Once upon a time, back in the days of that forgotten classic, the forceful and honourable 1962 Pilkington Report on Broadcasting, its principal authors (Richard Hoggart and Dennis Lawrence, a civil servant) could say “Broadcasting must be in constant and sensitive relation with the moral condition of society”, and then, ringingly and in the words of R. H. Tawney, “triviality is more dangerous to the soul than wickedness”.
In the galloping aftermath of 1992, when television began so monstrously to multiply its channels down to the awful levels of Babestation, where glum young women sexlessly fondle themselves while waggling their mobile phones, it is easy at times of lowered spirits to think that triviality is now triumphant. But of course it isn’t so and nobody can really claim that it is. We can all see plainly that there are any number of regular programmes not simply bright with special interest but glowing with a zest for life, for the plain and decent exposition of difficult and important subjects, vividly alive with lovely and imaginative camerawork, earnestly concerned with lightly pedagogic zeal to teach a willing audience about the news, the views, the joys and threats of an inexhaustibly varied planet.
What has unmistakably happened as the texture of social life becomes much looser and less gregarious, as more and more off-duty time is spent at home and less sustained by troops of friends and neighbours, is that television becomes more depended upon as filling the empty spaces of our social beings with a different thickening. If this is indeed so, there is plenty to rejoice at on behalf of good old life, whether in its sunlit or darker aspects. There is enormous choice and, however we recoil from some of the more sanctimonious uses of that blasted, pious word, it is pretty easy to prefer the present colossal scope to the old days of just two or three channels punctuated by those delicious, ridiculous intervals showing a potter making and unmaking a vase. It isn’t as if the said choice is restricted to the big producers; alongside their expensive and majestic contributions we find all that is so well done by the Discovery, History, National Geographic channels, and – if you can face paying the piper in question – Sky Arts, which only recently showed The Pirates of Penzance at 8.15am and Johnny Cash at 5.30pm.
So what do we find if we focus on a particular area of academic enquiry and consider what television has had to offer, even over a recent period of less than a month? Let us consider, for example, the broad area of natural history, taking in both animals and humankind as formalised in the narratives of anthropology.
If we start with animal ethnography, we are sure to discover, somewhere in what is on offer from the likeliest, best such wavelengths (BBC Two, Channel 4 and BBC Four, all now under threat from the philistine storm troopers of our present government), the regular reappearances of the Greatest Living Englishman, Sir David Attenborough.
Attenborough teaches us with such good humour and grace the essential discipline of observer-participation in animal behaviour. I think it is possible to say that he has inaugurated a living tradition of such enquiry, himself being, no doubt, its most complete incarnation in the hundreds of hours of such programmes that he has made these past 40 years. His influence is clearly apparent, for instance, in such an endearing and chatty recent programme as The Secret Life of Elephants (BBC One).
In this, the serious heart of the study takes the form of a domestic narrative leading the anxious viewer to follow the precarious life of a newborn elephant until one is reassured by the infant’s emergence into an at least preliminary kind of independence in the wake of its decidedly casual mother. The balance between natural-historical observation and homely mother-and-baby anecdote is delicately held. By contrast, and very late one night, arachnophobes were rendered stiff with terror when the Discovery Channel took unsuspecting watchers to Taranto in southern Italy and found there the home of the dance and the spider, both in fearful close-up.
If we turn to what one might think of as canonical anthropology, which is to say observer-participation in the everyday life of (to us) geographically remote peoples, even a single evening a little while ago offered us two striking programmes. The first was The Tribe, a Channel 4 series in which fixed-rig cameras record the daily life of a Hamar family in Ethiopia, including that classic rite of anthropological literature, the passage of adolescent male to manhood by accomplishing (in this case) the not very difficult task of leaping on to the backs of four cows yoked together side by side, and stepping lightly across each. Meanwhile, the family sorts out a row over the admirably candid self-defence of a young widow truculently insulted by her brother-in-law.
On the very same night, a second anthropological essay (Living with Nomads, BBC Two) is given context, according to a more gently familiar TV convention, by the British presenter Kate Humble. Our heroine lives as a very active observer-participant with nomads on the barren, increasingly waterless prairie of Mongolia as they shear the cashmere wool from their goats, make their beautiful embroidery and a decent enough living while moving seasonally across the empty land. Humble reports cheerfully and sensitively to camera from her three destinations, Mongolia, Nepal and Siberia; her hosts show her exquisite courtesy (although admittedly she has to barricade a bunch of drunks out of her freezing hut all night in Siberia); and the vast landscape is framed briefly and most beautifully, by perfect camerawork.
These few programmes under their more or less disciplinary headings are one token of the best television can do at the present time. There are more than sufficient others of as great and affirmative quality, including many from other disciplines – to think of them in that academic way – such as history, archaeology, physics, cosmology and art. All these before one turns to regular fare of a narrative and fictional kind, or delights in the direct and simple thrills of horse racing, gymnastics, cricket, let alone either kind of football. It wouldn’t be hard to persuade oneself that this is, in Britain, a golden age of television making and watching.
When T. S. Eliot testified to Pilkington more than 50 years ago, he said pungently, “those who say they give the public what it wants begin by underestimating public taste; they end by debauching it”. That danger is always acute, as witness the daily condition of our yellow press; but the dark forces have been held valiantly at bay for several decades both by programme makers and by public taste and judgement.