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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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times