I’m going to say it again, then I’m going to drop it: I love watching TV. I have sat for hours on end, simply watching the news; I have found myself engrossed in silent documentaries where time-served craftsmen have created knives, beds and glassware, with no fanfare. In fact, with no music. TV is my happy place, as much as that upsets an awful lot of people. I love to be immersed in a good image.
To that end, this time around I would like to take you on a tour of some of the TV programmes I have loved and lost over the years. Some TV casts a long shadow, and longs to be revived. If I had written this post a year ago, it would have been The Crystal Maze. Thankfully the will of the people has won.
Top of my list for Revival is “The Avengers”. Not the Marvel version: although that may confuse new viewers. The Avengers started in 1961 as a crime procedural; it came to an end just over nine years later, much changed. What started as two men, investigating mundane crimes, became something far more interesting when one of the men left the series. His lines were given to a woman, with no alterations. Ian Hendry’s name means very little to most; Honor Blackman’s substantially more. The lines carried a hardness, which the character retained. Women on TV now had a new archetype.
The Peel years, with Diana Rigg joining as Emma Peel, brought TV to life. Starting in black and white, and moving to colour in an attempt to crack the American market, Emma Peel was less hard than Blackman’s Cathy Gale, but every bit the equal – and more – to Patrick Macnee’s John Steed. She possessed a fierce intellect, an ability to fight, superior to that of Steed, and a magnificent sports car. Mostly we remember the car. The stories became sillier, and the tone lighter, as the main duo faced a foe of the week who would not look out of place in a James Bond film. It is the outlandish, trippy, even parodic episodes which seem most burned on to the cultural psyche, along with Peel’s catsuits.
Moving on. I am metal to the core: my musical tastes err far more towards the extremes of modern music: Death Metal, Black Metal, Alternative Metal. However, it is hard to describe how much I miss good music programmes on TV. Especially Top of the Pops. TOTP was essential viewing when I was young, and when a rock/metal band came on, it was like seeing your gods made flesh. The Offspring, The Wildhearts, Three Colours Red: I just couldn’t believe my luck. Stay by Shakespeare’s sister left a deep and profound mark on me too, presaging my love of Goth music and female fronted metal.
I’ve never seen the need for it to have gone. I’ve never seen the need for most music programmes to have gone. I’ve never seen the need for music channels to reduce broadcasting music videos to such an extent. Yes, we can all go to YouTube to find music; but, beyond algorithmic recommendations, where do we find new things to fall in love with? Where is the element of chance? TOTP introduced me to a mix of music I would never have seen otherwise: Rap, dance, pop. Life is poorer without it.
Another thing, which makes life poorer by its absence, is knowledge. Easy access to knowledge is a golden bullet for success in life. Which makes it strange that an easily accessible programme about science and its development should have been taken from our screens after 38 years. Tomorrow’s World may stick in the collective memory as a source of ridicule (Sinclair C5; testing inventions on the presenters; the eagerness with which the presenters asserted that we would see these things in our future), but it kept a real understanding of science and technology alive and fed in the collective understanding. Today we are demonstrably more tech savvy, but we understand less: you know the screen resolution of your phone, but do you understand what that means? Tomorrow’s World did.
It’s not that I hark back to some halcyon days, some sunlit upland; it’s just that I don’t understand why perfectly good things have gone. Doctor Who, reinvigorated by being made by its fans, came back fresh and essential. Many of the programmes in this post would benefit from such a treatment.
Likewise, The Late Review, Newsnight Review, or The Review Show. Change its name, shift it about, move its filming location, but please don’t cancel it. But then they did. I watched the programme avidly, the pseud that I am, although I cannot claim to understand all that I saw. Save the presence of Michael Gove, the reviewers were a wonderful bunch of experts, much missed from my televisual life. The arts scene in the UK is so deep, so ancient and so influential, that it needs to be studied by all of us. It is so under such threat, that we risk killing it by our inattention: If we can see what we have, we may learn to treasure it; if people outside of the London bubble know that opera, ballet and art shows exist, we may demand our fair share; if the nation is aware of its own culture, we can protect it from government knives, ever-poised to slit its resplendent throat. Review shines a light. Review creates a space for art. Review gives us the ability to talk about culture with seriousness.
One last thing before I go: there is a world of Nordic TV which we have never been exposed to. Late at night, probably 6 or so years ago, BBC4 broadcast a series called Næturvaktin, The Night Shift. Semi improvisational, it was a sitcom set in a petrol station in Reykjavík. The series went unnoticed, at least in the UK, and no more was seen. In Iceland, two more series were made: Dagvaktin, The Day Shift and Fangavaktin, The Prison Shift. They made a feature film, Bjarnfreðarson, about the life of the main character Georg Bjarnfreðarson. The film brought the story to a satisfactory ending, so why mention it here? The reason is the series which followed: Heimsendir, The World’s End.
I picked up Heimsendir in a DVD shop in Iceland in 2011. Only one series was ever made, and it made a lasting impression. Set in a mental hospital, and centred on the life of a man, frustrated by his lot; the story follows him as he overthrows the hospital administration, aided by his fellow inmates. The performance, as Margeir, of Jörundur Ragnarsson is particularly spellbinding, and in absolute contrast with his performance as the spineless Daniel in Næturvaktin. As silly as Python; as complex as Twin Peaks, the series shows a surreal, ritualistic world, familiar and unfamiliar in equal measure.