TV binds us culturally, whether we like it or not

The box populi can tell us a lot about our current state. And I'm on TV's side.

Open Joe Moran’s new book about television, Armchair Nation, and – unless you’re one of those muddle-headed people who disdain TV (I will return to them shortly) – you will find a lot to love. Impeccably researched, it demolishes several myths: Kenneth Tynan was not, it seems, the first person to say “f***” on television; nor was Gilbert Harding the first man to grow tearful. As for the Morecambe and Wise Show 1977 Christmas special that we all remember so fondly, it was beaten in the ratings on the night by Mike Yarwood pretending to be Harold Wilson. Perhaps the most admirable thing about this book is that it treats television with proper seriousness.

Yes, TV is ephemeral – in Moran’s words, it’s “a lost world of spent effort, used-up enjoyment and forgotten boredom”. And yes, it has its share of sillinesses, though Moran, a professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University, thankfully pays Neighbours, Rainbowand One Man and His Dog rather less attention than certain other TV “historians” do (he doesn’t mention Rainbowat all).

Nevertheless, as he recognises, it is still the nearest thing that we have to cultural glue: here is a medium that gives us not only pleasure but solace. You can make all the jokes you like about the hippie who used to present Fingerbobs, but the box in the corner – or the flat screen on the wall – was then and is now our library, our church, our town square, our friend.

I feel strongly about television. I’m on its side. I can’t understand it when people complain about the licence fee, which seems to me to be the greatest bargain on earth, and a sort of queasiness is apt to come over me should someone tell me loftily that they “never watch television”, that they allow their children to gawp within strictly limited hours only, or that they consider it the root of all evil (the clinical psychologist Oliver James regards TV as “the engine room” of a “psychic holocaust”).

I owe television so much. Far from taking me away from books, it brought me to them. Granada Television’s 1981 adaptation of Brideshead Revisited changed my life. It wasn’t only that it led me to read Evelyn Waugh; it triggered a fantasy (which in the end became a reality) that I might one day apply to a grand university – me, the girl whose teachers insisted would be lucky to make it to a poly. (For the record, my husband says the same thing: it was the BBC’s adaptation of the Palliser novels that turned him into a Trollope-reading child.)

Moran’s book notes more than once that television is a balm for the lonely and unhappy. “I am a widow and live by myself,” an elderly woman once said to Peter Ling, the co-creator of the much-mocked soap opera Crossroads. “I have no family and I get very lonely, but every day I watch Crossroads. I live with Meg and all the others.” I have first-hand experience of this, too, because my granny was addicted to what she called, endearingly, her “stories”. Sometimes she and I used to watch them together, tutting loudly over our tea.

When I was a teenager, a war was going on in my house, rows it was best not to hear. So, by way of cotton wool in my ears, I watched television. This was soothing but it also provided a kind of sanity: what people now call “emotional intelligence”. I often think about a BBC series I watched in this period – Late Starter, starring Peter Barkworth as a retired lecturer whose divorce had left him penniless, with the result that he had to begin all over again in a bedsit. It was absorbing and so humane, the world of adult misery unpicked for me, like a knot. All I want, when I begin watching a new series now, is to feel as I did then: lost, transported, my scalp prickling distractedly.

It irks me to see how little some of our current critics seem actually to like television. No one would employ an art writer who loathed painting as a matter of principle, or an architecture correspondent who couldn’t care less about skylines and sprawl. Yet you can almost smell the dislike coming off the columns of certain TV writers; they’re glad to have the gig but they don’t love the medium, or not the way I seem to love it (with a certain old-fashioned solemnity).

Perhaps they worry about the company such a fondness would have them keeping but, if so, they are quite wrong. The thing I love best about Moran’s book is his roll-call of telly-loving intellectuals. Here is George Mackay Brown, the Orcadian poet, thrilled at the return of All Creatures Great and Small; and here is Paul Theroux, delighted to catch sight of the poster for the film of his novel The Mosquito Coast in Rita Fairclough’s newsagents; and here, best of all, is Raymond Williams enjoying Sportsnight With Coleman. Men after my own heart, all three of them.

Children watch television in 1988. Image: Getty

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage