Feast your eyes: In Edinburgh's City Art Centre lurk 100 ancient television sets. Serena Mackesy braves the electrifying world of the the cathode ray

Click to follow
Talking to Michael Bennet- Levy is a bit like chewing the fat with the ghost of George Orwell. His interest in the power of the electronic media borders on the excitable. With the reasoned, infectious zeal of the conspiracy theorist, he feels, as we embrace televisual technology for information, shopping, and the ability to add up, that the man who owns the TV owns the world.

The picture he paints is rather like E M Forster's 'The Machine Stops'. 'In 20 years' time,' he says, 'there will be very few people left who will know how to wind a clock. We will all rely for the first time ever on a single technology in this world. If you can interrupt that technology, society would literally fall apart and people would starve. Once you're all cabled up, if someone wanted to take over a country and inserted a virus into the cable network which cut off people's TVs just like that, there would be no other way of running it. It's a unique phase of the world that we're moving into now, and most of my work has been researching into this.'

While indulging this fascination, Bennet-Levy, a dealer in mechanical antiques, has amassed a collection of 150 television sets, 100 of which are currently on display at the City Art Centre, Edinburgh, under the title TV is King. This exhibition, and his book, Historic Televisions and Video Recorders, are the first in the world to go into such depth on the subject of the evolution of the idiot box. Those who would delve into 20th-century horrors can walk through period rooms bedecked with flock wallpaper and one-time state-of-the- art vehicles of entertainment.

The roots of this collection can be traced back to an accountant's contempt for interior decor. Bennet-Levy used to provide old sets for the offices of a video production company, until their accountant decreed that this was too expensive a way of brightening up their reception. By that time, though, his appetite had been whetted and he felt that 'it would be just ridiculous to stop'. So he had the floors of his attic strengthened, convinced the bank manager of the value of his house, and set to in earnest.

Three years on, his collection is nothing short of awesome. Pre-war TVs, having been absurd luxuries costing almost as much as an Austin Seven, are now rarer than Stradivariuses, and he owns 20 of them. And very handsome some of them are, too: being the playthings of the extremely wealthy, they were as much designed to be pieces of furniture as utilitarian knick- knacks. Among the gems on display are a TV-cum-cocktail cabinet, with auto-changing gramophone and radio, which retailed in 1937 for 130 guineas, and a glorious mini-wardrobe in walnut and mahogany that is thought to have been made to match a client's existing chattels. Most of these early sets have a screen that faces upwards and reflects in a mirrored lid at a 45 degree angle: cathode ray tubes came 3 feet long in those days, and a vertical screen would have meant a telly that took up more space than your average sofa.

But the real star of the exhibition is the E1. The E1 was part of the Nazis' plans for world domination, a square-screen machine that was going to be as widely available to the volks as the Volkswagen. It is so sophisticated that it apparently reduces those who know to drooling, and its screen is green-and-black so that you could tell if people were watching the 'correct' set by looking through their window. In the event, the war got in the way of this fiendish plot, and only 150 were produced: people would queue up outside post offices to get two minutes goggling at this Reichsmiracle. And now there is only one, unearthed in eerie Raiders of the Lost Ark style in a warehouse at the Templehof airport in Berlin. Bennet-Levy, who has even, to the annoyance of his children, donated the family's set (a 1970 Keracolour built to look like the space helmets worn during the moon landings) to the exhibition, is unstintingly proud of this find, which in his eyes equals anything classical civilisation could come up with. 'It's almost certainly rarer than the Pharaoh's gold mask,' he says. 'Well, I know there's more than one of those.'

Television is King: The City Art Centre, Market Street, Edinburgh (031-225 2424) until 7 May

(Photograph omitted)