Posted tagged ‘television’

Television and nation building

October 18, 2011

Travelling between Ireland and Scotland recently. I was struck by one aspect of Irish life that may not, or at least not yet, be part of the Scottish experience in the same way: there is a shared conversation that accompanies Irish national life and that reaches into the community; and its fuel is television. Apart from the ongoing soul searching about the recession, national insolvency and the attempted economic comeback, the national conversation involves analysis of the current presidential campaign. This is not because the campaign has caught the public imagination; if anything, the conversation is often about how the candidates fall short. But the campaign is being fought over the airwaves, and the various live debates have been a major talking point. It helps that one or two candidates seem to be self-destructing in public, but generally the coming election is a shared experience of the national community, made possible because it is being broadcast to the country as it unfolds.

In fact, the shared experience of television is part of Ireland’s recent history. Almost everyone has some reference point, whether that is the iconic Late Late Show, or the political magazine programmes over the years such as Today Tonight and Prime Time, special series such as that on Charles Haughey, or just the Nine O’Clock news. Even as hundreds of channels became available through cable or satellite, the main national channels (and RTÉ in particular) stayed there as the focus of national conversation. This shaped the country’s identity: who can deny that Gay Byrne’s Late Late made modern Ireland what it is much more than any politician’s manifesto?

Over here in what is now my home in Scotland there is also something of a national conversation, but it is not securely anchored in the same way. Interestingly the key topic of that conversation is nation building, in the setting of the anticipated referendum on independence. But even as this topic is developed, it lacks the compelling support of national broadcasting, lacking in part because the broadcast media are part of a wider United Kingdom heritage. The BBC has a good bit of Scotland-specific programming, but is interspersed between the dominant shared British output. The same is true of STV, which is still on the whole the Scottish arm of the UK’s ITV. The iconic programmes are mostly British. Of course the national debate about Scotland’s future gets along fine anyway, but I do miss the immediate and compelling nature of the  national conversation I am used to in Ireland. I suspect that Scotland needs this also to secure its identity. Perhaps the time has come to consider a genuinely Scottish television station, to share the airwaves with the undoubtedly excellent BBC and other broadcasters.

Bad soap

January 13, 2010

I shall have to make a full and frank confession: I can sometimes be found watching some really appalling TV soap. Actually, that’s not really true, as I watch very little TV these days: I am a devoted follower of the TV-medic-soap House, but apart from that I just have too little time to watch television series with any regularity. But there was a time when I watched almost everything on offer.

Here’s how it all began. In 1976, when I was a student in TCD, I moved into a rented flat in Clonskeagh (oh heavens, another southside address, what an embarrassment) which had a television in it. Black and white of course, and nothing as fancy as a remote control or the like – come on, this was last century. But it was connected to what we now call cable TV – back then it was called ‘piped TV’. I think the provider was ‘RTE Relays‘. And so for the first time ever I had access to British channels other than BBC1 (which I had always had, albeit with a very fuzzy reception, at home in Westmeath). And on my first night in this new residence, I switched the thing on and got Crossroads on UTV.

I swear this was the worst TV series ever. The production values were just amazing: walls waved like paper as people passed, actors forgot their lines and stumbled along anyway, the storyline was pathetic beyond belief. I loved it. For about three years I was even known to avoid going to parties and other events if they clashed with Crossroads. And not just Crossroads: there was Emmerdale Farm (as it was then called), with such amazingly improbable people and weird narratives.

Of course I also had to watch Dallas. I was a total addict. I would have watched it just to see JR’s hats and Sue Ellen’s hairdo. I cannot remember the storyline at all – except that one whole series turned out in the end to have been just a dream of one of the key protagonists. But I do remember the concept: an extended family, complete with the farmhand who turned out to be an illegitimate son of the paterfamilias, a mad daughter-in law and a devious, scheming oldest son, all living under the same roof and having dinner together every evening. The whole thing was totally insane, and quite unmissable.

I think what attracted me to all this stuff was the total improbability of it all, the bad writing, the ham acting. Later when series arrived like Eastenders and Brookside I could not get into them, they were taking themselves too seriously. I still keep hoping that some of the old series will make a really bad return: not polished up to suit more demanding audiences, but just as they were back then.

If you are not familiar with some of these, go find some youtube clips. It’s well worth the effort.

I should refer finally to two other series. One was RTE’s Irish rural soap, The Riordans. I was addicted to this also, but would have to admit that it was very much a cut above the others I have mentioned, with some really interesting themes, and serious stage actors in the key roles. It wasn’t a bad soap, but it’s the only one of that kind I will admit to having watched. The other was the glorious comedy Soap, which recognised soap operas for what they need to be: absolute trash.

Television drama

July 2, 2009

One of the major cultural influences of the 1970s – well, at least one of the major cultural influences on me – was the BBC’s series Play for Today. These were one-off TV dramas, written by people who were, or who became, household names in serious creative writing for the screen; they included cultural giants such as Dennis Potter, Mike Leigh and Alan Bennett. The series tackled political, social and moral issues, as well as providing hugely memorable stories. Beyond that, the series demonstrated the capacity of television to be a genuine cultural force, rather than just a medium of light entertainment. It is arguable that, in its early years in the 1980s, Channel 4 picked up the baton (only to drop it with a clang later).

I was reminded of the sheer power of Play for Today when, recently, I came across an audio tape recording I made of one of the episodes in 1976; and although this may sound daft, even without the video the sound recording still transmitted the sheer intelligence of the play.

Television of course can and should serve a number of different purposes, and this certainly includes entertainment, and even entertainment pretending to be culture (as in the case of costume dramas and so forth). But one of these purposes should be to push the boat out through the genre of drama, to ask awkward questions and, occasionally, to refuse to answer them so that viewers are forced to engage their own minds. I wonder, however, whether television still does that in any consistent way. There are drama series which, at one level at least, manage to be innovative and occasionally provocative, including the really wonderful West Wing series that aired for much of this decade. I even find that the medical drama series House – practically the only TV show that I am watching consistently at the moment – has the capacity to stir up at times. But unless I am not properly reading the TV guides and the reviewers, there really is no contemporary equivalent of Play for Today. And indeed what there is in serious television (though the same is true, I would have to say, for trivial TV) tends to come from the US rather than from the UK.

The BBC was the great cultural influence of my youth. It is really time that it returned more deliberately to its original mission.