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

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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