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 amazing lawnmower man

How ex-bank manager Clive Gravett became obsessed with Edwin Beard Budding, the inventor of the lawnmower.

It’s midday in the Museum of Gardening. Clive Gravett, the founder, curator and owner of most of the exhibits here, is pondering a relatively unimportant item in his collection: a glass tube, about a foot long. “Blown glass,” says Gravett, leaning in close, “so it’s probably early Victorian.” This, he explains to a curious visitor, is the work of George Stephenson, the “father of railways” and inventor of an early miner’s safety lamp. It’s a device for straightening cucumbers.

Stephenson’s triumphs are listed on a plaque nearby, but this museum, located in a corner of a garden centre in Hassocks, West Sussex, is one of few places on Earth where a luminary of Stephenson’s stature must stand in the shadow of a more exceptional figure. The Museum of Gardening is a shrine to Gravett’s hero Edwin Beard Budding, who in 1830 made one of the great intellectual leaps of the 19th century. He invented the lawnmower.

Budding was one of those bright-eyed tinkerers so common in the 1800s – a “machinist”, according to his epitaph. Legend has it that he was sitting one day at a cloth-cutting apparatus, watching a bladed cylinder travel over wool and cleanly remove the nap. He glanced out of the window to where men were working a lawn with scythes, and had a sudden moment of inspiration. Surely this cutting cylinder could be used just as easily on grass as on cloth?

In that instant, the lawnmower was born. “And it’s barely changed to this day,” explains Gravett, a sinewy man in his early sixties with icy blue eyes that thaw when he gets excited. “Compare it to the fine-turf mowers of today. It’s the same thing. You have a roller, a cutting cylinder, and a drive. That’s his design.”

Gravett was destined to fall for Budding. The son of farm labourers, he wanted to follow his father into horticulture. “I planned to stay on the farm but my mother said, ‘You don’t want to end up like us, living on tithed property.’ She gave me a bit of a push.” Instead, he went into banking and – smart, energetic and blessed with an unforced quirkiness – rose to be branch manager.

“Thirty-five years later I was very disillusioned,” he says. “I’d seen a lot of colleagues waylaid by stress, and I thought: ‘No, you’re not going to do that to me.’ We got our branch to the top of the list and I resigned, and accused [then RBS chief executive] Fred Goodwin of corporate bullying in my resignation letter.”

He then started up a small horticultural business. It was while tending the gardens of a retired solicitor in Ditchling that he discovered four old mowers in the garage. “He said he wanted to dump them,” Gravett remembers. “I took them away, found there was an old lawnmower club, and it went from there.”

Gravett is cagey about how many lawnmowers he owns, but it’s somewhere around a hundred. That’s not many, he suggests, given that antique lawnmowers are hardly pricey. It might seem excessive, though, given that there’s no lawn on his property. Many of his mowers reside at the museum. They are huge and bulky and strangely insectoid in the 19th century, with motors coming in about 1904, and then the weight drops away until the Flymo arrives in the 1960s – a gorgeous piece of domestic futurism, more manta ray than machine. “A lot of collectors are quite funny about Flymos,” he observes.

Gravett loves to talk about the magic of restoring a lawnmower. “Some Ransomes mowers can be difficult to date,” he says, “until you strip the cutting blade back to the metal and see 1907 or 1911, and you’re the first person to see that since it was put together.” His real passion, however, is research. It’s the research that brought him to Budding.

Born in 1796, the illegitimate son of a farmer (“his mother was probably the housemaid”), Budding was a clever child, training in carpentry and then engineering. As well as the lawnmower, he designed an early pepper-box pistol, and in the 1840s, a few years before his death, he invented the screw-adjustable spanner. None of these made him much money: they arrived too early. His lawnmower was so ahead of its time that he had to test it at night – “possibly because of prying eyes”, Gravett says, laughing, “but possibly because people would think he was stupid”.

Today, Gravett remembers Budding though his museum and charity, the Budding Foundation, which supports young people across education, training and sport. He is still looking out for lawnmowers, and urges everybody he meets to check their shed for forgotten treasure.

There is one machine he doesn’t have in his collection: a Budding. “Nobody has a Budding,” he sighs. “He probably made a few thousand, but the wars gobbled up scrap metal. Even so, I like to think one might be found.”

But Gravett managed to get close to his hero a few years ago when he took a trip to Dursley in Gloucestershire, where Budding is buried. “Nobody had written about his grave, so I decided to find it. I researched the churchyard, and the council provided me with a map to the plots.” The border fence had been moved twenty years earlier after six graves were taken away. When he found Budding’s plot, it was right up against the new fence. “We’re lucky we didn’t lose him.”

The grave, like Budding’s legacy, showed signs of neglect. It was overgrown and covered with brambles. Gravett lights up at the memory. “I cleared all the brambles off, and then, since I happened to have a 100-year-old lawnmower in the back of the truck, I hefted it over the fence.

“I mowed as close as I could to his resting place.” 

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain