What is the worst invention ever to be inflicted upon the population? It’s a question that could lead to a myriad of answers, but I’d nominate 24-hour television as a contender. The first indications we were heading the way of America was with the beginning of breakfast TV in 1983 as Frank Bough’s chunky pullovers knocked spots off TV-am’s so-called ‘famous five’. Three years later, the BBC launched their daytime TV service along with the post-political career of Robert Kilroy-Silk, and room for the telly to breathe was narrowed further. ITV had already had a daytime service of sorts since the relaxation of broadcasting hours in 1972, taking advantage of the changes with a lunchtime line-up including ‘Rainbow’ and ‘Crown Court’, followed by the magazine show ‘Good Afternoon’, the fondly-recalled ‘Paint Along with Nancy’, a home-grown soap such as ‘General Hospital’, an imported Aussie soap such as ‘The Sullivans’, and usually a monochrome movie from the 50s. But it was the arrival of ITV’s networked through-the-night schedule in 1988 that altered the British television landscape forever.
Initially, the programmes filling this slot were oddly memorable. There were dubbed German cop shows from the 70s like ‘Tatort’ (renamed ‘Scene of the Crime’) and reruns of US series from the same decade such as ‘Night Gallery’, ‘Kojak’, and even ‘The Partridge Family’; viewers in the Yorkshire TV region may also recall ‘Jobfinder’, a uniquely tedious Ceefax-style service advertising employment opportunities in the county to the accompaniment of a Kenny G tribute act. But it was mainly the ‘yoof’ market that was catered for, with specially-made shows like ‘Night Network’, ‘The Power Hour’, and the so-bad-it’s-good ‘The Hit Man and Her’, in which Pete Waterman and Michaela Strachan attempted to conduct interviews with DJs and dancers over the deafening boom of a nightclub PA system. It took the BBC ten years to follow suit, when Princess Diana’s death in the middle of the night led to the inauguration of rolling news through to the crack of dawn, curtailing the traditional closedown as the BBC1 globe spun to the strains of ‘God Save the Queen’.
Up until the late 80s, with both BBC1 and ITV closing down before 1.00am, it was BBC2 that usually provided anyone coming home from the pub or club with something to watch, usually ‘The Open University’, with the entertainment quota coming from the fashion sense of the hirsute lecturers. Even Channel 4 was closing down in its first few years, albeit later than its established rival channels, and it didn’t come on air until the early evening as it was. The newest kid on the broadcasting block had extended its hours by the early 90s, with its very first outing into breakfast TV – not ‘The Big Breakfast’, but a news magazine show called ‘The Channel 4 Daily’, presented by a cast resembling yuppie office workers.
BBC2 was the last British terrestrial TV channel to still close down for the day late on, but the disappearance of Pages from Ceefax in 2012 quietly brought a broadcasting age to an end. However, the alternatives today fall short of the excitement many felt towards the novelty of 24-hour TV at its birth. Of course, there are the thousand-and-one digital channels that were seemingly created to view for a couple of seconds before moving onto the next, but the terrestrial options are no better. ITV has taken the cheapest possible route with interactive game-shows, giving pissed insomniacs a pretty presenter to wank over or the chance to shout out answers to questions that wouldn’t tax the brain of the average six-year-old; failing that, there are always repeats of ‘The Jeremy Kyle Show’ with the addition of in-vision sign-language (which must largely consist of rude gesticulations). The BBC opts for round-the-clock news, with the same headlines on a loop for what feels like forever.
This then leads into the breakfast shows and the daytime shows, all of which have successfully defined dumbing down ever since they edged educational TV off morning screens in the 80s. Bland celebrity sofa chinwags, bland quiz shows, bland soaps, bland antiques, bland cookery, bland makeover series – it’s like a TV executive decided Python’s Spanish Inquisition, with the comfy chair and cushions as instruments of torture, was a manual for television’s future. The whole daytime TV structure is a televisual version of the playlist from a local radio station; it seems there’s no space for a TV equivalent of Radio 4 until BBC4 appears in the evening. Then again, why should there be? Why does anyone even need TV during the day, anyway? Is the NHS waiting-list for lobotomies that long?
The perceived necessity of broadcasters to deny the viewer breathing space, something that also encompasses the bombardment of trailers that have effectively obliterated the time-honoured practice of end credits, is symptomatic of a culture in which standing still is a crime. It seems almost inconceivable now that for endless hours during the day through the 60s, 70s and into the 80s, the whole service would take a nap and leave viewers with an abstract image of a schoolgirl and a clown frozen in an unfinished game of noughts and crosses. As a child, I found the image mesmerising and it still induces a sense of stillness and calm whenever I catch sight of it on YouTube now. The contemporary craving for moving pictures to be accessible at any hour of the day via the gogglebox is something I can’t quite fathom, but then I’m lucky; I predate it and can cope without it. Pandora’s Box cannot be closed now, but I still believe less is more.
© The Editor