Nick Thomas Media Matter
Television viewers who already have the digital technology into which we are all destined to be bullied eventually will no doubt be glued to BBC Four over the next month, anxious not to miss a single riveting second of The Lost Decade, being a season of programmes devoted to Britain between 1945 and 1955.
In what sense these 10 years can truly be considered “lost” in the first place is open to debate, apart from an entirely understandable disinclination on the part of the public to revisit them. My own parents spoke of the period as one almost entirely devoid of merit, even though it embraced their own marriage and the Coronation; otherwise only the odd bit of radio comedy enlivened the encircling gloom. The television now, of course, seems unwatchably dated and primitive; but at the time, so I’m told, it reflected the state of the nation perfectly – monochrome, unreliable, rationed, and much more dominated by stilted manners and cut-glass accents than pre-war Britain had been. It all sounds pretty grim.
So The Lost Decade, while clearly of great historical interest, and exactly the kind of thing BBC Four should be doing (ie the kind of thing BBC Two used to do), is likely to be depressing viewing, no matter how well put together. But meanwhile there is another celebration going on, for the end of the period being scrutinised by one broadcaster saw the birth of its rival, ITV, in 1955. There is a difference of approach. If the BBC Four season achieves anything beyond the merely educational, it will be to remind us of how frightful the old days were, and how grateful we should be for all the modern amenities, not least in broadcasting, that we have at our disposal. ITV’s sentimental trawl through its first 50 years, however, can only have the opposite effect, and make us weep at all the great stuff the commercial companies used to make instead of the formulaic pap now on offer.
A great deal of time, effort and column inches have gone into pinning down exactly when the rot set in; but it is certainly true that in the beginning, and for many years later, BBC and ITV strove to maintain their audiences by putting out better programmes than their competitor, whether in drama (which meant something distinct from soap opera), light entertainment or hard, prime-time documentary. Now, and for some years past, they have striven to maintain their audiences by putting out easier, lazier programmes than their competitor, whether in drama (which consists almost entirely of soap opera under different names), or light entertainment. There isn’t any hard, prime-time documentary on the main channels any more.
And so, in an ironic twist far too good for a Prime Suspect script, our broadcasting conglomerates have conspired to assist the Government in putting the arm on the public, and doing away with analogue television; because these days, if you want something decent to watch, you simply have to be hooked up, to catch great new stuff which is being tried out on a minority channel and might never make it to the mainstream, to watch serious documentary like that currently available on BBC Four, or to wallow in endless reruns of old favourites and live entirely in the past. This last certainly has its appeal, not just for nostalgia value but simply to revive the critical faculties so dulled by modern moronovision. You don’t want to go too far back, though: 1960 is about the limit.