Monday, 24 February 2014

A reminder of just how good television can be

Certainly not brutal on the mind
Television used to be at the heart of home life: the large box on legs in the corner of the living room around which the family grouped after homework and the evening meal.

That was in the good old days, when there were just three terrestrial channels and, in our household at least, ITV was almost beyond the pale, except for Saturday afternoon wrestling and when my father wanted to get sentimental over This Is Your Life.

Childhood memories are seasoned with TV programmes and their theme tunes. Strangely enough for such a Europhobic home, foreign-language programmes left abiding memories of childhood: Belle and Sebastian, Robinson Crusoe (the never-ending, black and white French version, with the beautifully evocative and short opening), The Flashing Blade and White Horses.

And then, of course, there was Blue Peter – you can measure your age by the earliest presenters you can remember – Vision On, and Animal Magic (I blame Johnny Morris for a propensity to voice my cats).

There were also the cartoons – the first programme I saw in colour was Top Cat, to be astonished that his waistcoat was purple and his fur yellow.

Later, there were all the cop shows from the States.

Catching some recent repeats of Kojak has reminded me how good this was was. But I loved Harry O too (already a world-weary cynic) and, of course, since I am of a generation, Starsky and Hutch. Later still, there was Cagney and Lacey, which beat the homegrown Juliet Bravo into a cocked hat and which my mother also loved but my father detested.

Some years ago, when she was playing Annie Wilkes in a stage version of Stephen King’s Misery, I got the chance to meet Sharon Gless and, among other things in a wonderful conversation, thank her for what Cagney and Lacey meant to me and, Im sure, many other young women.

Somehow one never felt quite the same attachment to the likes of Dixon of Dock Green, Softly Softly and Z Cars, although I remember them all. But there was always a sense that they had more to my parents’ generation and rather less mine.

Oh indeedy: the US crime shows of the ’70s and  early ’80s rocked: who loves ya, baby?

That’s not to say that there were not plenty of British dramas that also form part of that patchwork of televisual memories that seem to possess such a powerful sense of time and place.

All Creatures Great and Small, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Maybury, those BBC Shakespeares, I, Claudius: later, there were joys to discover in the utterly superb Singing Detective, and the likes of Boys from the Blackstuff

Theo Kojak: grittier and 100% sexier than Dixon
Comedy too: Morecambe and Wise of course, Porridge and Dad’s Army: my paternal grandfather served in the Home Guard (I get my myopia from him) and would chuckle merrily at Jimmy Perry and David Crofts timeless comedy, observing that it was incredibly accurate.

One could be forgiven for assuming that the vast increase in available channels would have meant even more good telly, but the opposite seems to have been the case.

The drive for viewing figures means TV executives and programme makers playing inevitably to the lowest common denominator.

Thus Big Brother, in proving such a ratings hit – and one that could also generate money by persuading viewers to invest their hard-earned in phone votes – has spawned countless further ‘reality’ TV where the only reality is a lack of quality and similar money-making ruses.

And each passing year demands, of such series, further sensation to fill the pages of a media that is increasingly voracious in its need for the sort of page-filling non-news that has increasingly eased out the inconvenient real news.

In a televisual sense at least, there are, of course, exceptions.

In the US there has been, in recent years, a real blossoming of TV drama – not exclusively but not least at HBO.

Deadwood, The Sopranos, The West Wing, Broadwalk Empire and so forth. I’d go so far as to suggest that certainly the extensive use of multi-season story arcs was kicked off by Babylon 5 (1993-98), which had moments of hitting quite classically dramatic heights and has had an influence that has gone well beyond any genre and beyond what people might like to suppose.

It's worth watching in its own right too – right from the beginning, at least until the end of season four.

In terms of home-grown TV entertainment, there are occasional bright spots: it might not please the purists, but the reincarnated Dr Who continues to look good as entertainment that doesn't actually insult the mind – not least when compared with the rest of the schedules – while Sherlock has been an absolute delight and, on the comedy front, The Thick of It is utter genius and at least all those retro channels allow us frequent repeats of Blackadder, which, the more we move from  on from the time of creation, the more we realise just how good it was.

But it’s rare for me at least to get excited about something on the box in the corner – a box that is no longer a box but a flat panel.

However, just as you might imagine that this post is going to be all negative, we come to the unexpected – because television excitement is precisely what I have felt over the last eight days and, with catch-up TV, it’s worth mentioning because, if you missed it, you can still catch up.

Well hello, Officer Dibble
Stuck away in the BBC’s ghetto for the sort of ‘serious’ programming that used to occupy BBC2 until it was hived off into the digital realm of BBC Knowledge, and which subsequently became BBC4, there is a season of programmes on architecture.

Which is worth mentioning in its own right.

But part of this has been, in two parts, another television essay by Jonathan Meades: this time, on Bonkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry.

There is style here, but no shortage of substance. Indeed, you may well find yourself wanting to rewatch these programmes, so thick and fast fly the ideas and the information.

You don’t have to agree with Meades all the time to appreciate him – not least, to appreciate that he neither talks down to anyone nor dumbs down his arguments.

You may find yourself looking up a word or two in the dictionary or even Googling the name of an architect that you haven’t heard of before – I certainly do – but how much better is that than the mind-numbing inanity of Britain’s Got Whatever?

These are not documentaries, mind, and so rarely do we get anything like this to watch that you have to remind yourself of that rather obvious point.

They are, however, hugely intelligent, provocative (in the best sense of the word) and the sort of events that wake the little grey cells and makes them dance the fandango from sheer excitement.

There are reasons I watch so little television these days – it no longer forms a centrepiece of my home life. But when it’s as good as this mini Meades series, it makes you long for more.

Catch-up TV can let you see it – even if you missed it.

And as for whether he's right or not about brutalism ... well, that’s the stuff for another post, not least because, in terms of the quality of the programme, it really doesnt matter.

How grown up is that?

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