We are What We Watch? The Age of Static by Phil Harrison

I’ve found my TV consumption creeping back up a little during lockdown, but it’s nowhere near my peak viewing years which were probably from the 1990s into the 2000s (when kids’ programmes came back into the mix). As I started reading more and blogging, my watching declined, I even dropped Eastenders for a couple of years at one stage, but I used to watch a lot, always with a book or crossword or sewing or something on the go at the same time though 😉 .

So, I came to Phil Harrison’s cultural history of Britain of the last twenty years explained through the telly we watched, having come across, if not stayed the course, for the majority of the programmes he discusses, which just proves how much telly I used to watch!

Harrison’s introduction looks at some of the TV touchstones from the 1990s and briefly touches on some of the shows that came after. He cites Father Ted as comedy gold that endures in a ‘gentle, cartoonish bubble’ – but led to extremes in the 2000s and beyond: on one hand, ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys feels proudly, almost militantly mindless – as if daring you to sneer at its antediluvian gormlessness’; on the other, ‘Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, meanwhile, is deliberately and self-reflexively antagonistic.’ Let’s just say I’m a big fan of the latter! He muses how only the 1990s could have brought us Louis Theroux: ‘a professional ingenue with charm to burn’ and a ‘shrewdly cultivated air of bafflement’. The fab 1996 TV drama Our Friends in the North, which introduced us to Daniel Craig as Geordie, charted a social history of three decades through the progress of the quartet of friends and cleared the stage for the new millennium.

I was already fascinated by this book, a good sign! Harrison goes on to consider 21st century TV in five themed sections covering, Reality TV, Class, Culture, the BBC itself, and Britishness.

One of the Big Brother series ‘eye’ logos

It’s amazing to think that Big Brother ran for 18 years in the UK. I remember tuning in regularly during the first few series – it hooked us from the outset, mainly due to ‘Nasty Nick’ who saw the project as the entertainment that it was and played accordingly, only to be hoist on his own petard. There were defining moments aplenty during subsequent series, Jade Goody, and George Galloway being a cat in the celebrity version one year stand out. And who doesn’t say ‘Day One’ in a Geordie accent when watching I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here or any of the other reality shows these days. Big Brother was the first of many shows that would effectively lock up a bunch of ordinary people together to see what happens. We all know how that ended with the tragedy of Love Island. Once the media circus and then the worst of social media got on the bandwagon, it all started to get out of hand.

However, I’m digressing from Harrison’s excellent book. He goes on to discuss The Apprentice, but thankfully concentrating on the UK iteration, not the US original!!! He notes, ‘a certain philistinism, is evident in the Apprentice generation. None of the contestants on The Apprentice are stupid, exactly. But many of them are profoundly ignorant and worse still, utterly incurious.’ His discussion about Katie Hopkins is fascinating.

I’ve dwelled too long on reality TV, Harrison’s other chapters are equally punchy, illustrating the themes with handfuls of well-chosen programmes and the settings in which they aired. Class is discussed via Little Britain‘s Vicky Pollard, who wowed us at the time, but is more problematic to us now. Jamie Oliver didn’t realise what he was getting himself into with his Jamie’s School Dinners. Programmes like Benefits Street and The Secret Millionaire were just patronising. It was Paul Abbott’s Shameless that was another mould-breaking drama, airing in 2004. Harrison reports that Abbott said of it, ‘I wanted to tell a story about poverty by having something beautiful.’

He begins the Culture chapter with Top Gear, that bastion of laddish banter, ‘What it offered went well beyond cars: it represented the Platonic ideal of traditional male friendship, all piss-taking and pathological competitiveness and uncomfortable punches to the upper arm.’ He goes on to discuss Clarkson’s dismissal, which although, ‘he has never seemed a particularly political animal,’ became political indeed. Chris Morris’ sophisticated C4 spoofs on the news Brass Eye (and later Nathan Barley on the media in general) and the long-reaching influence they had are discussed at length too.

The section on the BBC and its desperate struggle to maintain balance, later set amid the rising factions of Brexit which mucked everything up, was not as interesting (and sadly my proof copy of the book was missing some pages in the middle). Louis Theroux’s programme on Jimmy Savile is touched upon – uncomfortable reading in the extreme. The chapter finishes with a look at W1A, the satiric comedy set inside the organisation itself, ‘attempting to cock a snook at its critics by parading its own self-awareness and therefore, pre-empting their criticism.’

Toby Jones and Mackenzie Crook in Detectorists

The final section before the epilogue, looks at Britishness and how it is portrayed on screen. Downton and Bake Off exemplify the cosiness of it, The League of Gentlemen satirised with horror that inward-looking small town life. You could rely on C4 to stir things up though with Shane Meadows’ drama This is England, showing life more as it really is. IMHO, the best ‘British’ programme of recent years is Detectorists, by Mackenzie Crook, starring he and Toby Jones as the two working lads with a hobby. It’s such a gentle, tender, heart-warming and humorous programme, celebrating friendship and the folk tradition; Harrison says of it, ‘In fact, it’s Blake’s ‘heaven in a wild flower’ rendered in the form of a sitcom.’ That’s a lovely description.

Harrison’s epilogue looks at some of the challenges to broadcast TV. BBC2 and BBC4 used to be where dramas were tried out, but Sky and then Netflix and Prime changed the game. Similarly for sport, anyone for cricket on terrestrial telly? He also mentions the Bechdel Test, and how in Killing Eve and a female Doctor Who, we finally got dramas that smash it. He finishes by mentioning just one more touchstone drama, Russell T Davies’ Years and Years, that can link back to where he started with Our Friends in the North.

All through the book, Harrison compares and contrasts what we see on screen against the prevailing political and cultural winds in Britain, bringing out how they influence each other. I realise my post about this book is rather long, but it was such a interesting read, and to be honest, I had never dwelt for long on how TV reflects the wider world and vice versa. Harrison’s descriptions of the programmes that he uses to illustrate the themes are brilliant, and you don’t need to have seen them to appreciate the writing. Thoroughly recommended for anyone interested in recent TV and current affairs. (9.5/10)

Another excellent book about the history of TV from its inception through to the early 2000s is Joe Moran’s Armchair Nation, listed in Harrison’s bibliography, which I reviewed for Shiny New Books in 2013 here.

See also Paul’s review here.

Source: Review copy – thank you. The Age of Static: How TV Explains Modern Britain by Phil Harrison. Melville House, 2020, paperback original, 240 pages.

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14 thoughts on “We are What We Watch? The Age of Static by Phil Harrison

  1. A Life in Books says:

    I rewatched Our Friends in the North a few years ago, almost expecting that it might seem less powerful than when I first saw it but it’s stood the test of time well. BBC drama at its finest for me, as was their adaptation of the first two Hilary Mantels and most recently Steve McQueen’s Small Axe

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I would like to rewatch that one. I’ve yet to watch the Steve McQueen films, but will soon I’m sure.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I watched it with my daughter in the early 2000s on Nickelodeon. I don’t know if it was on the UK terrestrial channels before that though.

  2. Calmgrove says:

    The Detectorists was spot on, gentle humour rooted deep in the island’s soil, and more recently Crook’s Worzel Gummidge has followed the same vein. Both are very different from Father Ted but share the same self-deprecating mickey-taking tradition, although with such contrasting tones.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Some truly stand out telly. A few years previously another excellent sitcom that mined a similar vein of character, although in a more edgy urban setting was Rev. Did you see that Chris?

      • Calmgrove says:

        Yes, Rev. (always with a abbreviative full stop) was a must-see, and Tom Hollander and Olivia Coleman absolute perfection. In fact the best sitcoms bear repeat viewings and for us this was one of those. I still huskily intone ‘Hello Vicar-age’ at inappropriate points, but also remember the Rev’s moving act of contrition for his momentary unfaithfulness.

  3. Liz Dexter says:

    Although I really don’t watch much TV now, this does sound so interesting and I’m looking forward to getting hold of a copy in due course. Thank you for your digressions and interesting notes!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Thanks Liz. This was a fascinating book, not just nostalgia at all, and written really well. I think you would enjoy it.

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