Armchair Nation by Joe Moran

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Reviewed by Annabel.

I’m a big fan of television having been an enthusiastic watcher for all of my life, from The Woodentops to Blue Peter as a young child, The Partridge Family and Top of the Pops a few years later followed through the decades by Monty Python, Blake’s Seven, Friends, Eastenders (which I still watch), Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth, and into more recent times with the heady mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous that represents viewing choice these days, with Dr Who in the background all the way of course.

My earliest TV memories are in black and white, until the day we got our first colour telly from the TV rental shop and my dad spent ages on the roof nudging the aerial to get a better signal from the big Crystal Palace transmitter. I can remember how orange the wrestler Mick McManus was on Saturday afternoons – we loved the wrestling, as did Joe Moran:

The wrestling was an extreme example of what was true of most television when I was growing up: it demanded total immersion in its symbolic universe, for looking at it with an outsider’s eye would break the spell and render it meaningless and ridiculous. Television performed a mostly benign confidence trick, convincing us that we believed the same things and were part of the same armchair nation.

Reading Joe Moran’s history of British television was thus a huge nostalgia trip but also a fascinating history lesson for the TV era began way before then – and Mr Selfridge himself was one of the first people to see that John Logie Baird’s ‘Televisors’ were going to be important – he opened the first TV department in his department store, and the BBC had a transmitter on the Selfridges roof.

The early story of TV is one of geographical limitations, tiny screens and a slowly growing audience before the Queen’s coronation in 1953 which was watched by over 20 million people on just 2.7 million TV sets. It took the arrival of the young upstart ITV in 1955 to really shake things up a bit. ITV with its advertisers had a strict schedule which forced the BBC to up its game too, not over-running or bunging on an ‘interlude’ to let viewers make a cup of tea at the end of a programme.

Life was beginning to change as a result of television, and one hobby positively flourished – knitting! Fair Isle patterns weren’t favoured though, too complicated to watch and knit.  Moran’s cultural history is chock full of this kind of fact, many coming from mass observation amongst the usual sources of newspaper and television archives. The extensive notes section at the back of the book has all the references.

We move on into an era that is more familiar to us – that of Mary Whitehouse, the first instances of swearing, Crossroads and the much beloved Morecambe and Wise Christmas Specials. It was also the time of Play for Today which gobbled up single dramas weekly, many by Dennis Potter:

Those who took television seriously as an art form fretted often about its impermanence. Dennis Potter still felt a sense of paralysing anti-climax as the end credits rolled on each of his television plays, even though he knew more people had watched them than would have seen Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap in its entire West End run. ‘The pictures flow on easy as tapwater,’ he wrote. ‘A play which has taken months to write… all used up, all at once, all gone.’

The last section of Moran’s book looks at where we are now in the world of politics and reality TV. You won’t be surprised to hear that Thatcher barely watched it, although she claimed to be a fan of Yes Minister.  Blair, Cameron and their colleagues are a different breed though using the gogglebox to gauge popular support through viewing statistics for ‘democratic’ shows such as The X Factor. Moran can only pour scorn on this though:

In fact, The X Factor was a grotesque caricature of democracy. It flattered viewers by reminding them constantly that the result was in their hands, while simultaneously getting them to pay to provide free product testing on new artists. It claimed to be empowering but was actually infantilising. … Before viewers cast their votes, the show worked brazenly on their emotions through the sentimentality of the contestants’ backstories, the casual pseudo-malice of the judges, and the bay audience at the Circus Maximus of the auditions, belittling the deluded souls who wrongly presumed themselves to have the X factor.

This impeccably researched book was a pleasure to read, telling the story of how television has changed our society with wit and a good sense of the wonder that the best television can bring Moran is a fan too – indeed it wouldn’t have been such fun if he wasn’t.

Moran is emerging as one of our best popular historians, his previous book On Roads looked at, well, roads and one of our reviewing team (Karen Langley loved that one). From roads to television – it’ll be interesting to see what he chooses to tackle next. 

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Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books editors and admits to watching Britain’s Got Talent – but never pays to vote!

Joe Moran, Armchair Nation: An Intimate History of Britain in Front of the TV (Profile Books, London, 2013) Paperback Nov 2014, 320 pages.  NB: The paperback has rather small print, get the hardback if you can!

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