Books in brief: Television: A Biography

October 13, 2016
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Television: A Biography by David Thomson (Thames & Hudson, £19.95)

The statement that David Thomson is the finest writer on cinema alive would find few demurrals. Now he has turned his attention to television. When Thomson was born in wartime London, television was just a fledgling technology, mothballed by the BBC for the duration. The cinema then was the global medium of mass entertainment, a secular church, a communal experience, its creation an industry and for some an art-form of vast potential.

But in the last 70 years, its small-screen rival has overtaken cinema as the world’s primary mass medium. Today it is ubiquitous, almost inescapable. On phones, tablets and any screen anywhere, television is now more of a constant environment which we all inhabit than a discrete entertainment. The possibility of President Donald Trump reminds us of its awesome powers to shape reality.

Thomson is fascinated by the medium and its messages. His book is not an exhaustive narrative history but a succession of essays of limpid allusive brilliance on aspects of television: commercials, talking heads, comedy, crime shows, politics, box sets. And throughout there is a deep engagement with what television has done to us and may do: “It’s not that there is an elephant in the room—by now the elephant has become the room. And television is not simply a means of fun, education, and art for the world. Our being wired to and by screens is the world we have.”