Profile Books, £16.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Book review: Armchair Nation, By Joe Moran

Our TV times, from Kingsley Amis's heaven to Orwell's hell

At what point in the A to Z of television history can its golden age be mapped? And after this rise, its fall? When did television transform from the most modern of family hearths which promised to democratise Britain's drawing rooms to that buzzing noise in the corner which summed up the tragedy of atomised 21st century society?

These two questions sit at the heart of Joe Moran's formidable historical analysis of the gogglebox, though the conundrum of its golden age turns out to be a misnomer because there never was any such era. Ever since the first transmitter at Alexandra Palace cast its shadow over North London, television has inspired as much dissension as unity.

Moran takes us through the chronology, mast by mast, to the arrival of colour, the birth of ITV, the concept of 'prime-time' Telstar, 24-hour coverage, satellite dishes, Mary Whitehouse and the end of analogue. Key moments never lose track of the importance of regional TV, from the first mast in the Hebrides to the impact of TV in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

In the beginning, Britons watched television as if they were at the cinema: on communal sets and in large crowds or at 'TV tea parties' that buzzed with collective excitement. Event TV might have been born in 1932, when the Epsom Derby was televised and thousands gathered at the Metropole Cinema near Victoria station.

It was the coverage of King George VI's funeral procession though that alerted the public to the miracle of television to make real and momentous events instantly accessible. It attracted an audience of 4.5 million and one critic was so struck by the intimate relationship between Royalty on screen and the ordinary viewing punter - the sight of the veiled queen and the quiver of the lilies on the coffin - that he wrote of it as a "magnificent trespass".

Moran is particularly adept at revealing the paradoxes of a medium that can facilitate communal activity while also facilitating urban anomie (the TV dinner for one). The are examples of both in this book, but the latter comprise some of its most poignant passages. A lonely retired widow writes: "At a flick of the switch one's room can be peopled." Again and again, we encounter the tension between the shared cultural experience that TV offers, and the separation it sometimes confirms.

Moran's achievement is remarkable given the breadth of subject matter: He uses archive material to quote ordinary people as well as eminent critics. Extensive research is lightly worn and accompanied by interesting, if repeating, ideological debates over the impact of TV on our souls. Dennis Potter wavered between seeing it as a democratising force and the dull "throb of commerce". The cultural theorist, Jean Baudrillard, watching TV in an American motel, fancifully decided "Television knows no night. It is perpetual day." The biggest – and unfailingly amusing – moral panics through the decades are also covered, from the moment the F-word is first uttered to Big Brother which hailed a new form of TV voyeurism.

Moran's study has its own brand of voyeurism which delights in recounting the guilty pleasures of highbrow thinkers: the poet Stephen Spender was a devotee of Neighbours while Kingsley Amis loved Benny Hill and The Bill. The best though, are the comparisons: John Betjeman likened Corrie to The Pickwick Papers while academic, Peter Conrad, thought the story of a cat's cancer in Animal Hospital Week reminiscent of King Lear.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there