Brave New World 

1 September 2001

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, some archive material was junked solely for the reason that it was in black and white; after all the UK now had colour television, so (the theorising went) why should anyone be interested in old black and white programmes?

Although that viewpoint was rather short-sighted to say the least, it can be said unfortunately that the reasoning employed had more than a grain of truth behind it, especially when relating to the modern scheduling of programmes. Monochrome programmes are often only shown when there is no alternative available, and sadly isn’t only because there haven’t been that many of them preserved either. In fact, black and white programming is now viewed as being old-fashioned and in some cases may actually put people off watching the channel, so should be avoided unless there is no alternative.

The net result is that often the only monochrome programmes shown on the three terrestrial channels with archives dating back before the advent of colour are the likes of Steptoe and Son and the Likely Lads (plus the odd Doctor Who or two, if you’re lucky), which is hardly a representative sample of television prior to 1970.

Even so-called ‘historical’ specialist channels such as UK Gold have more recently become more like ‘UK Last Year’; the end result has been a steady erosion of the amount of older programming available through both conventional terrestrial and digital channels. Hence for people who grew up in later eras than the 1960s there has been a dwindling number of reference points available for finding out what contemporary television of earlier eras was actually like. Therefore it becomes easier for broadcasters – either through laziness or a desire to ‘rewrite history’ – to distort the facts when it comes to television history, and a succession of half-truths can then combine to provide completely misleading information.

So television executives may feel that the ‘Stuart Maconies’ of this world may be providing the public with what it wants when it comes to ‘instant nostalgia’ fixes (and hence ratings success), but the resulting subtle distortion of perceptions end up being unchallenged by alternative sources because most of the alternative sources have vanished, are about to vanish, or are not easily obtainable.

Placing ‘tinted spectacles’ over history is a very easy thing for a broadcaster to do, either deliberately or otherwise. The intent is very rarely malicious in nature, but there are genuine reasons why a broadcaster feels more comfortable in affirming that the present day is much better than the clichéd, dirty/smelly/black and white ‘past’.

For one thing, no broadcaster would openly and freely admit that it generally produced better television programmes in the past compared with today. The BBC may refer to its classic TV heritage because (a) it has to because everybody who watched them remembered them, (b) it can make money from selling videos and DVDs, (c) it reminds viewers that the BBC has made classic programmes, and (d) it now offers a cheap schedule filler.

And as for ITV, whilst it does have a classic TV heritage (split over several contractors) but it doesn’t like reminding its viewers that it made better programmes in the past, and it can get away with Inspector Morse because it was still making them recently. Classic programmes only come round once every so often, but the uncomfortable truth is that there had been relatively little produced that would be regarded as ‘classic’ in the last decade or so.

Apart from individual programmes (which thankfully cannot really be manipulated to distort contemporary reality), when looking at the past it is all too easy to dismiss the general style of television used as being ‘quaint’ or ‘old-fashioned’. This can be ‘confirmed’ by displaying a picture of a dodgy-looking caption (or presenter), but a quick glimpse is like learning a single piece of information about something without understanding the deeper historical context of the piece involved.

Yes, it may look curiously old-fashioned, and by all means laugh at it for that reason alone, but the danger is that for someone who isn’t aware of what television was like during the era involved to automatically assume that everything from that era is similarly blighted in terms of modern irrelevance. Which is often exactly what modern broadcasters would prefer viewers to think, intentional or otherwise.

Mocking the past also brings the opportunity of drawing a line under the style of television that was more commonplace over twenty or so years ago as opposed to today. The general ‘pace’ of television presentation was slower in the past but the basics have remained surprisingly similar over the years despite superficial differences.

Whatever you think of modern presentation methods such as end credit promotions (a trailer runs before the programme finishes) and on-screen captioning, a broadcaster has to justify each ‘innovation’ on its own terms and within the reasoning it has adopted for introducing such an ‘innovation’. The past, by default, had different terms of reference (such as fewer channels and less automation available) so a direct comparison isn’t available.

The original “I Love 1970s/1980s” series was perhaps the best of the ‘Maconie-style’ retro shows since, despite its flaws, it appeared to be well researched with genuine nostalgic and historical insight. It seems a pity that the genre has gone downhill since that point and now often has to rely on clichéd, sarcastic and often ill-informed comments, that frequently betray a complete lack of understanding and empathy for the material being discussed.

It is now thought that such material has to be “packaged” in such a fashion before it can be shown, as programme planners now seem to feel that viewers would be hitting the ‘off’ switch as they have no capacity to concentrate any more.

The complexities of comparing the past and present are frequently overlooked in these instant nostalgia fixes, but by ignoring the wider issues in search of a ‘viewer response’ can lead to a distortion of the historical truth.

“So what?” may be the broadcaster’s response to that previous statement. “After all the programme is only entertainment, not a history lesson”, which in itself may be true enough, but when the history lessons become few and far between, a fix of Stuart Maconie’s scripted “words of wisdom” may become the only historical reference that’s easily available outside of academic circles.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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