If it's concerts it must be Germany: Hester Lacey watches more than 200 channels with the Chilver family

Click to follow
The Independent Online
'IT WAS satellite that brought down the Berlin Wall,' says Steve Chilver. 'The people behind it could see how everyone else lived, that they didn't have three heads, and that finished it. Satellite has shrunk the world.' The Chilver family monitors this diminishing globe from west London. Their home is equipped with two motorised dish satellite television systems - one for Steve and his wife Polly, and one for their children, Jessica, 12, and Crispin, 11.

'It's quite a landmark, this house,' says Steve. 'You can't miss it with the two dishes on the roof.' Both systems can pick up 'about 200 channels - they come and go'. With a handset not much larger than an ordinary TV remote control, Steve calls up a menu on the screen, selects a satellite and begins to scan through the evening's selection.

'Every time it clicks we're moving into a different part of the sky,' he explains, flicking rapidly through Norway (a pig-tailed child in red gingham eating something crunchy), Serbia (two people sitting on a balcony, looking dolefully out over the mountains), Croatia (lingering close-ups of grapes in a vineyard), Portugal (psychedelic purple and orange backdrops) and Poland (murky black-and-white film).

'The fact that it's in a foreign language doesn't spoil your enjoyment if you just want to see what other people are like. It's a window on the world,' says Steve. 'Watching the Arabic channels is fascinating. I've never sat inside a Muslim temple at a prayer meeting but on television there you are, right in there. We've got a world view - American visitors have remarked on it. Satellite makes you a world citizen.'

Steve's wife Polly agrees. 'You tend to pick up the language - words here and there. Tutti Frutti is a German gameshow where they take their clothes off, it's almost like a road traffic accident, dreadful, but you feel you have to watch it, and you find you understand what the man's saying.'

Polly admits to being a fan of The Simpsons. 'There's a lot of snobbery - you're supposed to say you watch all the foreign concerts, but of course you watch other things too.' She has seen Neighbours from the very first episode on the UK Gold channel, and yearns for reruns of Prisoner Cell Block H.

Both Steve and Polly follow foreign news broadcasts every day, and watch the nightly English-language news transmissions from Serbia and Croatia. 'Britain has always had the World Service,' says Steve, 'and now other countries are imitating the same format.'

He recommends Italian stations for 'spectacular light entertainment - we just don't make it any more' and Germany for 'heavyweight music concerts'.

The Chilvers were one of the first families in Britain to install satellite TV. 'Six years ago I saw a big dish in a window of an aerial store, and I wondered what it was and brought it home,' explains Steve. 'It was a giant thing - 8ft across. It took us two weeks to get a picture out of it because there were no instructions.'

At the time he worked as a BBC producer and director; two years ago he left to set up his own business importing, improving and distributing satellite systems. 'It's considered a tremendous social gaffe to have a Sky dish - it suggests you watch nothing but banal quiz shows. But it's considered very OK to have a satellite system that shows you to be a thinking person, even though you might use it for watching the same stuff that they're watching up the road.'

Steve and Polly claim to watch about three hours of television each day - less than the national average (between 23 and 34 hours a week). Steve feels that a wide choice of channels has made them more selective rather than less discriminating, and they are adamant that the children don't watch too much either. 'We don't watch enough,' chips in Jessica. Her favourite programme is The Simpsons, and she is already a techno-buff. 'When the programmes go, I can get them back.' She is mad on horses, but she 'hates reading'.

'Jessica likes the old Fifties programmes on Sky - the same stuff that I grew up with, I Love Lucy and The Brady Bunch,' says Polly. 'Crispin watches sport - wrestling, golf, football, you name it. We had running battles about it, which is one of the reasons they have their own system.'

Crispin likes video games and drawing, but he hates reading as well. 'Who wants to read a book? It's boring.'

Steve is not worried. 'There's a new definition of literacy now and it's more important to be literate with a keyboard and a PC and home technology. Our kids have no techno-fear whatsoever.'

'I'm unhappy with the violence level - I don't like to see violence glorified,' says Steve. 'They love gore, things where people have their limbs torn off. I wouldn't say it's exactly giving them a classical education.' Crispin and Jessica claim that they would not be upset if they only had four channels to choose from. 'What about when your Sky One wasn't working?' sighs Steve. 'I killed you]' squeaks Jessica gleefully.

Systems like the Chilver family's cost about pounds 2,000 each, 'but nobody else would have two,' says Steve. 'Having two is outrageous.'

(Photograph omitted)