2001 – 17 = Now 

1 May 2001 tbs.pm/1833

A revolution has overtaken British broadcasting. But this isn’t one of the many other revolutions already dissected at length on this website, it’s a revolution in the approach taken to the past.

For many of those now controlling British television – who have reached their positions of authority in an era of pretty much uninterrupted hedonism and dominance of popular culture – “the past” is now something to sneer at and impose your own values upon, more than it is something to learn about, understand and appreciate. The understanding of context and the application of correct historical detail are now considered far less important than they were.

This has been an incredibly fast and dramatic process, and one which is down partially to simple demographic change; when those born well after the war, with no memories of the austerity years and only formative memories of even the 60s, reached positions of importance, it was obvious that something would change.

But certainly, 15 years ago, the current assumption that audiences have very narrow attention spans and therefore cannot sit through black-and-white programmes – or even programmes from the early colour era – in their entirety had yet to take hold. In the autumn of 1986, BBC-1 set aside three hours of peaktime Saturday night for a special programme to mark 50 years of BBC television, in which even pre-war TV was recalled without a moment’s recourse to what was already, by then, fashionably referred to as “post-modern irony”. Thankfully, this tendency had yet to seriously enter the BBC’s view of its past.

Over the following week, the TV50 celebrations included a great many repeats of complete programmes, many of them in monochrome, including a 1964 “Crackerjack”, a 1960 “Juke Box Jury”, the last “That Was The Week That Was” from 1963, and a 1965 edition of “Not Only, But Also”. Archive programmes, many already over 20 years old, virtually monopolised BBC2’s schedule that week, and took up almost the whole of peaktime every weekday evening. Earlier in 1986, original black-and-white episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour had been repeated on Sunday evenings on BBC-1, admittedly with new credit sequences replacing the “crude” originals (more recent repeats, in much less prominent slots, have reinstated the original credits).

Within 10 years, the new generation with its short attention spans and memories had taken over and ensured that we would have no comparable celebration of 60 years of BBC television. Complete programmes were conspicuous by their complete absence, and a crudely populist poll revealed that the best sitcom of all time was, improbably, “Men Behaving Badly”.

Another tendency is for TV companies to play up to the cultural cliché of bad, fuzzy pictures in the early days of mass television. Granada created a copy of their 1960 ident for the repeat of the first episode of Coronation Street to mark the programme’s 40th anniversary last December, but deliberately made it look as fuzzy as an old telerecording would now be. In fact, 405-line pictures on a properly-tuned black-and-white set, always providing there was a strong signal, were excellent and without any serious interference or distortion.

Channel 4 once developed a reputation for thoughtful and well-researched archive-based programming, such as the 1,000 Nights of TV theme night, which showed clips from early schools programmes without a moment’s sniggering, and the TV Heaven season of 1992, which to me remains the perfect example of how archivism should be done. But these programmes are from a different universe to recent shows like The 100 Greatest TV Adverts, where the “greatest” advert was from 1999 and virtually none of the adverts were shown in full, and The 100 Greatest TV Moments From Hell (itself an utterly subjective and very questionable title), whose ethos seemed to be “if it’s from before 1990 – let alone before 1980 – laugh and denigrate it mercilessly”.

This must be at least partially down to the cultural difference between Jeremy Isaacs and Michael Grade, who came from a culture and a background which was fairly liberal and progressive but where “old-fashioned” things were nevertheless respected and taken seriously, and the current C4 management, who tend to embrace the post-modern ethos of “nothing should be respected” and often talk up the utter superiority of the modern world over the past, in every single aspect imaginable.

A major cultural sea-change has taken place and, while appreciating the giggles it can give to overgrown students the nation over, I feel that it could potentially seriously damage the coming generation’s understanding of what Britain was once like and, therefore, how it arrived where it is today.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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Liverpool, Monday 15 April 2024