Television is an art form that works on so many levels. It can stimulate us emotionally and intellectually; it can bring us together in celebration and in times of heartache. It can take us to wondrous places, both real and fictional. It can entertain and it can soothe. It can break down barriers and establish long-lasting friendships. Powerful stuff! Words by Rachel Ward
January this year marked the 90th anniversary of John Logie Baird’s first television transmission. Since then, cameras have captured wars, revolutions, Olympic triumphs, Royal Weddings, World Cups, wardrobe malfunctions, Big Brother made real, a mother of dragons, a blue planet, the surface of the moon, and a woman kissing a “hot priest”.
More than 56 per cent of Britons tuned in for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 (at a time when there were only 2.7 million television sets in the country); 32.3 million witnessed the boys in red trounce Germany in the 1966 World Cup; 21.6 million wanted to know who shot JR in 1980; 10.4 million watched the Bodyguard finale last year; and who could forget the achievements of the crew of Apollo 11, which were beamed to a spellbound 500 million viewers worldwide?
We believe in television as a medium that does good, as a medium that triggers imagination, rouses curiosity, encourages education and gathers millions around common interests – its granular element is that it binds us, shaping the very fabric of our lives.
The Moon landing marked the first all-night television broadcast in Britain on 20 July 1969. Families huddled in front of black-and-white sets, munching on sandwiches. Huge crowds came together to watch it in public places. Perhaps if the Moon really was made of cheese, the astronauts would take a bite, too. That shared experience still exerts a hold over our collective imagination. Bob Geldof’s 1985 Live Aid concert was billed as a “global jukebox” and, with its ambitious satellite link-up, reached 1.9 billion viewers in 150 countries and raised £150m for poverty relief in Africa. Is there a more powerful instigator for change?
Not only has television become a surrogate member of the family, it invariably impacts our daily lives.
A number of television firsts have also helped to break down social barriers. A 1968 episode of Star Trek is often referred to as the first interracial kiss ever broadcast, while ITV’s The Naked Civil Servant (1975), an interpretation of Quentin Crisp’s memoir, was in many ways the first celebration of homosexuality on British television. Russell T Davies’s Queer as Folk (1999-2000) went on to break the mould and is regarded as a milestone in LGBTQ+ representation. Society has shifted and suddenly the black box in the corner of the room provides a lifeline for those perhaps previously misunderstood.
Naturally, television is a powerful communication tool, providing vital information at any moment. The broadcast of the 1980 Iranian Embassy siege interrupted the BBC’s live coverage of the World Snooker Championship – like millions back home, the SAS teams were watching Alex Higgins take on Cliff Thorburn when they received the call to action. Continuous coverage of the crumbling of the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001 would ensure that a worldwide audience watched on in horror for hours, days, weeks, stunned into disbelief and heartache at the most shocking images ever broadcast.
Perhaps the power of the medium to both educate and entertain has seldom been as well employed as by Sir David Attenborough. His stunning 1979 hit Life on Earth was groundbreaking in introducing the wonder of the outside world to inside everyone’s living rooms.
Think of a topic of discussion and it has probably been covered on This Morning.
Away from the screen, the art form is able to work on various levels and create those watercooler moments we all fervently revel in. For six weeks in the autumn of 2018, Jed Mercurio’s gleefully over-the-top, twisty political thriller Bodyguard dominated conversations, becoming the BBC’s biggest ratings hit in a decade. It was a pure adrenalin-driven piece of entertainment, but also highlighted such mental health issues as PTSD through army veteran-turned-police officer David Budd. More recently, Phoebe Waller-Bridge has trampled down the boundary between comedy and drama, perhaps inventing a whole new genre of her own with her uproariously great Fleabag.
Carefully developed storylines can kickstart vital conversations. This was no truer than with last year’s off-screen suicide of Corrie’s everyman Aidan Connor. It explored the character’s secret battle with depression, opening up the discussion for not only those in a similar situation – male suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK – but putting the spotlight on the ramifications for those around them. As a result, online suicide prevention charity Papyrus received three times as many calls as a routine day, while CALM and Samaritans took on extra staff to cope with demand on their helplines.
British daytime show This Morning (1988-), which was celebrated at a special BAFTA Tribute event last year, has also proven to be a game-changer over the past 30 years. Think of a topic of discussion and it has probably been covered: the broadcast of the first gay partnership celebration on Valentine’s Day 2001 to the first breast, testicular and prostate examinations by Dr Chris Steele MBE are just a few of the pioneering moments broadcast live on British television.
The Great British Bake Off (2010-) has brought a sport to the leisurely hobby of baking, not to mention made an art of innuendo. Thanks in part to the show, the British public has rediscovered a pastime that’s both enjoyable, practical, accessible and acceptable for all. Elsewhere, arguably no other show has united generations or become a year-round phenomenon as Strictly Come Dancing (2004-). It has enabled us to belly laugh and, at times, provided an out-of-hours soap opera all of its own, not to mention a few unexpected moves from our prime minister.
But the landscape is changing. Telly becomes the nightly national conversation on Twitter, where viewers engage in debate after seeing inside prisons, the House of Commons, and even witnessing open-heart surgery. Shows are now offered up to us in different ways. On-demand services such as Virgin Media, Netflix, Amazon Prime and iPlayer mean that we now have the power to binge. As a result, television is becoming more daring. We are getting not just glimpses, but long, nuanced examinations of lives and worlds we have never seen before.
Baird’s vision has become the most powerful generator of our collective memories. Let us all bask in its warming glow; television is our common room, our shared ground, our core material. Hold on to those feelings, those memories, they’re ours.
Read the full feature in the Virgin Media British Academy Television Awards in 2019 brochure here.