A box in the corner makes the world a better place

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THERE surfaced in Scotland last week the peculiar case of David and Alison Guest, who do not possess a television. The authorities insisted a blue light had been seen flickering in an upstairs window, and harassed the Guests for 17 years for their failure to pay a licence fee for a television they insisted did not exist. Eventually the Guests proved they did not have a TV. They do not want one. They lead a high Victorian life: their sons play musical instruments, they say, and the family talks a lot.

The image has haunted me all week: here is a family living as if in another century, entirely withdrawn from the mainstream. It is incomprehensible to me - maybe because I love television, its power to inform, please, engage. I love the connection to the thing itself, the flickering blue lights I can see from my window in half a dozen others.

In praise of television, you could call this. Not just one programme or another, but the ongoing experience of the rest of the world that comes off the glowing box in the corner. It runs through my whole life, and enriched my parents' lives, especially when they were old.

It's not that I actually care what one family in Scotland does. What I hate is how they and others like them are seen as folk heroes, as if in resisting television they occupy some moral and cultural high ground. Particularly among the gentrified middle classes, there is even in 1993, God help us, a sense that television is of and for the lower orders, that real opera is morally superior to soap opera, that soap opera is mostly what television is about, anyhow. It's an attitude from the land of the know-nothings: eyeless in Britain.

But who would miss the sheer pleasure of it? In the past 17 years alone, while the Guests were TV-free, there were: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Yes, Minister; Inspector Morse and Monty Python; 28 Up; Brideshead Revisited; Edge of Darkness and Blind Date. There were 'Allo 'Allo] and much of David Attenborough, Sleepers and The Last Russian Revolution and a hundred other brilliant documentaries, not to mention Lenny Henry as the Chef, The Jewel in the Crown and all those royal weddings. Mini-series such as Roots and Holocaust changed the way people saw their own history, and I haven't even mentioned Hill Street Blues and Cheers and Law and Order and Oscars night.

The structuralists tell us that television has changed the way we see sport - and its very nature. It was the ABC network chief Roone Arledge who realised that American football should be staged as Greek tragedy. Mostly, though, I'm thrilled to have seen Bjorn Borg play at Wimbledon and Daley Thompson win the decathlon: iconic events. I love the box because it gives me icons without zealotry.

I love the way sports mark the television seasons and television resonates with the cycle of the year - new shows, old favourites. This is a lot better than a seasonal cycle determined by grouse shooting, as it still is in Parliament. And would you want to miss the chance to sit ringside at the spectacle of Parliament on television?

So tightly locked in their symbiotic embrace are politics and television, I'm not even sure it's possible to vote intelligently without watching the box: how politicians use it, how it can betray them at the first hint of a five o'clock shadow. Think of the operatic mini-series called Maggie Thatcher.

Watching Thatcher evolve from that startlingly gauche woman with a voice that could shatter glass into the husky grande dame as radical politician was sensational stuff. Thatcher hated television. It did well by her, though: it made her the stuff of myth.

And the most important thing about the last American election was not that Bill Clinton won; it was the way politicians, roused to it by the canny Ross Perot, used new television technology to get to more people in more places. More astonishingly, people stopped to look and listen.

In 17 years new technology has dazzlingly expanded the medium; by its presence, television has radically altered the world, often for the better. The Ethiopian famine took place on television and so did Live Aid. If the United Nations establishes a tribunal for war criminals in Bosnia, it will be because of the reporters who showed up amid the horrors to get the news out. People who refuse to bear witness to all this out of some sanctimonious sense of superiority irritate the hell out of me.

It is no accident that one of the last countries to get television was South Africa (in 1976). In isolation, it felt its system was impregnable. It was right. There are those who think it was the image on television of the Berlin Wall coming down that helped to fuel the dissolution of apartheid. 'Television,' as Arthur C Clark said, 'has more power than an ICBM.'

To have missed the moment when Nelson Mandela left jail, or the sight of the Berlin Wall being breached, is to have missed the great storytelling of the times, like being half asleep. I suppose thinking about the family without a television reminded me of tribes and nations turning inward in isolation.

These days, British television is in a mighty parlous state, however. If it goes down the lavatory - and there are scary signs - it will play right into the hands of those know-nothings who say we'd be just as well off without it.