Monday, April 22, 2013

Living In A Box: TV and culture

Top of the Pops, Thunderbirds, The Prisoner, Monty Python's Flying Circus, Grange Hill, The Young Ones, Neighbours, The Simpsons, Men Behaving Badly, Teletubbies, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, Big Brother, The Office. I think that's all. Over time they have all been referred to, either directly or indirectly, in articles I have written. They are also all on a list of the most influential TV programmes of the past 50 years. According to "The Telegraph", that is.

I make no apologies for invoking the British popular culture of television. I may write mostly about Mallorca and Spain, but what would be the point of drawing on Spanish TV in order to try and create a point of reference or a touchstone? No one, or very few people, would get it. By contrast, and even if it is done obliquely, a collective Britannic cultural experience recognises Kylie as a default title for a young(ish) British female tourist. Time was when baby girls in Britain were mostly all christened Kylie. And if not, then they were Charlene, and Charlene was, after all, Kylie by another name. My Kylies are to be found wheeling their Rihanna progeny in buggies along Alcúdia's Mile.

Even if I wander into less obviously Spanish-Mallorcan territory or totally non-Spanish-Mallorcan territory, as I once long ago did when considering modes of speech, there is still this reservoir of culture to feed off and allude to. I was deeply impressed by Rory McGrath having coined the term the "moronic interrogative". What did it refer to? Neighbours. It was Neighbours that changed the way the British speak. 

It is perhaps for this reason that "The Telegraph" has included Neighbours on its list. Or perhaps it is because the series became such an indispensable and ingrained part of British culture. This is the point of cultural references. The use of Kylie shouldn't require an explanation as to its pre-Stock, Aitken and Waterman origin. Nor should the source of Eric Idle's Torremolinos sketch or the Inquisitional "Biggles, put her in the comfy chair" need to be spelt out. Nor should a demand such as "we want information" and a reply of "you won't get it" have to be located. These are references that reside in the enormous repository of a nation's cultural memory, one that has been programmed by the telly programme.

Doubtless one could find an alternative programme for each of the 50 years, but as a history of cultural development, it has much to commend it. There will be those who look at some of the programmes and think that it is an exercise in trivialisation or dumbing down. Maybe so, but then popular culture often is trivial; just think of X Factor (which doesn't make the list) or Pop Idol (which does).

If I had to choose two programmes that aren't among the fifty, then they might be the BBC's Holiday and ITV's Tiswas. Holiday opened up foreign travel in a way that no other part of the media had previously. Was it culturally important? I would say that it most definitely was. Grange Hill, the selection for 1978, in a sense ties in with Tiswas, which took off nationally around the same time. Grange Hill was a first in that it took children seriously and tackled serious subjects that affected children. Tiswas was most definitely not serious, but it represented a marked change in adult-child interaction. It was really a cult show for lads and ladettes (the first of its kind therefore), masquerading as a kids' programme, but kids loved its barriers-down irreverence as much as adults did. No show for children would previously have dared to have Chris Tarrant more than slightly hinting at the size of his hangover and lifting kids up by their ears, to have John Gorman (or was it Lenny Henry?) chastising a boy scout for being a "swot" or to have Sally James firmly putting her foot in it by asking Kevin Rowland the meaning of the name Dexys Midnight Runners.

More than anything, these programmes travel with you. However long you might have been away from the homeland of the culture, they are revered symbols of an abstract cultural iconography that is always there, one to be delved into in order to make sense of a pair of lads in Mallorca out on the razz and the pull (Gary and Tony), a total div who you are unfortunate enough to run into (David Brent), or that ageing hippy who raves about lentils in local Mallorcan cuisine (Neil).

And if you don't immediately know to which programmes these characters refer, well, what do you call culture then?


A classic Tiswas moment (the boy who needed to go to the toilet): 

Any comments to please.

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