If history is about facts, then this is history par excellence. There are facts about masts, signals, the national grid, the size of television sets, the cost of television sets, the quality of the picture, the arrival of ITV, the coming of colour, the scheduling of programmes, the historic significance of particular programmes, what people do when they watch programmes, the effect of the video recorder, TV personalities, ratings, focus groups, the development of television criticism, the launch of Sky TV, the change from analogue to digital, the deliberations of various committees. There’s loads more facts, but I am running out of breath. Before I do, I should say that some are funny, like the farmers from the village of Waddington in Lancashire who, taking part in an experiment with satellite TV, asked if the late-night porn could be shown earlier as “they had to go to bed before it started”.
So, a panoramic history of television laced with humour, to which can be added a prose that caresses the cerebral cortex. Joe Moran has something of the storyteller’s art: “It was the end of the late May Bank Holiday in Britain in 1980.” Makes you want to know what happened next, doesn’t it? Well, I’m not telling. And Moran is adept at finding the right phrase. Big Brother, for example, is characterised by a “sense of Beckettian uneventfulness”. Brilliant. But I still want to quarrel with that formulation, since it elevates trash to the level of art. And here’s the rub. As much as I admire this incredible bulk of a book, the repeated lifting of which, incidentally, has given me an impressive pair of biceps, it has a curious weightlessness.
This may seem an odd thing to say about a massive history that is not only stacked with facts about television but also doubles as an encyclopedia for everything associated with it. And so we do not just learn that Goonhilly Satellite Earth Station tracked Telstar, the first communication satellite, but we are also made experts on its geographical location. Such excursuses smack not a little of self-display and Moran occasionally overreaches himself, as when he claims that colour in religious art was “a quality to be celebrated in itself” when in fact it had deeply symbolic meanings. A more charitable view of his manic empiricism is that it is a reaction to the abstract theorising that, until fairly recently, held sway in cultural studies and whose reign Moran’s copious body of work has almost single-handedly brought to an end. Either way, the sheer amount of detail is overwhelming. As happens with the sorcerer’s apprentice, things get out of control.
What is lacking is a principle of organisation, a mechanism akin to the diffusion panel in modern television sets that redirects and scatters the light from liquid crystals to create images on the screen. Moran is wary of anything that smacks of grand narrative, warning against the dangers of collective memory and of myths about television and national unity.
The historian, he says, should be humble in making judgements about the past. Fair enough. But a little bit of analysis would not go amiss. Big Brother is more than Beckett for the masses. It’s also about turning surveillance into entertainment, thereby helping to normalise the experience of being monitored. There is no sense in Armchair Nation of television as ideology, which is not to say that it cannot be challenging or even inspiring. The most important truth about the box - that it erodes the difference between the trivial and the significant, destroying our sense of perspective - goes unremarked. Moran has fallen victim to the history he records.
Armchair Nation: An Intimate History of Britain in Front of the TV
By Joe Moran
Published 5 September 2013