Diary. Sunday 3rd September 2006

I’ve been lounging in front of the telly for most of the day. Don’t you just love digital TV? I don’t mean Sky 1, Rupert Murdoch and all that rich man’s telly – which just seems to be the Premier League everyday, with The Simpsons on at halftime and some shiny new American drama that’s all style and no content – but the free channels that come through a digi-box. I think they’re great. I remember the massive adrenaline rush of excitement surrounding the launch of Channel 4, when as a nation we all gathered ‘round the small highly reflective glass screen to watch Arthur Askey play the spoons. I mean FOUR CHANNELS. FOUR BLOODY CHANNELS! We were spoiled for choice. Now a mere twenty odd years later there are dozens upon dozens of channels to watch thanks to the binary wonder of digital TV.

Of all the channels available through that magical little box my personal favourites are UKTV History, More 4, and ITV 3. Not because they offer anything new – the so-called new comedy on BBC3 is routinely appalling – but rather because they bring comfort and cosy familiarity through repeats. Bloody hell, I say to myself, I remember this episode of ‘Lovejoy’, it’s the one with the antique silk Kimono worn buy the Prince Regent! Blimey, look at the size of those mobile ’phones on ‘Chancer’! For fuck’s sake, did people really wear those Diana Princess of Wales shoulder pads like in ‘Howard’s Way’?! This is TV as a time machine. A portal to a world that’s gone – that slowly dissolved away. It’s like seeing a well-cherished Ford Sierra Cosworth hammering down the M1 while you’re driving your CO2 emission friendly computer controlled automatic people carrier – each programme represents an era that vanished without you noticing; and that lost time only becomes apparent through comparison. Digital TV allows me to step back inside that world – into safety and reassurance. To walk again with Tinker and Eric around the musty antique shops of rural Essex in 1985, looking for Oliver Cromwell’s typewriter, to get the horn to Susannah Harker in black leggings (‘Chancer’), and re-dig all those barren fields of mystery with cider-quaffing Phil from ‘Time Team’. It’s amazing. Sat comfortably on my mint green leather settee, a ginger tea and a half-soaked hob-nob in hand, I have become a Time Lord. I stride chronology like a Colossus with my remote control.

However, it’s not all good. Linked with the invention of the remote control, this massive glut of channel choice positively encourages a short attention span. In the good old days you HAD to watch a bloody programme through to its final credits or it meant a power struggle for whose turn it was to switch over, or even worse getting up off the arse and brain cradling comfort of the sofa to turn over yourself. These days it’s flick – Montel Williams talking to reformed gun-land pipe-smoking crack addicts who now deliver an anti-drug message through the soul-saving melody of a barbershop choir; flick – Alan Titchmarsh skiing down a glacier explaining how the Pennines were created and the best time to plant Nasturtiums; flick – Ainsley Harriot conjuring up a Sunday lunch from road kill; flick – former Tory cabinet Minister and jail bird Jonathan Aitkin spreading the word on the cholesterol busting effects of Tantric sex (‘I haven’t ejaculated since 1988, it’s served me better than a truck load of Oil of Olay…’). And on and on and on and on…

There’s no encouragement to watch anything through to a conclusion anymore. Repeats and the option to record have devalued the viewing experience. Who shot JR? Who gives a fuck? They’re making lemon flambeau crispy duck using Fairy Liquid on UKTV Food! I’ll watch it later. We’ve lost that shared community of TV that we once had. We can now watch all we want when we want – all you need is a limitless amount of free time and a TV. And thanks to the encouragement of a lax social security system (and, in my case, prolonged sick leave) millions and millions of people have wonderful opportunities for slackness. But is it healthy? Is it a good thing? (“I’m here live in Norwich to discuss this phenomenon…” so says another Kilroy-Silk genetic clone, surrounded by pasty individuals). This slow breaking down of the ability to concentrate? Through a kind of reverse evolution brain sizes will dwindle to until the average British unemployed man will have a cerebrovascular system that wouldn’t look out of place surmounting a walnut whip – the rest of the skull will be filled with an amniotic fluid consisting of Special Brew and Pot Noodle. Or perhaps even shrink all together so that the head looks like a sock puppet fist bobbing about between two shoulders.

Being off work for so long I’m feeling the effect myself (believe it or not). Due to endless free time undermining my ability to recall facts, figures or even simple words, I can now barely memorize a three item shopping list and have to confess that I have totally – and I fear irretrievably – forgotten my own middle name. I’m fairly certain it begins with ‘A’, and that it’s not Adrienne. Some days I might as well be drinking lead laced coffee or liquid mercury, such is the debilitating effect of idleness and TV.

The strangeness of this fractured viewing experience isn’t helped by the persistent irregularity that the programmes are repeated. I sit there thinking, ‘surely I’ve seen Fred Dibnah knock this chimney down today already?’ (“Did you like that?” – Bloody hero) or ‘Isn’t this the episode where Jim Rockford (dew-dew-doo-doo-diddle-iddle-doo-doo-dew-dew) gets hit over the napper with a shovel? Wasn’t that on this morning?’ There’s no system to it all. It’s all a bit disorientating, especially to someone to whom the change from Monday to Tuesday, Wednesday to Friday, and so on, means very little in real terms anyway. To see Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes crack the same case on three separate occasions in a single day can be a little bit disturbing. Even more worrying when I can’t remember how he solved it the two previous times. ‘My God, Watson! The deadly South African Pit Viper! My cane!’

One of the strangest things on digital TV are the multitude of games channels. All populated by ‘phetted-up, bubbly big-titted blondes with a years supply of Clarins make-up on their glistening faces, speaking a deranged and potentially infinite monologue to a single camera for hours and hours and hours on end in an attempt to make the viewers – sad, lonely anti-social misfits masturbating fruitlessly in their homes between syrupy cups of tea and microwave meals – call premium rate telephone numbers in the anorexically slender hope of huge cash prizes if only they can solve the piss-takingly easy conundrums, anagrams and spot the difference photos lifted straight from the ‘Bumper Book Of Puzzles For Boys Aged 6’. I find myself watching them just to see what tangent the presenter will come up with next to keep the momentum going. It’s like watching someone’s personality unravel in front of your eyes. ‘Oh, I need a caller, I went shopping for milk this morning – such a selection! I need a caller! Come on, cash prize! Spot the difference! I need a caller! Do you think that Samuel Taylor Coleridge was right in his assessment of the characteristics of genius – both Absolute and Commanding – as exemplified in his poem ‘Kubla Khan’ and further elaborated on in Biographia Literaria? I need a caller! Cash! Cash! Cash!’

And then there’s the wonder of reality TV. Real lives ripped to pieces. It’s like watching laboratory mice bumping around a big maze. Except it’s not real lives – it’s either lives that are dysfunctional to start with; e.g. ‘23 year old single Mum of ten, Kylie from Wolverhampton deals with day to day life as a trans-gendered heroin addict while trying to trace her long lost father who was a gay man in debt who sold his sperm to Kylie’s 25 stone, ganja tootin’ Rastifarian 65-year-old mother’. Or potentially ‘normal’ lives put under pressure – ‘we see Weston-super-mare Conservative Counsellor Jan live six months with Gypsies, this week Jan sells heather and learns how to make new VIN plates for Mitsubishi Shoguns, then gives blowjobs to sales executives in the car park of the Birch Service Station on the M62 for a fiver a go.’ I remember an episode of Alan Partridge years ago when Alan was desperately pushing increasingly inane outlines for programmes to a BBC commissioner – ‘Youth hostelling with Chris Eubank!’ That warped future is now here. Who knows, perhaps today’s TV programming is a massive, sprawling exercise in post-modernism.

And never before has our own nation’s rancid, chapped arse cheeks been so championed as in the British versions of the Jerry Springer format – Trisha, Jeremy Kyle and their psychic-blood-sucking ilk. Lard heavy chavs from some cancerous breeze block housing estate charging onto the stage, Elizabeth Duke golden clowns swinging like the tiger teeth on a tribeman’s ebony chest, fingers pointing with the absolute certainty of those who from birth have been relentlessly poisoned by E numbers, screaming: ‘he’s my brother and it’s our baby, so back off Dad you only ever tupped me up my arse so it can’t be yours!’ And so TV justifies and perpetuates their ugly lifestyles by even considering them worth showing.

Thankfully help – of a kind – is at hand. Since I’ve been ill and off work for almost nine months it’s only by watching ‘Judge Judy’ that I’ve been able to keep in touch with reality. Something that I’ve had a slender enough grip on at the best of times. But Judge Judy’s is a world populated by selfish, egocentric morons caught in some ugly behavioural spiral who desperately want restitution and public vindication over the ownership rights to a dead gerbil. Just when you’re in your own safe, friendly little world and start to think – aren’t people great! – because the only ones you deal with are your own cuddly friends, devoted other halves and supportive family – some redneck with a huge ginger goatee appears on screen demanding $2,000 for a scratched fender incurred when he clipped a limping Grandmother on a pedestrian crossing. Judge Judy Sheindlin bitch slaps those inbred, selfish motherfuckers down with her deadly common sense! Go, Judy! Go, Judy!

TV – I love it.

Anyway, I’d better go, as I’m ready for another syrupy cup of tea and I think I’ve just heard the microwave ping.

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