Film Studies: This is your life, Ralph - are you proud?

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The Independent Culture

On 16 November, aged 92, Ralph Edwards died in West Hollywood. There is no obvious reason why anyone in Britain should find that news remarkable. Yet Edwards had shaped nearly every life with the fertility of a very modern mind - the type that recognised in television all the new ways in which we might pass time.

The son of a farmer from Colorado, Edwards moved to Oakland when he was a boy. It was a toss-up whether he would teach. Instead, his friendly voice made him a leading radio announcer in New York, the voice that introduced so many comedy and variety shows. It was at NBC radio that he sold the idea for a new game show: Truth or Consequences, in which contestants answered general knowledge questions - if they failed, they had to pay forfeits. It was a parlour game carried over to a new medium, and America went mad over it.

Two years later, Edwards had another idea: he would appear in some location, as self-effacing as possible, whispering to the camera. He was waiting to ambush some famous person and as soon as he could he said, "This Is Your Life!" Whereupon, the show went to the studio where the celebrity had to listen to a doctored version of his or her success story.

It was another time, of course, when television was the new fireplace in a collective village. People were innocent, benign, and happy to enjoy the community of television. On one show, Edwards found a mother planning a homecoming party for her son in the Marines. Think what one penny could do, he mused. Over 300,000 people sent a penny!

Of course, every show also brought far more than a penny to Ralph Edwards. Later in life, he went into partnership as a production company with Stu Billett. They invented Name That Tune, which ran all through the Fifties and has had several revivals. But maybe their best idea came last - The People's Court, begun in 1981 and still going strong, in which real small-claims court litigants fight out their disputes in front a personality judge. It began in America with a retired judge, Joseph Wapner, and it runs still with Judge Marilyn Millian, who is among the most attractive and intelligent people on American TV.

Edwards died rich and happy, and it may seem unduly solemn to ponder his success. The historians of television point to much larger things as the proofs of a new medium: the steady reporting of major news; the presentation of drama, live music, the arts and great comedians. But the true nature of the medium is everyday, humdrum, and foolish. At that level, television may have schooled us in much drabber things: being on or off; suggesting that most kinds of discourse can be interrupted by advertisements; and by teaching us that if you can kill half-an-hour painlessly, well maybe you can get through life.

Television had changed, long before Edwards' death. The audience now is cynical, bitter, lonely and anxious - and there are so many structural forces in its daily grind that maintain those moods. Not the least of them is the kind of low-level, "harmless" diversion that is marginally more compelling than the urge to turn the set off. Ralph Edwards's mind teemed with those ideas. He did TV shows that whispered "Here we are all together", when the togetherness was a sham that sugar-coated the loneliness and impotence of the audience. The question remains: is it better to have This is Your Life, or nothing?