The recent death of English actress Wendy Richard sparks some 1970s TV memories for single-channel land survivor, KARL MACDERMOTT.
IMAGINE A LAND where there was never an argument over what to watch on television. Imagine a land where misplacing a remote control was not a catastrophe because one didn’t need one. Imagine a land where your TV guide looked like a missalette with a few photographs of strange smiling men in sideburns and big lapels. Well, that land existed. I come from that land. One-channel land. Galway in the 1970s.
I was reminded of that land recently by the death of English television actress Wendy Richard. Wendy was a firm fixture of my childhood and before achieving lasting fame in EastEndersas Pauline Fowler she played Miss Brahms in the now quaintly-dated BBC sitcom Are You Being Served?, a programme that regularly ran in our one-channel universe. As a title, not only did it sum up the saucy shenanigans of the men's and women's department of the Grace Brothers' store but it also encapsulated a question we as television viewers were constantly asking our, as he was then referred to, minister for Posts and Telegraphs.
Were we being served? And the answer was no. Definitely not. At least we didn’t think so, for if television was chewing gum for the eyes, as famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright had once said, we in the west of Ireland only had that one stick of gum, it was over-chewed and we were desperate for the whole packet.
Our relatives on the east coast were in TV heaven with BBC1, BBC2 and HTV. Sadly we were living up to that old adage – to (TV) hell or Connacht. Our brethren in Leinster had longer broadcast hours, more drama, more sport (ie English soccer), more colour, and if they ever lost transmission on one of their television stations all they had to do was switch over rather than sit and stare at a silent goggle-box while reading a written announcement which always began: “Is dona linn.”
But it wasn’t just people in Leinster that were laughing at us behind their three TV guides – even the good people of Roscommon could receive UTV. And that was really unfair. I mean, if we sophisticated cosmopolitans from Galway city were doing without, those backwoodsmen from Boyle should do without as well.
No, it was nothing more, we all agreed, than plain discrimination against the second-most-oppressed people ever, those of the west and southwest seaboard, and an obvious conspiracy by the ruling classes to keep us in the bog by having us watch Michael Dillon and Mart and Market until the end of time or at least until the end of the nightly broadcast, which in those days was usually three minutes past 11pm.
Growing up in one-channel land gave us a culturally skewered view of the world. More people than we ever thought spoke Irish. And played the tin whistle and fiddle. And engaged in set-dancing. In my childhood, I had never met any of these mightily odd people but they were always popping up on television. All English people were cheeky chappies engaged in double entendre and innuendo-driven wordplay. A very high percentage of the American population were either private detectives or in the police force. People who appeared in quiz shows were incredibly stupid.
So what did we do to remedy this situation? In those pre-internet days, we wrote letters. Lots of them. To RTÉ. Begging them to show programmes we couldn’t see. To the government – in a strange mirroring of the current lack of broadband availability nationwide – begging them to bring in the technology so we could receive the other channels. Local papers started campaigns. Local politicians uttered soothing inconsequential grunts. But all that this lead to was many sore wrists (ours) and much hand-wringing (theirs).
So we sighed. And suffered some more as we watched The Angelus(a repeat), Here's Lucy(a woman with dyed red hair works in an office), Amuigh Faoin Spéir(a man spends much of his time crouching about in nature), indecipherable Czech cartoons (indecipherable Czech cartoons), Upstairs Downstairs(some people chat and prepare food in a pantry while others sit around and sip sherry), Kojak (dangerous things keep happening to a bald New Yorker with tooth-cavity problems) and The Good Old Days (a very irritating man in a moustache shouts a lot in front of a group of people dressed up in old costumes).
My mother tried looking on the positives. We, as children, were out more and fitter because we spent less time in front of the television, but we refuted her point by saying that while we weren’t putting on any extra pounds which could lead to a future life of slothfulness and obesity, we were picking up endless colds and bouts of influenza because of that relentless Galway rain.
She tried another tack. We were better at doing our homework because there was less distraction from the television. But we questioned that line of argument by stating that Galway schoolchildren did not necessarily outperform the rest of the country in the Leaving Cert results.
When she stated that if nothing else our eyes were healthier, we knew she was getting a little desperate. Especially when two of us already wore glasses.
Things finally changed in November 1978 with the arrival of a second television channel, RTÉ 2. Instead of giving us all the other channels, the powers that be created a brand new channel, comprising of . . . the best programming from all the other channels. Another Irish solution to an Irish problem.
Being a slightly cussed lot, we feigned contentment but muttered darkly into our Ready Brek as we quietly dreamt of a day when we would have 17 channels and would own one of those strange implements called remote controls.
But what is that famous old saying? “Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true.” Fast forward 30 years. The whole population has 17 channels – at least. Some of us have 170 channels. But the strange thing is, more channels seems to mean less choice. And less quality.
There is an old rule in screen-acting, “less is more”. The less the actor does, the more effective his performance. I have come to the conclusion that this also applies to television channels. Less is more. And for me to finally make this observation is a truly amazing turnaround. Because for most of my formative years, I was the Oliver Twist of television viewers. All I wanted was more. But no longer. And in weaker moments while mindlessly flicking, I sometimes, bizarrely, feel an acute pang of nostalgia for those one- channel land days and, driven to despair by yet another show in which some non-entity with a clipboard admonishes some other non-entity with a weight problem, or some fourth-rate showbiz has-been tells some second-rate showbiz wannabe that they can’t sing, or some egomaniacal chef sprinkles a salad with semi-sun-dried tomatoes while abusing some gangly trainee, I long for the gruff simplicity of Michael Dillon, Lucille Ball’s canned laughter track, or most of all the baffling otherness of those indecipherable Czech cartoons.
Karl MacDermott is a writer and film critic on The Right Hookon Newstalk