Doug Anderson on “Television”

good evening

“Good evening and welcome to television!”

Most viewers over the past half century would remember Bruce Gyngell’s convivial introduction to the advent of the televisual era in Australia on September 15, 1956.

It has been replayed often over the years as television  – never a medium to shy away from self-congratulation in all its forms – trawls over its back pages in an endless procession of nostalgic compilations.

I was around at the time but missed the momentous event.

We didn’t have a television then. My family was old school and the upcoming Melbourne Olympics notwithstanding, my father reckoned the whole thing was a passing fad ….better to stick with books, backyard activities, the wireless, barefoot cricket in the street, cubby houses, scouts and vigorous exercise in the park… not to mention minor acts of vandalism.

But we all gathered on the front lawn in 1957 to watch Sputnik – the first man-made extraterrestrial satellite, pass overhead as a faint white dot. The Old Man was rapt by the science but, like most, could not anticipate what that little spiked sphere would mean to global communications in the years ahead.

Today we accept the unfolding marvels of the video medium as commonplace, craning our heads towards ever more sophisticated means of access and delivery but can we envisage, from what we can see, what the future holds or should we rely on a series such as Charlie Brooker’s disturbing Black Mirror for a glimpse?

For the vast majority of brain-fagged telly tubbies and open-mouthed gawpers, it doesn’t matter. Que sera sera.

Can the rest of us as we conjure the prospect of a day in the future when someone wearing a vintage tuxedo will have the privilege of facing a camera and saying: “Orright! So farewell to ver tube my lovelies – iss all over! Nighty night!”

Some slender comfort to dear old Howard Beale who in his famous Network rant of 1976, urged us to open our windows, stick out our necks and bellow: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more! An admirably pro-active response to the muck and bilge inflicted upon us and a better option than simply reaching for the remote and surfing away through the tripe in search of something….anything…else.

Pressing toodle-oo on the remote and consigning scores of channels to the Stygian blackness from whence they sprang is always an option.

Meanwhile, back in the 50s, a few doors up the street, Grandad Eager had installed a brand new PYE receiver and, most afternoons, hosted groups of neighbourhood kids, hooked on the new world of home entertainment, in his upstairs sitting room. Thanks to Percy we lapped up Huckleberry Hound, 77 Sunset Strip (click click!), Hawaii Five O, Bonanza and other black and white classics.

My favourite was Danger Man starring the incomparable Patrick McGoohan – later immortalized as the nameless agent in The Prisoner (1968). It certainly beat huddling outside Bennett’s Electrics on Military Road where a Stromberg-Carlsson receiver had been set up in the display window with an external speaker and a sign displaying enticing lay-buy terms..

A few years later my viewing was dominated by visits to the Wayside Chapel after Sunday afternoons in The Domain , thence to Mrs G’s hamburger salon between the Oaks Hotel in Neutral Bay and the North Sydney Bus Depot where the Sunday Night Movie screened in faux  “compatible colour” – meaning a set which had three different colour bands – green, sepia and blueish black.

Consequently all my early viewing was outside the home and while there was undoubtedly much worth missing, Network Nine has, over the years, generously assembled hundreds of hours of stick-on nostalgia in a host of retrospective tribute programs dredged from what Roy Harper dubbed ‘The Archives Of Oblivion.’

As a determinedly refractory/outsider type, I prided myself on never watching Countdown or Bandstand. I never knew the theme music to Leave It To Beaver or The Brady Bunch.

I’m eternally thankful that fate inclined me to pursue alternative music styles and not squander too much time with space-wasters like Molly Meldrum and Brian Henderson. – the bland leading the bland.

A mediocre man is always at his best.

Yet I must confess to having watched The Kessler Twins on the Scopitone video jukebox at The Oaks dozens of times. The song? Quando Quando Quando (When, When, When?). The more pressing question then– and one which saw far too many 20 cent coins disappear down the slot – was: Did Alice Kessler forget her underpants in the Colosseum sequence? Having checked it on YouTube just now the answer remains inconclusive. So much for the wonders of digital platforms.

In the mid 70s matters involving the media and significant cultural shifts began to develop more clarity and David Bowie’s line about transition through transmission – from the less-than penetrable but very sexy Station To Station album – amplified a wave of changed relevancy.

The Lizard King altered his appearance endlessly but the cascade of personae was in fact part of a greater transition embracing propositions and processes outlined decade earlier by Marshal McLuhan.

It was more than visual after all. ….product awareness mutated into process awareness.

As the redoubtable Clive James – THE television commentator of his time – noted “Fame is a mask that eats the face.” Plus ca change, meme ca change, eh Commander?

We began to expect  – and then – demand more. The 24 hour news cycle…instant visual reportage of everything and nothing – more often than not, nothing – has been accelerated exponentially by the rise of new media. More immediate technology has obliged television to cross-pollinate with other electronics and to re-invent itself across domains and “platforms” governed by the instant.

Thanks to quirks of fate I enjoyed a cheerful run of about 30 years as a commentator on content in the pages of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Guide lift-out before being invited to walk the plank as that venerable organ began taking on water in a hostile media tide.

Sadly, despite long-serving rats being ordered to abandon ship, it struggles to stay afloat. (Scuttling sounds among some self-serving  members of the remaining crew).

Now, standing on the dock, waving off the good ship Analogue as it departs for the breakers yard, it’s plain to see digital has effectively ruled the airwaves for a fair while.

And time perhaps to remember the elemental wonders of the medium. Television is still a miracle – pictures transmitted invisibly through the air – to re-appear wherever and whenever we care to press the relevant button.

The miracle has undoubtedly been sullied by indifference on both sides of the screen but it survives the tsunamis of neon vomit, irrelevancy, reality bilge and the offal regurgitated by low common denominator players looking to mess with our minds and our wallets.

A mediocre man is, indeed, always at his best – as am I after a large glass of Madame Curie’s Olde Lourdes style vodka with coconut.

It’s a shame Bruce Gyngell isn’t still around – it would have been rather neat for him to have been the one to say farewell to analogue.

For those who still take delight from the manifold wonders of the televisual domain, it’s probably apt to recall the passing of another old technology only recently discarded due to obsolescence.

In May 1844 Samuel Morse sent the famous telegraphic message “What hath God wrought!” (Book Of Numbers  Ch 23 V 23), using his eponymous code.

The final transmission, acknowledging the global superceding of that system, was despatched by India’s state run Bharat Sanchar Nigam network, some 160 years later.

The last message was, fittingly, the same as the first.

Pleasing symmetry there.

With the official crossover from analogue to digital, few will notice much difference – television is a seamless element of modern life as much about reassurance as it is about provocation, fear-mongering, face slapping, pants wetting and mind control.

In some regards this Festival is a memorial service for a delivery system as venerable as the enduring postal service and one deserving equal veneration.

Why shouldn’t we pay tribute to a technology that has served our society?

Television at its best is an educator, a friend and constant companion despite the gore and rank time wasting it also delivers.

It’s fitting to see off the analogue service with fond regards and some sense of appreciation.

You only have to walk down the street to see how carelessly we scorn and sneer at technological hardware when it fails to deliver what we expect. More and more plasma screens, computers and even laptop devices that have provided stimulation, excitement , education and entertainment can be seen in the Council throw-outs.

What hath God wrought?

Doug Anderson was posted at the Sydney Morning Herald for 47 years. Beginning his time there as a proof reader, in 1969, he soon embarked upon reviewing film and television as a columnist who struck a rapport with his dry sense of humour and non hierarchical reviews of programs which have uniformly shaped and influenced  viewers across the nation. He is cited as saying ‘he never really liked television’ but notes that TV has the power to open viewers to other experiences and lifestyles and importantly those on the edges of society; encouraging understanding and better social interactions in people’s everyday lives.

 

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