The complicity of former Play School presenter Baroness Floella Benjamin in passing the repugnant Personal Independence Payment bill in the Lords this week aroused much fury among people of a certain age. This was more than just a beloved and trusted figure from childhood television showing their less appealing side. It was another insult to a generation’s fond memories of time when TV was the shop window of a chiefly benevolent state; another nail in the already crowbar-proof coffin of municipal television.
Municipal television is most often associated with drama, of the socially agitated, “gritty” variety. Plays for Today like The Spongers (the endless travails of a single mother on the breadline in Silver Jubilee Land), United Kingdom (rebel northern council faces police showdown over cuts opposition) and countless others (several starring the good Baroness herself) are often cited as covering the kind of subject matter that’s no longer tackled. And indeed it isn’t, quite: social injustice and inequality are by no means absent today, but the personal is usually brought to the fore, with the political message, if there is any, left to be inferred by the viewer. A victory for dramatic subtlety in theory; too often an off-the-peg vehicle for a Moving Central Performance set in exquisitely colour-graded squalor in practice. Don’t preach, Ken, they’ll just flick over.
Blaming modern dramatists for this softening up would be missing the point. Until relatively recently, all television was steeped in communality. Before the afternoons were turned into a shiny, puce-trimmed shopping precinct by the Kilroy clan, they played host to a pegboard community college the size of a nation. The former welcomes two sorts of folk: respectable suburbia in M&S formal daywear and vinyl-shrouded cartoon proles (one group rather more warmly than the other). The latter catered for the people who sat between the two. Bob Hoskins shifted sideboards and conjugated verbs in On the Move. In Everyday Maths, Arthur English and Jack Wild discovered the perils of rounding their TV licence bill down instead of up: a chilly evening watching the big match outside Curry’s shop window. Meanwhile Floella’s colleague Fred Harris made light of grocery bills with the biggest pocket calculator known to man. (“Programme advisor: Reg Slack.”)
Between the programmes, PiFs predominated. A glance at the example above, in which Leonard Rossiter urges eternal hapless everyman Roy Kinnear to visit his town hall to see about getting an indoor toilet, will engender divergent reactions split down solid generational lines. Anyone under thirty will likely have a hard time relating them to the country they know, not so much because of a change in quality of life as a shift of media emphasis. Weekday mornings in the late 1970s were littered with programmes made by and for shop stewards, with plain envelope titles like On Union Business, Worktalk and, best of all, Educate, Agitate, Organise. For light relief, In The Making followed “the creation of a wax sculpture of the Rt. Hon. William Whitelaw MP”. They’d have died an even greater ratings death than they no doubt did at the time if Jeremy Kyle had been around, but the point is that municipal telly was constantly there, a steady civic hum to put the honk and toot of Saturday nights into context.
But that was very much then, and the modern stay-at-home audience has traded the gentle (if slightly patronising) promise of a better world via the Town Hall for the forbiddingly inane entreaties of Ocean Finance and TV’s Mr Real Lawyers. The idea of a shonky yet largely supportive state fell out of the warp and weft of television almost as prelude to the dissolution of the real thing. When times toughened once more, the lower depths of business filled the gaps as only they knew how. In afternoon ad breaks a state-sponsored squirrel once gave advice on dodging parked cars. Now in the same slots those cars are insured by an ebullient bulldog with a penchant for fiddling the books, a character out of Charles Dickens’s Animal Farm. TV’s fallen into a state, but the state’s fallen out of TV. We must ennoble Fred Harris before it’s too late.