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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.

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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