TV watching

An American family watching television c.1958, via Wikimedia Commons
An American family watching television c.1958, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve written before about my website Picturegoing, which is progressively gathering evidence of people viewing pictures. It started off by covering cinemagoing, as recorded in diaries, oral histories, memoirs, news reports, novels, poems. pictures and so on – any form of evidence that records directly, or indirectly, the personal experience of viewing pictures.

But what do I mean by viewing pictures? I’m not entirely sure, and the Picturegoing site is a way of finding out. My roots are in cinema history, but I’ve become increasingly uncertain as to what history that actually represents, once you set aside the idea of cinema as art and think more of the experience of the audience (or the individual viewer). Cinema histories often look back into the pre-history of the medium to optical toys, magic lanterns, panoramas and other such devices of the nineteenth century and before. Sometimes such studies extend their range into television, and latterly into online video, and the growth of different platforms on which to experience the moving image has confused the history. What is cinema in an age of widescreen TVs? What is television when I can catch-up on programmes on my phone? What has changed in the switch from watching a film amid a crowd in a cinema and watching that same film amid a crowd on a train via a tablet?

This is the theme of a really interesting and thought-provoking book that I’ve been reading recently, In Broad Daylight: Movies and Spectators After the Cinema, by Gabriele Pedullà. His subject is how the understanding of moving images is determined by the conditions in which they are experienced, asking how films are changing in the new environment of plasma screens and smartphones. In particular he investigates the degree to which classical cinephilia has been a creation of special circumstances i.e. viewing the subject on a large screen, as part of a crowd, within a darkened space – what he labels the Dark Cube.

It’s a fascinating and scholarly journey that he takes us on, with excursions into film theory, architectural history (particularly that of Roman architect Vitruvius and then the Italian Renaissance and the construction of enclosed spaces for dramatic performances), and theories of spectatorship. Yet what I found most interesting about it was the author’s uncertainty about this new world of multi-platform viewing. He writes as someone who has never viewed a film on a tablet in his life. He alludes vaguely to ‘video players’, and lumps them with television, the device which started the process of undermining the special qualities of the cinema experience. His real theme is loss – the loss of a particular way of experiencing motion pictures, and the cinephilia that it engendered. It is nostalgia. It regrets the retreat of what is past; it does not much like the present, even while it purports to explain it.

The history of viewing pictures is one where the image is constant but the circumstances change. Images projected onto a surface have had a public appeal going back centuries, even millennia. They became commodified, distributed and shared on a massive scale through cinema, where for a time people sat in a theatre to experience what was on the screen because there had been a tradition of building theatres for entertainments. Then they moved to the home, because that is where the heart is. Now they have moved to the individual, because we think all the more for ourselves and find ourselves on the move. As Pedullà notes, “movies change first of all because spectators change”. Only the viewing, and the viewer, are constant.

So what Picturegoing is trying to document is the experience of viewing pictures. But are they always moving pictures? Here I’m not sure. I included magic lanterns and other ‘pre-cinema’ projections in Picturegoing a while ago, which are usually (though not always) still. What is so important about motion, especially is what goes on in the head of the viewer is filled with motion, as one gets in this typical response to a magical lantern projection, from Harriet Martineau, recalling an exhibition of the Phantasmagoria in the early 1800s:

When I was four or five years old, we were taken to a lecture of Mr. Drummond’s, for the sake, no doubt, of the pretty shows we were to see, — the chief of which was the Phantasmagoria of which we had heard, as a fine sort of magic-lantern. I did not like the darkness, to begin with; and when Minerva appeared, in a red dress, at first extremely small, and then approaching, till her owl seemed coming directly upon me, it was so like my nightmare dreams that I shrieked aloud. I remember my own shriek. A pretty lady who sat next us, took me on her lap, and let me hide my face in her bosom, and held me fast. How intensely I loved her, without at all knowing who she was!

The motion that matters is that which forms in the mind, not that which has been produced mechanically or electronically on the screen. If that’s the case, then why don’t I include looking at photographs, book illustrations, or paintings? Just what is the viewing experience?

I don’t know as yet, and I’m using Picturegoing to try and find out. I’ve begun with cinema, and I’ve added magic lanterns and video streaming into theatres. I’ve now introduced television. Initially this was with some qualms, because the move from public to private space seemed so dramatic a shift, but not so if you consider the mind rather than the place. At any rate, I kicked things off with Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle’s sublime creation Nigel Molesworth, and his priceless observations on family viewing of television in the early 1950s:

Gosh super! we hav something to contend with which no other generation have ever had before i.e. the television cheers cheers cheers. Everybody know wot a t.v. is it is a square box with a screen. You switch on and o hapen, then just when you have given up hope and are going off to buzz conkers a great booming voice sa, ‘That’s an interesting point, postelthwaite. Wot does higginbottom feel? Higginbottom? ect. ect.’ It may be an interesting point but i could not care less and just go away agane when a ghastley face suddenly appere. It is worse than a squished tomato but it hold me in hypnotic trance and it is the same with molesworth 2, tho he always look dopey like that. We sit and watch more and more ghastley faces with out mouths open and even forget to chew the buble gum we are the slaves of the machine.

This captures the peculiarly hypnotic effect of television, its ability to capture the attention through simply being, better than almost any piece of writing I know. I’ve followed it up with experiences of watching Neighbours in the 1980s, the Basil Brush Show in the 1970s, and the Baird televisor in 1926. I have a good list of memoir and documentary reports to quote from, but I’m keen to hear from anyone who might know of telling texts on the experience of watching television, particularly if they come from outside the UK or the USA. I prefer texts that relate to the physical experience i.e. those that show some awareness of time, place and condition, though this is not always so easy, since television encourages a focus on the screen to the exclusion of all else (not that TV is exclusive in this, of course) and because we’re TV reviewers these days. But knowing what Downton Abbey was like last night, or what Upstairs Downstairs was like forty years ago, is not of any use to me. What was it like to watch Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs, or TV news, adverts, children’s TV, natural history programmes, sport, or whatever – that is what is important. What the mind experiences has to be anchored within the context of the day-to-day. That is picturegoing.

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