Does TV destroy our heroes? 

3 April 2017

Many people accuse television of blowing up people and events out of all proportion to their real size and significance. But it can also deflate the windbag, puncture the pompous, and show up the big-mouth for the little mouse he really is…


TVTimes cover

From the TVTimes for week commencing 15 May 1971

Graham Greene refuses to appear on television. Is he the wisest of them all?

It seems as if our writers, politicians and public figures seize every opportunity of disporting themselves in front of the cameras and lights.

Do they ever consider the wisdom of Mr. Greene’s policy; and wonder whether they might benefit by adopting it? Because there is a danger that, in cutting people down to their true size, television makes them all too human, and robs them of their magic.

I grew up in the pre-television age when one cherished a totally different mental picture of the great ones in our midst. Is television, therefore, destroying the myths, the legends and the idols that used to be nourished and sustained by their own invisibility?

Take the world of successful writers and famous journalists. And look back over the years.

Were the literary giants of the Twenties and Thirties really such supermen?

I remember when the mighty names of Shaw, Wells, Conrad, Bennett, Lawrence, Kipling and Galsworthy filled us with a sense of humility. We stood in awe of these eminent writers.

George Bernard Shaw

We invested everything they wrote or said with a God-like authority presumably because, like God, they were invisible, and no one had any idea of how they looked or behaved or spoke.

We never met or saw them, and their very remoteness gave them a special kind of quality and dignity. We probably formed some idea of their appearance from the occasional portrait in a newspaper or on a book jacket: Wells, with his jovial, rotund face and twinkling eye; Bennett, austere and unsmiling, and Galsworthy, aristocrat of the contemporary literary scene.

Giants indeed. But these deceptive pictures never moved or spoke to reveal the essential humanity of the real people behind them.

Could it be that today’s authors are not of the same calibre and intellectual stature? After all, publishing, once “the business of gentlemen”, has now entered the commercial field and gone headlong into mass production. Or might it not be that, deprived of his previous invisibility, the author of today is reduced by the harsh focus of the television screen to a frail, all-too-human, semi-articulate windbag, a poor gibbering manikin who has taken over so disappointingly from the fluent, commanding personality of our own imagining?



In this classic TV clash with John F. Kennedy in 1960, Richard Nixon came off worst. Eight years later his TV campaign helped him to the White House



Even the disembodied voice of pre-war radio was a sort of latter-day Delphic oracle. I remember how H. G. Wells, with a shrewd understanding of his own public relations, avoided the microphone whenever possible, fearing that his squeaky voice and cockney accent would damage his public image. And his good sense is confirmed today by the pathetic, self-damaging antics of so many famous writers whose best friends should tell them to stay far away from the television studio.

The trouble, when an author hesitates, stammers and loses himself in his own verbiage, is that his admirers expect him to be as faultlessly articulate as his work on the printed page, yet he may be the sort of writer who is capable of ticking only on his typewriter.

Television destroys his readers’ illusions. It turns the giant into a pygmy. Perhaps this is a good thing. Perhaps it is healthier and more realistic to shed our illusions.

HG Wells

Consider how, in the long institution of the monarchy, the Queen has for the first time assumed the mantle of ordinary human personality. But how does the iconoclastic influence of television affect the political scene? Does it tend to bring politics into contempt and thereby threaten democracy with the canker of cynicism?

This sad possibility is greatly emphasised by the rather imbecile clowning and cavorting by members of all three parties. Their jovial contacts with the public, their elephantine bonhomie are so patently forced and insincere.

We used to be slightly nauseated on reading of candidates kissing babies. Now that we see, if not quite this, then its modern equivalent, the sensation is worse.

Goaded by the television interviewer today, however, our leading politicians have become knockabout comedians; the screen has reduced our leaders and would-be leaders to their puny, fallible human dimensions

This could, of course, be bad for democracy. But it could equally be good, depending on how the public responds to the change.

Bad in the sense that it may encourage contempt, cynicism and disillusionment with the whole political apparatus and those who run it.

Good in the sense that, having voted a man into power, the public was formerly inclined to endow him with a superhuman wisdom, washing its hands of all further political responsibility till the next election.

Now that television has shown us how weak, tentative and uncertain our leaders can be, this should make us less disposed to transfer responsibility to them and more inclined to participate in the political arena ourselves.

Whether it does is another matter.


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