It’s funny how small moments from films can stick in your mind. Ever since I saw Five Easy Pieces about thirty years ago, I’ve carried around in my head the scene at the dinner table where Karen Black, playing Jack Nicholson’s girlfriend, defends her love of TV to his snobby patrician family. “There’s some good things on it, though,” she says quietly, after she has been patronised. “The TV. There’s some good things on it sometimes.” I usually assume that nowadays it’s taken for granted that we all agree with her – it’s fine to love the telly, and only idiotic dinosaurs disagree.
But here we are in 2015 and people still use it as an arena for one-upmanship, disguising their snobbery now by taking against particular programmes, or types of programme, instead of the medium in general. I’ve written before about how much trouble I get into when I tweet about The X Factor, and one result has been that I just don’t bother much any more. On a Saturday afternoon my timeline fills up with tweets about the football. I’m no footie fan, but I smile fondly at these tweets – some of which are from my husband – as I enjoy the sight of other people enjoying themselves.
On a Saturday evening, though, woe betide me if I mention what I’m now watching. I get lectured about its awfulness. Blocking sanctimonious bores isn’t as much fun as it sounds, so I’ve mostly stopped telly tweeting, but the other weekend I did have a joyful hour of sharing X Factor comments with Stella Creasy and it was almost like the good old days. Not for long, though. This time it was someone I actually follow who went to the trouble of telling me, and their many, many followers, that I should stop watching it. As they had done – hurrah for them.
It astonishes me that anyone can still be this puritanical. Maybe it’s partly Roald Dahl’s fault. I loved his books as a kid and read them to all mine, but Charlie and the Chocolate Factory does come with a pretty clear message that telly is a lowering, corrupting influence. Mike Teavee is obsessed with it and so gets shrunk and sucked into a television. That sinister box will take over your life, diminish and then consume you.
But come on, that was written in 1964. We’ve moved on a bit since then, haven’t we, broken free of our imprisoning ideas about high and low culture? For proof, just look at Gogglebox, another one of my favourite programmes, where we watch, on our tellies, people watching things on their tellies, while the ghost of Roald Dahl shakes a futile fist at us and he rolls in his grave.
TV has triumphed, and given that it now has to fight off competition from so many newer forms of entertainment, it’s perhaps a miracle that it has survived. Gogglebox – which celebrates the communal, family-based, shared viewing experience – is heart-warming precisely for being ever so slightly nostalgic. What it shows above all is that no one watches passively. We take part, we interpret, we judge, we react. You don’t switch off the second you dislike something. What, you thought it was just you who hurled witty comments from your sofa, happily slagging things off? We all do; that’s the whole point.
The Gogglebox crowd are a particularly warm and lovely bunch (even when they’re being bitchy). On that programme, we see things we hardly ever see in fictionalised drama – families that love each other, parents who think their kids are funny, kids who think their parents are smart, ex-lovers who are still mates. All together, keeping company in front of the glowing box.
And in their reactions, they prove to us that there is no need to love every moment of what you’re viewing in order to love the experience. They shout with laughter at the awfulness, they are moved to tears by the plight of others, they roar their disapproval at the screen, they sigh with pleasure. I love them all, because they understand that essential truth – that there are some good things on the telly sometimes, and even when there aren’t, it’s still fun to watch.
This article appears in the 18 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror