The Box of Delights
It’s often said that no one goes to their grave wishing they’d spent more time at work – the inference being that what you would regret is not having spent more time with your friends and family. Somewhat damningly, I’ve realised that what I’ll regret is not not having spent more time watching television – mostly on account of spending time with a young family…
Because of my mother’s job, we had a television from my earliest years, and it was watching an ur-science programme (long before the invention of the Open University) with mesmerising grey blobs drifting own the screen to illustrate viscosity, and talk of ‘liquids’, that moved me to name my beloved teddy Mr Lickwood.
I was brought up on all the classics: Bill and Ben, The Woodentops, and – surely the greatest of these – Muffin the Mule. How easy the BBC made life for parents: the end of children’s hour was indisputably time for bed. When I got older, it was futile for me to beg to watch Dixon of Dock Green after Dr Who. Dr Who was children’s television; Dixon, with its cast of petty criminals and women who were no better than they should be, was not – ergo it was bedtime.
But there were horrors enough on children’s television already, without aspiring to the adult ones. I was traumatised by the madwoman’s fire-setting rampage (in black and white!) in an early adaptation of Jane Eyre, and Dame L and I were scared witless by an ITV serial called The Blackness that no one else I know seems to have heard of. Thank heavens for Internet Movie Database, which has confirmed that it was a thing, not just some bizarre folie à deux.
I feel privileged to have witnessed countless real-life events that I could never have been privy to any other way: Nelson Mandela leaving prison, Princess Diana’s funeral – not that I’m a royalist, but the occasion marked a decided shift in the way we see ourselves. And then there’s David Attenborough. Even if there had never been programmes other than his documentaries, television would have justified its existence.
Acting on television achieves an intimacy that is impossible on the big screen or the stage – often it’s just you on the sofa face to face with them. Sadly these performances are not always rewarded as they should be. Where was the BAFTA for Ray Winstone’s tour-de-force in Sweeney Todd, one moment tenderly crafting a wig for the syphilitic Mrs Lovatt, the next frenziedly butchering a hapless punter? Alan Bennett has also exploited television’s capacity to get up close and personal in his Talking Heads, resulting in stupendous performances from a clutch of fabulous women: Patricia Routledge, Thora Hird, Julie Walters, Eileen Atkins and Stephanie Cole.
As catch-up TV, subscription channels and streaming became popular, there were laments that with audience fragmentation the unifying aspects of TV had been lost. Where were the water cooler moments now? It’s true that audience figures will never reach the dizzy heights they did in the days of a two-channel monopoly, but the water-cooler is alive and well on Twitter. What fun (if you have the mental bandwidth, which I don’t) to tweet along to a riveting serial, but beware of venturing on to Twitter if you haven’t watched the latest episode in real time – there’ll be spoilers at every turn.
So excuse me if I don’t answer the door or pick up the phone: I’m making up for lost time – square-eyed and blissed out in front of the box.