘Television’, World Film and Television Progress, August 1937, p. 37

Text: The relays from Wimbledon were something quite new in quality of reproduction and in the placing of the shots. The trouble with so many film versions of the tennis tournaments has been that the camera has tried to keep pace with the ball, and in switching from one player to another has ended in a confusion of strokes and dashes with the ball invisible. The television version had one camera commanding the whole playing area of the court and another to interject close-ups of the scoreboard, one of the players or an occupant of the Royal Box. The general view of the court was so clear that you could see the tiny white ball flash from one side to the other quite distinctly. Unfortunately the figures on this scale were so small that one had to approach to within a foot or two of the screen to see them distinctly. But at this proximity the image was so distinct that you could follow every detail of the strokes. I have seen the Centre Court play in the newsreels and through television, and I can say that the latter was by far the closest approximation to the real scene, and incidentally more enjoyable.

Technically the Wimbledon relay was most important because it was the first recording of the mobile television unit. This unit consists of a scanning apparatus with an Emitron camera and a radio transmitter. The scene is scanned and broadcast on ultra-short waves over the twelve miles to Alexandra Palace. The experiment was a complete success and it now only remains to be seen whether the unit is able to range further afield.

Comments: George Audit wrote a regular column on television for World Film and Television Progress at this time. In 1937 a television screen would have been around 8×10 inches in size. The BBC’s first official use of its mobile television unit (built by the Marconi-EMI Television Company) was for the coronation of King George V on 12 May 1937, though it was preceded by a test broadcast from Hyde Park nine days earlier.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive (c/o Media History Digital Library)