Give me liberty, or give me Eric and Ernie

Just because we don't all watch the same Christmas TV programmes any more doesn't mean that the nation is coming apart at the seams

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One of the great delusions peddled by the media during the festive season is the idea that we inhabit a single cultural mainstream, and that there is such a thing as a collective "taste". Hence the newspapers' obsession with the week's most popular television programme, the question of whether the BBC beat the commercial channels in the "ratings war", the number of loyal citizens who watched the Queen's Speech to the Commonwealth, and the volume of sales of that great cultural talisman, the Christmas No 1.

That this rapt pursuit of homogeneity is a delusion can easily be proved by a glance at the statistics. These reveal that in 2012 a paltry 9.6 million people watched the festive EastEnders and 8.6 million Coronation Street. Meanwhile, in what is supposed to be a nation obsessed with the Royal family, a startlingly feeble 8.3 million of us tuned in to Her Majesty, while another 296,000 are supposed to have downloaded the Christmas No 1, courtesy of the Justice Collective.

It is all a far cry from the 28 million audience attracted by the 1977 Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show or the seven-figure sales racked up 39 years ago this week by Slade's "Merry Xmas Everybody".

But if, as this evidence seems to demonstrate, we live in a landscape which, at any rate culturally, is coming apart at the seams, and where the music, books and television programmes favoured even by people from near-identikit classes and racial backgrounds are likely to differ radically from each other, then it is important to acknowledge some of the cultural contradistinctions that underlie this unravelling. Thus, as a teenager in the late 1970s I am pretty sure that I regarded the idea of a TV programme watched by 28 million people as entirely anathema to the idea of genuine cultural choice, and was much keener on the charms of obscure continental art-house films beamed out in the small hours on BBC2.

Thirty-five years later, on the other hand, having observed some of the consequences of cultural fragmentation – principally the uncomfortable truth that the more kinds of entertainment you have the worse their overall level is likely to be – a part of me pines for a Morecambe and Wise sketch or a pop song that burst out of half the front doors in the street.

Yet before we turn all nostalgic over the absence of these universal cultural signifiers, there is another perfectly reasonable explanation for the average 21st century TV programme's inability to acquire an audience of more than 10 million. It could just be that modern television isn't terribly good and that what was once a captive audience now has the liberty to please itself.


Television highlight of the week in this household – and certainly not getting anywhere near a viewing figure of 10 million – was BBC Four's splendid profile of Tove Jansson (1914-2001), creator of the Moomin Books, which irradiated my childhood like no other artefact. Naturally, the programme stuck fairly closely to Ms Jansson's life and achievements, but you had the feeling that an investigation of her UK fanbase would have revealed the existence of a cultural constituency far more tightly knit than the group that sits down to watch EastEnders: the several million middle-aged people born during the period 1950-1970 who were raised by their doting parents on Puffin paperbacks.

The impact of the "Puffin generation" has been a staple of literary sociology for well over a decade: see, for example, Francis Spufford's absorbing study, The Child that Books Built. It is not true, as certain critics occasionally allege, that it was simply a middle-class project designed to reinforce bourgeois values, for as well as such staples of the genteel nursery as C S Lewis and Laura Ingalls Wilder, the series' editors had a hankering for exercises in urban realism set on council estates, not to mention my favourite-ever Puffin, Eve Garnett's The Family From One End Street, which featured a 1930s dustman and his seven-strong brood.

Neither were some of the moral messages quite what one would expect. As someone pointed out on Wednesday night, at the heart of Moominland Midwinter lies a plea for tolerance of the marginal and the dispossessed, and there was a special place in the Jansson demonology reserved for park-keepers. If it comes to that, quite half the Moomin books are set against a backdrop of impending apocalypse.


Interviewed to promote his recension of The Snowman, the author Raymond Briggs came up with one of the festive season's most eye-catching quotes. "I am surprised I am still here," Mr Briggs remarked. "Life gets worse all the time, and 78 really is a bit of a pain."

In the context of most modern pronouncements on the ageing process, all this has the delicious tang of novelty. We live, after all, at a time in which age is supposed to be a challenge rather than a burden, where elderly ladies zoom about wearing purple, 90 is the new 60, and not taking a positive line about your grey hairs is practically an indictable offence. If Mr Briggs has not quite made it into Thomas Hardy territory (Hardy once remarked that the death of a child could scarcely be regretted, given the future misery thereby avoided) than at the very least he is due a stiff letter from Age UK.

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