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Swansea, Wales, United Kingdom
HR Apprentice. Ex Media Studies student at Swansea University. This blog is a collection of links, articles, academic reference and random thoughts.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

An Odd message for Television

Great article as usual by David Mitchell in The Guardian

One of my least favourite programmes of the 1980s was Why Don't You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go Out and Do Something Less Boring Instead? I watched it anyway, of course. It was on.

It was presented by gangs of children with different regional accents, which I suppose was meant to make it feel more inclusive. It didn't work on me. I found the accents alienating. They made me worry that those were the sort of children who would despise me and call me a "posh twat", a jibe my parents worked hard to earn the bare minimum to qualify me for. They scrimped and saved to buy me just enough privilege to make me contemptible.

And the thing I did have in common with the presenters - that I, too, was a child - just made me think: "How'd they get that? Why can't I be on TV maddening them?" Sometimes, things work out in the end.

The content of the show was the familiar series of tedious tasks that required items of stationery that I never possessed or physical activities that I was too weedy for. But my main beef with it was its title. That was the metaphorical photo of a cancerous lung on the cigarette packet of my viewing pleasure.

I was already aware that my predilection for watching hours of television every day was a terrible failing. The concerted censure of every authority figure left me in no doubt of what a betrayal of the opportunities of childhood that was. I should have been reading books or getting fresh air, bicycling around in crime-solving gangs and fishing in streams. Our bit of suburban Oxford seemed a bit short on streams or caves full of forgers, but then I'd never really looked.

Adults' sentences beginning: "When I was your age ..." never ended with: "I'd have given my eye teeth to be left alone to watch Knight Rider, so you go for it, lad!" What I was doing was an insult to children of the past and of fiction: to Coral Island and evacuees and a ha'porth of gobstoppers. I should have been going to Cubs or training for swimming badges. But most worryingly, I was putting my imagination in jeopardy. Because, as surely as carrots help you see in the dark and that you'll regret giving up the piano when you're older, television rots the imagination.

You don't have to imagine Star Trek - the aliens and lasers and spaceships are all on the screen in front of you. There are no gaps for your mind to fill - the art department has already plugged them with chipboard and silver paint. So reading, running around the garden, riding a bicycle or, most terrifyingly, interacting with new people are important activities that strengthen the ideas-generating parts of the brain that otherwise atrophy under the influence of TV.

"Get used to these more gruelling and effort-requiring forms of fun and you'll build the mental equipment for a fuller life," was the argument. A bit like the principle by which we're weaned on to alcohol: "It may not taste as good as Coke now but, you wait - oh, you just wait." Sadly, the latter argument was the only one I had the imagination for.

But among the advantages of becoming an adult are that people stop admonishing you and you're allowed the illusion of vindication about your childish choices. "I spent most of the Eighties watching TV and it never did me any harm," I can safely say, knowing that it's an experiment with no control. There's no other David Mitchell walking around with an imagination whose growth wasn't stunted by assiduously following the plot of Dynasty - unless it's that pesky novelist.

So it came as a shock when Jeremy Paxman stormed into the living room during Doctor Who and started hoovering under my legs and telling me to go outside. I protested that I'd finished my work, but he said it was a lovely day and that he'd give me 2p for every mare's tail I dug up.

I'm speaking metaphorically (a medical miracle, my old English teacher would say, after what all those episodes of The A-Team did to my brain). In a talk at the Hay Festival, Paxman called the public a "bunch of barbarians" because watching TV is our favourite leisure activity. He thinks we should go to art galleries instead.

I don't mind that he's biting the hand that feeds him. A healthy disdain for that hand is an attractive quality, I've always thought - that's probably why I'm more of a cat than a dog person. But has he considered what it signifies that it's he, a television personality - a highly respected journalist, certainly, but hardly a potential Nobel Prize winner - who has the prominence to make this unreconstructed appeal on behalf of the highbrow?

It means that he's what counts as highbrow now, a high-rent newsreader who's done a few books as TV spin-offs, the most recent of which he got another writer to finish for him. The fact that the likes of him are the focus of literary festivals is an index of how completely the cause he's arguing for is lost.

I don't rejoice in that. But as someone who can't spend more than a few minutes in an art gallery without developing a desire for a cup of tea and a sit down as all-consuming as a sudden realisation of diarrhoea, and who often insists on watching episodes of Homes Under the Hammer to their neatly decorated conclusions, it would be hypocritical of me to echo his moans. And I'm a beneficiary of dumbing down, too. Regurgitate half-remembered facts from your A-level syllabus on a panel show, I've found, and you'll get lumped in with the learned.

It's unkind to kick TV at the moment. It may still be our favourite leisure activity, but new competitors are threatening its solvency. Eschewing television for reasons of arty respectability is no longer a choice that can be made with confidence that the medium will nevertheless prosper. Even the most bookish may soon wonder whether they'd be better off with the devil they know.

The barbarians are switching off, but a glance at YouTube confirms that they're not necessarily doing anything less boring instead

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