On television

by ofthewedge


On the eve of the time of penance, take a moment to genuflect before the BBC.

I watched a repeat of The Story of the Twos, broadcast on BBC2 last year to mark its own fiftieth birthday. Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse scorch the very earth that fed them, laying waste to the pipe-puffing patricians and smarmy intellectuals who have run the channel (all of them called Jonathan Oxbridge/ Cambridge-Oxford/ Oxford-Cambridge), to revered flagships (like Call my Bluff, where the word ‘paedophile’ is cheerfully revealed not to exist in the lexicon of 1960s and 1970s public broadcasters) and to ‘national treasures’ (‘John Cheese-Shop-Sketch’, Alan-‘I’m-betta-than-you’-Sugar and Mary Berry – ‘Wouldn’t I make a wonderful queen?’).

At one point the comedians turn the satirical pistol to their own heads, as Whitehouse’s interviewer baits Enfield, playing a brooding, lonely version of himself, for failing to land any awards for his various series. The hour-long Rabelaisian tapestry is woven through with Enfield’s masterful mimicry of the gurning, rippling body language of Simon Schama, that mainstay of history documentaries. Among all the broadcasters in the world, only the BBC would willingly subvert itself through such merciless self-piss-taking.

All the same, someone needs to have a word with the head of BBC documentaries about the identikit soundtracks used to accompany the programmes. I am not the only one who refuses to acquiesce in these ear-assaults, seemingly adapted from the formula for the deranged Hollywood blockbuster:

  • First talky portentous prologue accompanied by panicky strings,
  • Then building to hysterical crescendo
  • Sudden rush of percussion, typically a massive cymbal clash
  • Climactic gong subsides into sparkly-twinkly stardusty sound as the title of the series appears at the bottom of the screen
  • Final cut to tranquil beginning-of-the-story scenes invariably featuring some calm body of water.

This epileptic blueprint is rolled out regardless of the subject matter, from Africa to acupuncture, from Magna Carta to monarchy. The only explanation is that Jonathan Oxbridge has digested the results of multiple focus groups and determined that a cross-section of British TV viewers all suffer attention deficit disorder. It’s akin to standing on a remote roadside, and feeling the brush of wind and distant rumble from a heavy vehicle approaching, which eventually hammers past and drenches you in puddle.

Not so long ago it was assumed we could cope with silence and nuance. Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation drifted purposively through eddies of atmospheric silences, pierced by the dull peel of bells in Assisi or by chirruping of birds over a field of rapeseed overlooking Chartres cathedral. In Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, the obligatory synthesisers were used sparingly. In one scene you heard the crackle of a fire on a dark prairie while Sagan conjured, with his characteristic jerk of the head, an image of prehistorical conversation: “There once was a time before television, before motion pictures, before radio, before books [his plosives are emphatic] – the greatest part of human existence was spent in such a time – and then, over the dying embers of campfire on a moonless night, we watched the stars.” We would notice their movements, invest them with characters taken from everyday life, give them meaning.

The computer scientist Sandy Pentland in Social Physics speculates about how sitting round the campfire pre-language homo sapiens would communicate through the subtlest signals and gestures which then evolved into language. That this must have taken thousands of years, and the first known writing seems so far way and yet is relatively a blink of the eye.

Lent is for stopping and listening. The Yakut in Siberia recognise the whooshing sound made by the moisture in exhaled breath as it turns into crystals in the freezing air. Words spoken in the depths of winter remain suspended like icicles. In the spring they thaw; you hear them as you pass by, ‘the whispering of the stars’.