Why television is the glitter and glue of Christmas

Gathered around the television, table or crib, people of all ages and classes are bound briefly by a shared sense of occasion that crosses more boundaries than so-called mass culture, says D J Taylor

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The most memorable Christmas I recall from childhood was in 1973. What made it memorable was not so much the festive cheer as the numerous symbolic adhesions. The most important of these a shiny public validation of the material prosperity of one's parents was the purchase of our first colour TV set, an appliance whose entry into the house was greeted with an almost sacramental awe. Others, though, had to do with the state of the world outside the window, in this case settling down into an energy crisis, a three-day week and a round of power cuts. The Taylors, consequently, spent an odd few days hunkered down in the front room, alternately exulting over the latest revelation from multicoloured media land ("John Noakes is wearing a blue shirt!") and huddling stoically under blankets, courtesy of the power workers.

For all these intimations of industrial unrest and social disquiet, haves and have-nots, bright lights and sudden, unlooked-for darkness, the 1970s Christmas always struck me as an intensely communal affair, a time when the majority of people did, watched or listened to the same things. With only three television channels, audience figures reached spectacular heights: 29 million viewers were supposed to have tuned in to The Morecambe and Wise Show in 1977. There was, each year, as regularly as the call of the Victorian muffin man, a "Christmas single", bulleting into the Top Five and selling hundreds of thousands of copies. The smash of 1973, Slade's "Merry Xmas Everybody", seemed to reinforce this sense of collective endeavour. '"Everybody" was celebrating, while enjoined, additionally, to "look to the future", which had "only just begun".

Social historians of the mid 21st century, looking back on a world composed of Edward Heath's nervously writhing shoulders, Princess Anne's teeth (her first marriage had taken place only a month or so before) and Noddy Holder's mutton-chop whiskers will probably regard the 1970s as the last great communal age pre-Thatcher, pre-dispersal of the municipal housing stock, pre-technological diaspora. Thirty years later we live, as societal trend-spotters never cease to remind us, in an age of cultural fragmentation, where the media tide is diffused into a thousand different tributaries, where the old ice-breaking enquiries of "Did you see..?", "Did you hear..?" and "Did you read..?" are likely to be met with complete incomprehension. Was there a Christmas single this year? I never heard one, although I did note that "Merry Xmas Everybody" is back in the charts, even if there is no Christmas Top of the Pops for it to feature on. Such is the range of contending cultural fare now on offer that a soap opera festive special with a 10 million-plus audience will be doing very well indeed.

None of this is in the least important unless you happen to believe that what a Structuralist might call a universal cultural signifier is important to our collective health, and that the existence of certain cultural artefacts and occasions with a genuine mass appeal benefits us as human beings by giving us a point of contact with the people we knock up against in the course of our daily lives. To put it crudely, knowing the tune that the milkman whistles brings you closer to him rather than driving you apart. But of which art forms using the word "art" in its widest and most non-judgemental sense can this now truly be said? Thirty years ago the number of variant forms of popular music could be counted on the fingers of one and a half hands (rock, pop, disco, soul, reggae, folk, etc). Now each genre has its own myriad declensions, and the particular brand of heavy metal played by one of those mournful looking bands of men in black raincoats can take several paragraphs to pin down.

The same is true of comedy: previously one of the great communal pastimes if one thing united King George VI and his domestic servants it was a liking for Max Miller it has now disappeared into a host of contending fads and flavours. As a teenager and later as a young man, I could never understand why my father disliked Monty Python and later Blackadder, but now, 20 years later, I understand perfectly. It was not that he didn't understand the jokes or failed to relish the absurdity, merely that he detected a whiff of elitism ("College kids, isn't it?" he once remarked, having heard Rowan Atkinson and Stephen Fry exchange some piece of badinage), something that would render humour less attractive to the mass audience and more a matter of caste marks and interest groups. For myself, I thought Blackadder hilarious, and rejoiced in the fact that TV comedy no longer consisted of tuxed horrors from the Wheeltappers' and Shunters' Social Club peddling smut about mothers-in-law, but a certain part of me could see what he meant.

Just as most cultural forms have ceased to inspire a dominant mainstream and have become fragmented, so the old cultural groupings that sustained them have become subject to the same seismic disturbances. Only last week two Oxford academics produced a survey claiming that the "cultural elite" brought up on opera and the higher arts, which supposedly turns up its nose at anything as vulgar as a three-minute single or peak-hour television, no longer exists. According to Tak Wing Chan and John Goldthorpe, "there are certain individuals who fit this description, but they are too few in number to figure in any survey-based analysis". Formerly a matter of stratification and segregation, "culture" is now apparently a kind of pick-and-mix counter, whose patrons include a category known as "omnivores", who like everything from Tosca to The Simpsons and Kierkegaarde to Stephen King.

If this is true, then it represents a significant shift in the old notion of cultural take-up, and in particular the end of the old highbrow audience New Statesman-reading and Penguin Special-purchasing that was such an influential feature of mid-century cultural life. J B Priestley's novel Festival at Farbridge (1951), about the preparations for the Festival of Britain, features a joyless couple keen on "good drama, music, exhibitions of modern art and lectures" deathless highbrows, in other words, whose every suggestion is calculated to drive the working classes into the nearest gin palace. Half a century later, couples like this are gone, replaced by an eclecticism that can embrace to list a few personal preferences George Gissing and Paul Weller, Anthony Powell and Noel Fielding.

At the same time, talk about cultural fragmentation ignores some much more profound changes going on in the superstructure. For however hospitable to contending styles of popular music, or literary sub-genres, modern commercial culture grows ever more centralised, autocratic and ultimately mono-cultural in shape, loudly offering choice in practice but quietly denying it in principle. A multiplex offering six Hollywood blockbusters to its clientele, for instance, might as well offer merely one.

Old-style popular culture, which involved ordinary people choosing their amusements in ways that suited them, in small-scale economic systems, did not have this characteristic. The mass culture which replaced it, on the other hand, is concerned with imposition or manipulation, based on the premise that if you feed people a diet of turnips, then turnips are what they will want to eat.

Mass culture is not quite the unifying force that cultural theorists sometimes insist. In the main this has to do with the circumstances of its imposition, which are ultimately quite as socially and intellectually divisive as Priestley's couple. To put it another way, I want to like my fellow man and be liked by him; I want to be a functioning part of "society" and make that society better. Show me a popular newspaper, on the other hand, through which the mass-cultural myths are projected and "ordinary people" hoodwinked and patronised, and I will end up retreating to my copy of the TLS.

If one wanted a metaphor for British society over the past 30 years, it might be a Svres vase smashed into fragments, but capable of giving the illusion of being stuck back together. For all the passing of Morecambe and Wise and Noddy Holder's whiskers, Christmas still offers a squirt or two of this social Araldite. Two days hence most of us will sit down to a Christmas meal with people we love. However much Professors Dawkins and Grayling may gnash their teeth, 20 million or so of us will have attended some form of religious service. All this, with any luck, will give us a sense of our collective identity, remind us of the people we are and the world beyond the hearths and screens that tether us, that immense communal landscape without whose bulwarks we should cease to have any serious life at all.

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