Boxed In…

2nd March 2012

Are you and yours constantly updating your technology, and permanently glued to a screen? Heather Harris talks to people who survive without (yes, that’s without) television…

The fact that she admitted it at all was incredible, given all its negative connotations – but she went out and said it in black and white. It’s official: Keira Knightly has no television. What a turn off.

Suddenly this A-list celebrity icon has gone from cool to nerd, from admired actress to lonely academic. Because in a flatscreen 3D world, anyone who shuns the ability to have 387 channels beamed simultaneously into their living room must automatically be some sort of social outcast. After all, 97% of our square-eyed UK population can’t be wrong.

Interestingly, during last summer’s riots, the only place on Camden High Street not looted was Waterstones bookshop. As hundreds of people smashed and grabbed their way into all the electrical outlets, clearing stock of televisual equipment, rows of literary works were literally left on the shelf.

Writer and non-TV-owner Lindsay Johns was not in the least surprised. “We are seen as slightly gauche weirdos or as acne-ridden deviants and social pariahs, so much the poorer for not being able to participate in the water cooler moment in the office the next day.”

True enough. As we all know, TV comes second only to the weather in the British top ten chart of conversation topics (with the state of the M25 crawling along in third place).

“My daughter’s nursery teacher convinced us we finally had to get one,” Ruth Carl, from Stanmore, told me. “The school said that it meant she had trouble interacting with the other children when they all chatted about the latest car­toon series.”

Ruth and her husband had existed very happily without a box in the corner for almost ten years before they capitulated (although she did admit that they had nipped to their local gym to watch both Lady Diana’s funeral and the Millennium Concert while pounding the treadmill).

Even now that they have a television, Ruth’s two children still think her “very cruel” because she insists on the family all watching it together, rather than allowing the youngsters to have their own set as all of their friends do.

“It causes so many arguments, sometimes I do wish we had stuck to our guns and stayed with just the radio,” Ruth said.

Now 44, Lucy Capel from Oxford still wishes her parents hadn’t stuck to their guns. She and her three sisters were the only family they knew with no television. “We spent our weekends knitting and cooking while all our friends seemed to be watching TISWAS and Noel Edmonds’s Multi-Coloured Swap Shop.”

Rather than this having a positive influence on their childhood, though, as her parents intended, Lucy is keen to tell me otherwise. “As soon as my sister and I moved out and got a flat together we became unhealthily obsessed with TV. We would literally stay in our pyjamas all weekend glued to this thing that we had been starved of for so long!”

Hardly surprising then that she is now reluctant to limit her own children’s viewing.

According to psychology professor Geoffrey Beattie of Manchester University, human beings were born to watch the box. “Television is such an effective medium because it provides a form of communication firmly embedded in our evolutionary past; the brain has clearly evolved to deal with speech in the context of the spontaneous images created by the human hand.” Or, put another way, ‘the brain simply likes telly’ – which the world of advertising recognises, hence the premium rates that they are prepared to pay for a three minute slot in the middle of Downton Abbey).

‘Liking’ is fine, but in America where flicking through all the channels takes longer than it does to watch a feature film, addiction to the small screen is an increasing concern…

In January 2004, a Wisconsin man threatened to sue his cable TV company for causing television addiction. “I believe that the reason I smoke and drink every day and my wife is overweight is because we watched TV every day for the last four years.” And when Timothy Dumouchel asked the company to turn it off, they failed to complete the disconnection (although they did stop charging him) – so he and his wife were able to continue to feed their addiction. He was finally persuaded to drop the case – but only after his story had highlighted the increasing reliance that Americans place on the small screen.

In fact, a recent US Department of Labor report found that watching TV accounted for half the leisure time of the average American (after sleeping and eating). The British do put down the remote control and pick up their gym bag or golf clubs with more regularity but still Lindsay Johns voices what many of us believe: “Our culture’s massively disproportionate emphasis on TV is actually detrimental to our brains and also debilitating to our values.”

That’s particularly true if we watch what he calls “contrived saccharine emotion like Strictly, X-Factor, badly-written soap operas, faux-reality shows – and don’t even get me started on the mind numbingly depressing daytime drivel which is an affront to our collective intelligence!”
The question of the intrinsic value of TV is not black and white, thouh. Programming may be ‘dumbing down’ but there are still bits of broadcasting that offer intellectual feasts. Think David Attenborough and his polar bears (in the wild, not the zoo), Jamie Oliver and his school dinners or all those in-depth investigations on Panorama or Dispatches. And wartime dramas such as Downton Abbey and Birdsong or recent Dickens adaptations teach history in a technicolor way that a text book can never hope to achieve.

Lucy Capel does recall that when her parents did finally acquire a television, after she’d left home, her younger sisters were still only allowed one programme a week “which they ringed in different colours in the Radio Times”.

This may be extreme but it does at least force a degree of self-regulation which certainly my own children fail to exert. “That was rubbish but there was nothing else on!” is a cry guaranteed to frustrate me more than trying to work out which one is Ant and which Dec.

Television is the entertainment default button in our house. When they need to relax, on it goes. In much the same way that they take a chocolate out of the box without checking whether it’s a soft or hard centre, they switch on without establishing if there is even anything worth seeing.

At least they haven’t started watching screens on their iPods or mobile phones. Now that is an addiction. The rate we’re going we’ll have TV built into the inside of our contact lenses just so that we can catch our favourite programme at the blink of an eye.

Before we head blindly down this road perhaps it is time that we all followed Lindsay Johns’s lead. We should celebrate him and Keira as “intelligent pioneers and free thinkers and as people who want to get more out of life than reclining on their sofas imbibing artificial dross and mental effluvia for hours upon end, night after night.”

Or at least encourage our children to be more discerning – and only watch those programmes which ‘inform, educate and entertain’ as per Lord Reith’s vision when he became the first Director General of the BBC in 1927.

Not exactly a ratings winner now but for starters at least it would get Come Dine With Me off our screens… and wipe the smirk off Simon Cowell’s face.

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