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We are all whistling different tunes now

The golden age of mass entertainment may be a myth, but some television staples glued the family to their sets in a way that is unthinkable now

The past few days have been grim for the behemoths of old-style mass entertainment. No sooner had Sir David Frost's death been announced last weekend than David Jacobs followed him to the grave. Hardly had the news of Jacobs's passing been digested than the obituaries rolled in for Mike Winters, who, with his brother, Bernie, romped all over the nation's TV screens in the 1970s; and all this barely a week or so after the tributes to Alan Whicker had ceased to garnish the late-night schedules on BBC Four.

As generally happens in these cases, whether the subject under discussion is high art, low art or something pitched somewhere in between, there are distinctions to be made, particularly as the performers involved belonged to one's parents' generation rather than one's own. Sir David I always liked, despite the inevitable mellowing process that afflicted him towards the end. David Jacobs epitomised a brand of old-school Radio 2 easy listening that cut no ice with anyone who liked the Jam and Captain Beefheart. Mike and Bernie Winters were, to these eyes, simply dire. Taken together, on the other hand, they represent something, which is the idea of popular entertainment that is genuinely popular, has a mass audience and, in varying degrees and at varying levels, insinuates itself into the life of the nation as a whole.

By chance Armchair Nation, Joe Moran's newly published study of Britain's historical relationship with television, confirms something of this universality: a cultural saturation made manifest not only in the 26 million people (half the population in those days) who tuned in to the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show, but in the mass take-up of catch-phrases and vocal tics.

All this, naturally, took place in a much smaller catchment area that encouraged an instant recognition. When Mike Yarwood, for example, took to the screen to imitate a celebrated TV personality of the day, his job was made all the easier by the fact that there were only a certain number of them to hand. When Rory Bremner does his stuff here in 2015, such is the multiplicity of options that the viewer often struggles to work out exactly which media titan has crawled under his lens.

Before one turns all elegiac about that lost, prelapsarian world of three channels only, Morecambe and Wise, Fawlty Towers, Brideshead Revisited, "family entertainment" and all the other items so lovingly anatomised by the modern media historian, there are two myths that should immediately be scotched. One is that the world of pre-1990s mass entertainment was broadly homogeneous. The other is that it was any good. With reference to the first myth, it takes only a glance at the popular novels of the inter-war period to demonstrate that while the first wave of American cultural imperialism was sweeping through the English suburbs, different people and different generations liked different things. Mrs Smeeth, wife of the ground-down accountant in J B Priestley's Angel Pavement (1930) enjoys slipping off to the second house at the local variety hall to watch comedians such as Harry Tate; the Hollywood glamour-pusses and matinee idols admired by her children leave her cold.

The same enduring fracture applies to the "golden age of British television" argument wheeled out by critics whose sense of nostalgia has got the better of them. My suspicion, as an avid teenage viewer in the late 1970s, is that repeated dips into the bran tub very often yielded up nothing but bran, that we remember the bona fide classics for their comparative rarity and that most of the ITV schedules were clogged up with dreadful low comedy of the On the Buses variety, all-in wrestling and terrible soap operas, next to which the one genuine classic, Coronation Street, gleamed out like a beacon on a winter's night.

Three and a half decades later, for all the urgings of the television executives, there is no such thing as mass entertainment, merely an almost infinite number of individual constituencies with their own preferences and foibles. The days in which one could walk into, say, the sixth-form common room to enquire "Did anyone see Siouxsie and the Banshees the other night on Top of the Tops?" in the certainty that half a dozen heads would nod are as dead as a conviction that the media personalities of that age were fine upstanding young men who wouldn't dream of interfering with the impressionable children flung into their orbit.

The social consequences of this dramatic shift in taste, availability and diffusion work on several levels. On the one hand, the specimen middle-aged TV watcher will doubtless enthuse over the high degree of "choice" on offer while harbouring a faint suspicion that choice isn't always all it is cracked up to be and that more, to borrow Kingsley Amis's remark about education, may sometimes mean worse. On the other, he or she will probably note that a part of the demographic of which they were formerly a member has ceased to exist. Reviewing Moran's book in this month's Literary Review, Simon Hoggart – whose father, Richard, wrote so prophetically about the future of mass-culture in The Uses of Literacy (1957) – notes that, when watching Eric and Ernie, he "loved that sense of belonging to an invisible but nationwide community".

Well, that community is smashed beyond repair, broken up into that fraction of the populace which likes scandi noir on BBC Four and the slightly larger fraction which likes Downton Abbey on ITV. Will Self once declared that the social commentator who laments the dissolution of the media landscape is really only complaining about his own inability to comprehend and by implication command it.

He is quite right, but it is worth pointing out that this process dissolves an important layer of societal glue. The popular song that people used to whistle in the street may not have had much long-term cultural value – to turn all Leavisite for a moment – but at least, in however artificial a way, it brought people close together rather than pushing them apart. Morecambe and Wise, whatever one may think about them now, did this in a way that the latest high-octane, jump-on-his-testicles import from the American cable networks does not.