The Power of Television

Anyone afraid of what he or she thinks television is doing to the world is probably just afraid of the world! – Clive James

I am immeasurably fond of the essayist, poet, critic, broadcaster, translator and memorist Clive James. His eloquent turn of phrase, fierce intellect and razor-sharp wit makes him one of our most compelling and perceptive commentators on modern English culture. His particular fascination with the small screen has often served to elevate what others would dismiss as low brow or inconsequential material. For many years Clive James has suffered from leukemia and, in June 2012, he announced that he was ‘near the end’. By this stage he had also been diagnosed with emphysema and kidney failure so he was not being altogether alarmist. However, thankfully, this is one thing that Clive has got spectacularly wrong. Thanks to his wonderful medical team at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Clive James is very much still with us and he is enjoying an Indian summer of creativity. Indeed in Injury Time (the title of one of his latest collections), his work has assumed an urgency and directness that reflects his serious literary pedigree.

What I particularly love about Clive James is that he is a cultural omnivore who is quite willing to extol the virtues or discern the significance of television shows that other more snobbish critics would consider ethereal or banal. His abiding intellectual interest in all aspects of humanity played out in our living rooms makes me feel decidedly less uncomfortable about indulging in the guilty pleasure of an episode of First Dates or Gogglebox. In any case, such shows tell us a good deal more about society than might readily be apparent. Some readers may be old enough to remember the first reality show Airport which featured the rather charming Ground Services Manager, Jeremy Spake. Back in 1996, nobody could quite understand the appeal of such a show whereas now reality tv is ubiquitous. Airport was considered nothing more than a bizarre oddity. Of course, the key to the abiding success of reality television is relatability.

Yesterday evening I watched a fascinating documentary on BBC Four about eighteenth-century works of art in the Bodleian Library. I was, if I am being honest, rather pleased with myself for watching such an improving programme, but my viewing has not always been quite so elevated. Growing up, my brother and I were fans of Neighbours – much to my mother’s despair. We both reckoned that it represented twenty minutes of healthy escapism before settling down to tackle homework. Of course, we were never supposed to know that she watched Brookside. When we did challenge her on the issue, she professed to have developed a scholastic interest in regional dialects!

It’s not all about escapism. Every so often soaps tackle important issues in a manner which is provocative and progressive. The decision to explore such issues within a dramatic context often contributes to profound social change. Todd Carty’s portrayal of Mark Fowler in Eastenders served to promote greater understanding of HIV and AIDS during a period when the whole issue was clouded by panic and misinformation. In 1999, a survey by the National AIDS Trust found that teenagers garnered most of their information about HIV from the soap. I suspect that this really did hold true for teenagers like me. Soaps have offered up many seminal moments. In January 1994, Brookside became the first programme to screen a pre-nine-o’clock watershed same-sex kiss and, in so doing, contributed to a growing acceptance of same-sex relationships; one that was thankfully mirrored in legislative reform and attitudinal change within society at large.

Mark Fowler

So what has provoked me to reflect upon the cultural and social significance of television this week? Perhaps it was partly as a result of being mildly amused when watching Ann Widdecombe correctly answer a question about rap artists on a recent episode of The Chase. More seriously, I think it was because I chanced across a documentary on uber-trendy BBC3 which starred Little Mix star, Jessy Nelson. Entitled Odd one Out this documentary explored the deleterious impact of cyberbullies. It transpires that since achieving fame, Jessy has been cruelly critiqued on account of her physical appearance. The vicious nastiness of those who seek to denigrate her is quite appalling.

Whilst this was not the sort of programme I would usually elect to watch, I decided to persevere as she was dealing with an issue which impacts upon so many young people. It turned out to be a profoundly moving piece of television and I felt challenged to reflect upon the possibility that with each advancing year we all run the risk of becoming increasingly ‘out of touch’. We grew up in a pre-digital age where online bullying did not exist. There is a generational gap which is obvious if one considers the impact of modern dating apps, Instagram and the ubiquity of terms such as ‘airbrush’ and body dysmorphia.

After all, when I was a small child we did not even have a colour television and the news tended to be read by suited men with clipped voices. Documentaries were usually serious affairs delivered in the manner of didactic lectures. Television really took itself pretty seriously in those days but it was based upon a patriarchal view of society – one in which grand custodians of knowledge explained complex issues to the proletariat. Nowadays, a very different style of documentary has taken hold. Whether it is Professor Green talking about the impact of his father’s suicide or Stacey Dooley embedding with Kurdish fighters in Northern Iraq, there are many compelling documentaries presented by people who do not profess to have the remotest level of expertise in the subjects that they are exploring. However, they do have an ability to connect with young people and those of us who are approaching middle age must learn to embrace voices that resonate with teenagers in a way which is alien to us. Television has become a more relatable and egalitarian arena and, whilst there will always be a place for high culture and intellectual rigour, there is also a valuable role to be played by figures such as Jessy Nelson and Professor Green because, more often than not, they are able to talk with a personable directness which is not shrouded by stuffy pretensions or intellectual posturing.

So Clive James is absolutely right; we should not fear television but rather recognise its potential to act as a positive agent of social change. Sure, we should be discerning in our consumption but we should recognise that there are occasionally profound, beautiful and transformative moments in soaps and reality shows. As parents, we must also recognise that we do not have a monopoly on insightfulness and we should be open to the fact that voices that are radically different to our own may resonate powerfully with our children in certain instances.

Ultimately Mary Whitehouse’s opposition towards social liberalism and what she termed a ‘permissive society’ failed because it was an opposition based upon fear and moral outrage. As an antidote it offered censorship rather than recognising that television has the opportunity to be a force of good in our society and, just sometimes, that is because it challenges social convention and provides a sense of belonging to those who have felt oppressed, marginalised or alone.