Oh, Carole

Television is no longer Britain's cultural unifier. But it has left me with a stock of tender personal memories and a special fondness for Carole the test card girl
March 20, 2000

After the war, there were great hopes for television in Britain. It would hold this crumbling kingdom together by supplying moving images direct to the living room, straight into the otherwise impenetrable heart of British life. But few of us then contemplated that, as a result, our living rooms would be full of Ena Sharples, Albert Steptoe and Basil Fawlty. Or that nationwide television would connect the individuals of Britain through soap operas and sitcoms, and through a shared cultural memory densely criss-crossed with television catchphrases, game shows, stuffed bears, cookery programmes, costume dramas, cop shows, "and finallys," or fly-on-the-wall documentaries.

After the war most broadcasters assumed that television would be a much more conventionally unifying affair. In 1949, Norman Collins, then controller of BBC television, wrote: "With nationwide television, when the King leaves Buckingham Palace the Mall will extend as far as the Royal Mile and the King will ride simultaneously through the four Kingdoms. A Royal Wedding will be a nation's wedding. On Remembrance Day the shadow of the Cenotaph will fall across the whole country and on great rejoicings the fireworks of Hyde Park will burst and sparkle at every fireside."

Collins only had to wait four years for his notion of television as national unifier to come true. After the death of George VI, Elizabeth was crowned queen in 1953 under the arc lights at Westminster Abbey, and television was crowned as Britain's most important cultural institution. Elizabeth's coronation was the moment when television overtook radio as the chief national broadcasting medium: 11m tuned into the wireless to hear the coronation, but 20m-56 per cent of the population-watched it on television and heard Richard Dimbleby's narration. Although there were only 2.5m television sets in Britain at the time, Britons found screens which would allow them to see that national transformation, the mutation of Elizabeth into Queen Elizabeth II. In the early 1950s, television schedules were tucked away at the back of the Radio Times, rather as the radio schedules are now. But sales of television sets (then ?85 each) soared in that year, including the one bought by Kenneth Halliwell. In the film Prick Up Your Ears he had sex with Joe Orton in a narrow bed while the Westminster Abbey coronation unfolded on his neglected screen. Thus was Britain's national television born.

The changes which television effected on British society stirred up anti-television groups such as the White Dot campaign, which urged us to turn off our television sets and talk to the neighbours across the fence or to go down the pub for a singalong. This was the kind of face-to-face society that Richard Hoggart celebrated in his book The Uses of Literacy. There he wrote, mournfully, about the slow death of the working-class culture he prized-the oral tradition, the neighbourhood, the sense of a community rooted in place. Instead, mass culture was luring us into a candy floss world of spectacle, a rootless and shiftless society titillated by commercial popular songs, sex-and-violence novels and cheap popular newspapers.

Paradoxically, television kept Hoggart's face-to-face culture alive. In its window, night after night, television kept a flame burning for neighbourly communities which talked in the street and went to the pub for a singalong, just as television was actually undermining that way of relating to others. When we watched Coronation Street, Crossroads, EastEnders, Brookside, we saw face-to-face communities which existed in our time, in the television age, but which seemed very far removed from the ways in which we lived our lives. So, the soaps, which are designed to soothe, also made us anxious: the rich interconnections between neighbourhood characters in soap operas could only contrast with our socially impoverished and increasingly suburbanised Britain.

Since the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the most important national events have been television events (the 1966 World Cup, Charles and Diana's 1981 wedding, Diana's funeral). This was easier to achieve when there were fewer channels, when the streets emptied for half an hour each week and everybody watched Hancock. But even today, when British television consists of five terrestrial channels which, with some regional variations, broadcast nationwide, the medium is the most powerful culturally unifying force in the country.

In The Enchanted Glass, Tom Nairn's book about Britain and its monarchy, he writes: "Like anyone else the British look into a mirror to try and get a sense of themselves... a gilded image is reflected back, made up of sonorous past achievement, enviable stability and the painted folklore of parliament and monarchy." Television, too, is an enchanted glass, but one which has reflected back something more troubling. In television's images we have not just seen the national identity as defined by the Crown (although we have seen that more clearly than Nairn ever imagined), but as expressed through Mrs Slocombe, Captain Mainwaring and others. We have been able to glimpse ourselves ungilded and unappealing, and yet these enchanting reflections have entertained us too.

Nairn reckoned that Lord Reith, the first director-general of the BBC, was, like Fleet Street proprietors, stage manager to the monarchy. But British television has fallen from its Reithian grace. Royalty, partly thanks to television, is no longer intrinsically special, no longer mysterious-perhaps no longer even interesting. Reith would have hated what television has done to our monarchy.

During the second Elizabethan age, then, Britons have been united by a shared memory bank of television experiences. Like a row of joggers on treadmills at a gym or a traffic jam of motorists in the rush hour, we are alone in our little bubbles, yet aware of those around us because we are all doing the same thing. Television is somewhat different because we cannot actually see those with whom we are sharing an activity. But a bond is established, none the less.

british television in the second Elizabethan age has not only created a virtual community, but is leaving behind a stock of tender personal memories. Consider some of mine. My life of television viewing started when I was very young. I can't remember the first programme I saw, but it may well have been Pinky and Perky. Two little blank-faced pig puppets with high-pitched voices sang, told jokes and introduced us to their friends-Vera Vixen, Basil Bloodhound, Bertie Bonkers the baby elephant, Horace Hare. Pinky and Perky were identical, except that Pinky wore red and Perky blue. We all had black and white televisions then, so that information was useless. In fact, Perky also wore a hat on camera, which helped me to distinguish him from Pinky.

I can't remember whether Perky lost the hat when colour television arrived in Britain in 1967, but by then I didn't care which was Pinky and which was Perky. I was more interested in Carole Hersee who, from 1967, as if by a miracle, was always on television when the television repair man came round. She had a cheeky stare and a thin smile. Her expression said that she had done something very naughty or was just about to-and didn't feel guilty at all. She was my kind of girl. I loved to sit on the Parker Knoll sofa, while men in overalls put their tool boxes in the middle of the living room carpet and set to work on adjusting her complexion. Carole, in red dress and matching Alice band, had lank, well-conditioned hair, as was the fashion then. She sat in a circle in the middle of the test card. There was a blackboard behind her, a rag doll clown inert and grinning on her right. She had turned round to face us, with a long bare arm holding a piece of chalk aloft. Carole had begun a game of noughts and crosses on the blackboard. But who was playing against Carole? This was one of the great puzzles of my early childhood. There was an x and a 0 on the board, and Carole seemed to be reaching, with that lovely arm, to draw another mark. Had that slumped invertebrate of a clown acquired a spine and made his mark on the board before collapsing back into a semblance of lifelessness just before the test card came on screen? Or was Carole showing me how the game worked so that we could play together secretly later? Perhaps that was why she smiled so naughtily: she was communicating directly with me, and only me, and thus contravening the principles of television.

Carole finally left our screens in the early 1980s, when the vulgarity of daytime television eclipsed her poignant charms. In the intervening years I had played lots of games with lots of girls, but whenever I stumbled upon Carole's image in a book, or in some television nostalgia programme, she was still that enigmatic foster child of silence and slow time. She helped me to recall sitting and staring on the sofa when I should surely have been doing something more profitable.

In years to come, no doubt, few people will be able to understand the intensity of my engagement with television. But I grew up in a peculiar era during which television was a very special medium-one which enabled me to connect my personal memories in a shared culture. Whatever ethnic, regional, gender and class differences existed in Britain, everyone, everywhere, could talk as equals about how depressing EastEnders was last night. Until recently, too, there were some inalienable rights which each and every Briton could insist on for the price of a licence fee-rights which usually involved access to national sporting events: cup finals, Wimbledon, test match cricket.

but that strange time, during which I grew up-the era in which television was the chief cultural unifier of the country-is coming to an end. The growth of satellite, cable and digital broadcasting means the death of televisually homogeneous Britain. Instead we will live in a non-society of people sitting in their living rooms watching different programmes from their neighbours. Television will become like other consumer durables: a lump of technology which is supposed to do no more than satisfy the desires of desiring machines.

In the near future, television will converge with the internet. We will sit in our living rooms with keyboards on our laps, chatting electronically with shantytown dwellers in Mexico City. The result may not appeal to Richard Hoggart, but social groups on the internet will be much less passively constructed than the television community of old. You won't talk to somebody because they happen to be on the other side of your garden fence, but because there is something about them which interests you.

As a result, the British living room will become private once more. Your neighbours will not know what you are up to in there; although businesses, internet service providers and digital television companies probably will. To fight against these incursions, we will make ourselves more secret, retreating further into the darkness, where we will become more apparently alone than ever before.

Reith once said that good broadcasting gives people what they do not yet know they want. Digital gives people what they do know they want, but I don't like it. I feel as if I am being set free from the constraints of paternalistic, Reithian television and imprisoned in a scarier world in which I have too much choice. I can choose between two business news channels-though one would have been more than enough. I can choose from three 24-hour news networks, though I was happy with at least two fewer. Digital does not meet my demands. What I want is philosophy on television; an Iranian film retrospective; a 24-hour The Flowerpot Men repeats network; Larry Sanders over breakfast; a repeat of the 1982 Aston Villa-Bayern Munich European Cup Final any time soon. This will never happen. How could it? I am too eclectic to be satisfied by the choices on offer, and so is everybody else.

In the pre-digital age, we might have had to watch BBC1 all night, but in so doing we would stumble across things we didn't expect. We were exposed to things. Our demands were not met, but rather created, which was partly what justified public service broadcasting. How could we have known that we wanted to watch David Attenborough whispering in the bushes? Or sheepdogs herding sheep? In the Reithian vision, television was not tailored to ever-changing moods; rather, it was imposed on a viewing public sometimes exasperated, sometimes enchanted.

Indeed, in the pre-digital era, television was one of the things which structured our lives. We used to worship the sun and its movements defined our lives. Then it was the liturgy. Television, since the coronation in 1953, has offered us a structure borrowed from both the sun and the church: it had its seasons, its reassuring parade of moods and events. Television sport, for example, had its year-the Boat Race, the Grand National, the English and Scottish cup finals, Wimbledon-events which had a national character because they were broadcast throughout Britain. Television gave us a shared heritage and a vernacular which came out of the cathode-ray tube into our living rooms then out into playgrounds, factories and offices. Nice to see you? To see you, nice!

Thanks to digital, television is no longer engaging, no longer an event. Once I had two channels and a large knob which enabled me to change between the two. Now I have three remote controls and two porn channels. I have more than 200 channels at my disposal-and a VCR. I have swapped Carole for a world of entertainment, including Greek, German, Italian, French and Indian stations. I have a choice of nearly 50 films a day. I have far too many channels which purport to show classic television, although not one of them shows Pinky and Perky, The Herbs, early Doctor Who, The Woodentops or Carole.

I don't want to feel this dizzying loss of centre and choices which never satisfy; I don't want to feel anxious-that overwhelming spirit of our age, an age of seeming choices and seeming satisfactions. Instead I want to find out new things. I want to be entertained, too. But in that entertainment I want to build up a bank of common memories which link me with other Britons. I want to watch television as I did in the late 1960s, to be absorbed by very little. But this cannot be. Television was not invented to show a still image of a little girl playing noughts and crosses. Television cannot stay still-and I cannot remain a child.

And perhaps, after all, digital television will help us to make our lives richer. We will reduce television to the corner of our lives, where it belongs. When I feel lonely and the house is quiet, I will be less likely to turn on the television-thanks to digital. Despite a lifetime's experience of watching television, I am being cured of my low-level television addiction. It may cost ?30 a month, but I think it's worthwhile.