Ten years in television

The death of Dennis Potter and the inexorable rise of Rupert Murdoch - two events that symbolised what we have coming to us. Thomas Sutcliffe gathers his thoughts on 10 years of viewing and we offer some telling samples of what we saw in The Independent's first decade
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The very first television listing printed by The Independent strikes you at first by its familiarity. Daytime coverage of the Conservative Conference, EastEnders, Brookside, Emmerdale, Film 86, Top Gear and Floyd on Food. If it seems only yesterday that we were watching these programmes that's because it was only yesterday. But if such survivors give the sense of a gently evolving landscape, the truth is that they conceal an earthquake - the transformation of a broadcasting culture balanced between public service and commerce into one tipped heavily towards the businessman with the calculator - the profit motive has won out over the prophet motive. In the last 10 years, the terms on which ITV franchises are awarded have been changed from a competitive entrance exam into a second-hand car auction and a relative scarcity of output has been transformed into a glut. You can tell this from the typesize of the television listings alone - it won't be long before newspapers have to issue complementary magnifying glasses to readers who want to watch anything but the terrestrial channels - and in a few months time Channel Five arrives to make the task more difficult, even for the dishless.

It isn't a universally depressing story - despite the replacement of serious current affairs with cheap infotainment (turn on the Coppercam and count the money), despite the sudsy expansion of the soaps, despite the increasing grip of ratings worship on creative minds, despite the slow withering of independent drama - there are hopeful signs. Observational documentaries have never been better (or more popular with young film- makers); the widespread use of video camera has given television producers a genuinely new tool for putting ordinary lives on screen; the old British prejudice against American television has been comprehensively routed by a series of brilliant imports which have improved our home-grown efforts. If the general fabric of television is looking thinner, there is mitigation in the fact that some patches have never looked better.

Even so, it is telling that in thinking back over the most memorable television of the last 10 years, it isn't what television has made fresh that comes to mind but what television has reported.

Thomas Sutcliffe

Perestroika comes to Eurovision

"There are essentially three kinds of Eurosong: Peas, Lerv and La-La, which represent, respectively, sentiments of pacifism, romance and nonsense. The annual percentages of each are as eloquent as a hundred pundits. The year in which the contest was won by a teenage guitarist singing "A Leetle Peas" was one of nuclear nervousness in Europe. This time there were only two Peas numbers. Israel had a 12-year-old-boy belting out "Shine for Tomorrow" but the only such song from Western Europe was the French entry, sung by an 11-year-old-girl, but with the upbeat title "I Stole Life!", which can be seen to celebrate Peas rather than to yearn for it. This is clearly the effect on the Eurovision Song Contest of Mikhail Gorbachev."

Mark Lawson 8/5/89

The Televising of Parliament

"The great Bagehotian, Lord St John of Fawsley, predicted on Channel 4 that the televised Parliament would enter 'the hearts and minds of the people'. You could tell it was a day of legend because, two weeks ago, men like Fawsley would have been pretending not to have sets. The first face seen was Mr Speaker Weatherill, the only television personality to wear a wig quite unashamedly. Urbane and with an RSC timbre in the voice, he will be the first star of boxed democracy. The fierce camera restrictions prevented you from seeing the initial battle for the Speaker's eye but it was won by Bob Cryer, who achieves the distinction of becoming a future answer in Trivial Pursuit."

Mark Lawson 22/11/89

The Satellite Wars

"My strongest television memory of 1990 is a personal one. It was a chill autumn morning, I had just been dropped at an industrial estate and spent some time trying to gain admission to what was little more than a Portakabin before wandering the deserted corridors looking for someone who knew about the programme I was due to appear on. It was at this point that I realised that Sky is here to stay. Rupert Murdoch will hang in there and perhaps even win because he doesn't care about any of the people British television has traditionally wanted to impress. Most media commentators scoffed at him for building his secondhand Lego-set studios out at Osterley, a far flung part of West London unrenowned for its watering holes. BSB, on the other hand, had a fancy architect-designed HQ within the borders of media- London, and a fat lot of good it did them. Sky's primary coloured ads operated to Madison Avenue 'blast yourself free with Ease-O-Lax' principles; BSB's were droll, witty, stylish, as if they were eager to win awards rather than shift Squarials." Mark Steyn, 31/12/90

The Gulf War

"We're ready to go in," said a US Marine on yesterday's Channel 4 Daily "and kick some behind" - a remark that prompted from the accompanying sign-linguist an agitated flurry of fingers. If I had a dollar for every behind the US Armed Forces have pledged to kick, I'd be as rich as a minor cousin of the Emir of Kuwait. For all the bruised butts, though, the allies' war aims seem to drift so erratically that I'm reminded more and more of George S Kaufman's comment after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union: 'They're shooting without a script.' This applies just as much to the poor broadcasters, in the difficult position of having to follow a driver who doesn't give hand-signals. The BBC, for example, had Peter Snow playing with his Field-Marshal chums in the Newsnight sandpit as long ago as last August. After a few days, it became clear that there wasn't much point in having a set of tanks and matching flags if you weren't allowed to move them anywhere, so back it went to the props department and Snow was strapped behind his desk again." Mark Steyn 17/1/91

Dennis Potter's Last Interview

There were other ironies here, beyond those supplied by Potter's sense of mischief. That morphine, for example, sipped from a flask when the pain threatened to interrupt the flow of words. It is difficult to think of a less 'analgesic' writer than Potter, one more dedicated to avoiding the 'relief of discomfort' which is often the last resort of the cancer patient. His ambition was quite the opposite, to break through the natural opiates which people draw on to get through their lives, whether it was popular song or received opinion. There can be no doubting his ability to do this - one of his early producers recalled walking down a commuter train corridor and hearing discussions of the previous night's play from every side. It didn't always result in earnest discussion of course - Potter could be an embarrassing playwright and a disgusting one, as a brief clip from Brimstone and Treacle demonstrated. The point was that it was usually worth finding out why you wanted to look away."

Thomas Sutcliffe 6/4/94

The Panorama Interview

Last year Charles delivered the fumbled overhead smash of the Dimbleby interview, putting the ball in Diana's court with a performance of regretful candour and minimal self-blame. Now it was to be returned. The anticipation was enormous. Would it be a stunning volley, powered by that well-coached physique, or would it be a drop-shot - an interview so mild and decorous that it would make her opponent's baseline shuffling look ridiculous? Had Diana even realised yet that she was playing Royal Tennis - in which to return the ball at all is to risk forfeiting the game, not to mention the court as well. There is little doubt that she knew exactly what she was doing. Hers was a performance of deadly humility, delivered with a deceptive inoffensiveness. The look was wounded doe, a liquid stare from a submissively inclined face, a winning tilt she has had 15 years to master... She was, in short, the ideal prosecution witness in a case of domestic assault." Thomas Sutcliffe 20/11/95

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