Thomas Sutcliffe: When television was the glue of the nation

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The Independent Online

It was intriguing that the return of Jackanory yesterday afternoon should have coincided with reports of an ICM poll that found online and mobile consumption of television were beginning to bite into more traditional forms of viewing. On the one hand, you had the epitome of gas-fired, golden age television - with John Sessions setting out to seduce the video-game generation into 15 minutes of unbroken and collective attention - and on the other, proof of the continuing growth of snack-attack forms of broadcasting - which essentially depend on a solitary viewer watching in isolation.

Jackanory you could take as representing television as social ritual - an unvarying fixture in the afternoon around which, in its heyday, children would adapt their post-school routines, while YouTube and download-on-demand represent a new world in which the audience shatters like shrapnel into millions of solipsistic self-schedulers.

I was never a huge fan of Jackanory when I was young, figuring that if you wanted to read a book you could do it yourself a lot quicker. But I can understand why people would feel nostalgic for it and I can almost manage it myself if, if I concentrate on the mental picture of all those children, all over the country, faces lit by the blue glow of the cathode ray. This is, conventionally, a picture of mental enslavement and no doubt there will be those who argue that the erosion of traditional forms of viewing can be counted as a kind of liberation - such as occurs in the Jim Carrey film The Cable Guy, when an entire city's televisions black out simultaneously and society unfreezes, as neighbour speaks to neighbour and child to parent for the first time in years.

Except, of course, precisely the opposite is happening here. The new technologies of broadcasting encourage everyone to retire into an electronic hermit's cave, only rarely required to submit to another's taste or another's timetable. Indeed, you could argue that they supply the worst elements of conventional broadcasting while doing away with its one overriding saving grace - which is the unique togetherness of collective television viewing.

There is something very precious about being in the company of others attending to a shared story - and though both cinema and theatre can supply that pleasure, the etiquette of both mean that they are qualitatively different to what happens when a family gathers for one programme and talks about it as it unwinds.

In arguing for the virtue of such moments it's usually conventional to add that what's on screen should be improving in nature - Planet Earth, perhaps, or Bleak House. But it need not be. Even junk television can be converted into emotional glue - at the level of a family or even a nation.

Watching Cathy Come Home the other night it was hard not to feel nostalgia too for a time when 12 million people could be simultaneously stopped in their tracks by a drama - so that the half-life of their reaction was synchronised. These days, half the potential viewers would have it recorded on a hard disk, another third would be planning a mobile download and the rest might catch the controversial bits on YouTube. Only there wouldn't be a controversy because the impact would be as fractured as the audience.

What's forgotten in the often reflexive disparagement of the old fashioned form of television watching is that at its best it consolidated a society rather than dissolving it.

Love that dare not be heard

Connoisseurs of radio passion were deprived of the sound effects that might have accompanied Ruth's consummation of her affair with Sam. But the forthcoming marriage of Adam and Ian, left, Ambridge's gay couple, raises the question of what will happen as the ceremony is concluded. Will the groom kiss the groom? And if so, how noisily? I'm in favour of a Tom Cruise/David Gest record-breaker - two or three minutes of amorous mumfing, perhaps faintly interrupted by homophobic bleats from Brian and some maternal cooing from Jennifer. But I have a suspicion that the silencer may be deployed in the wedding episode. For all the advances of the past 40 years, is this still the love that dare not smack its lips?

* After Nadia Eweida's victory in forcing British Airways to review their uniform (thanks to a late cavalry charge from the Anglican church), I've been wondering whether I'll have to think again about wearing some outward symbol of my infidel status.

I don't really want to, since an inextricable component of my atheism is a reluctance to sign up to a set of orthodoxies, and a logo or symbol invariably takes you down that road.

There's also the problem of finding a suitable one. The symbol of the American Atheists looks like a radioactive version of the MacDonald's Golden Arches, and though the Darwinian Christian fish is sweet (it has sprouted little legs), I'd prefer not to define my beliefs in negative terms. But, given the tendency of religious leaders to exaggerate the prevalence of religious belief in the population, I may have to choose. I think it's time to stand up and not be counted.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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