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In Which Our Eyeballs Go Oblong

In 1953 the world was black, white and several shades of grey. It was the dawn of a new Elizabethan age and in London a grey young queen was about to ascend the throne. A man dressed in flowing grey robes would place a grey crown on her black hair and grimly grey lords and ladies would sing Zadok The Priest at her.

"What we need," declared my father in ringing tones, "is one of those new-fangled television things. It would never do to miss the Coronation!"

And so a black box manufactured by Pye entered the corner of our lounge. There was a sloping, corrugated section on the front with two brown, knurled knobs on it. Above the knobs was a small (probably 10 inch) screen. One knob turned the television on and adjusted the volume, the other knob controlled the brightness. There were smaller knobs hidden away at the back of the box – these controlled frightening things called the vertical hold and the horizontal hold. Only my father was allowed to touch those. My mother, if she was very good, was allowed to turn the television on and off. I wasn't allowed to touch it at all.

I don't think I ever actually saw the Coronation – or if I did, I retain no memory of it. But I do remember watching Bill and Ben The Flowerpot Men, and Rag, Tag and Bobtail and Muffin The Mule (contrary to later salacious speculations, this last was not a sexual offence).

Another favourite programme was The Sooty Show. Sooty was a glove puppet, a little bear manipulated by his master Harry Corbett. Every week Sooty would get the better of the man with the hand up his bottom, and cover Harry Corbett with flour, water, cream cakes, ink, paint, eggs and any other messy substance that could be found. The poor chap would endure this torture with stoic calm.

"Bye, bye everyone. Bye bye," he would whine as the show came to an end and nameless substances ran down his face and dripped stickily on to his shirt. Sooty was hugely popular with everyone. My parents bought me a Sooty glove puppet for Christmas. I rejected it.

"It's ginger," I wailed inconsolably. "Sooty is grey!"

There was only one channel, of course – the venerable BBC. It wasn't until 1956 that competition (in the form of ITV) appeared on the scene. Our ancient Pye television couldn't receive ITV; it had no tuner, having been built in the days when there was only one broadcast frequency, and it was inexorably bound to the BBC. My father steadfastly resisted the lure of ITV.

"We don't want that," he thundered. "It's got adverts on it."

I'd never seen an advert – they sounded fascinating and I was consumed with jealousy to think that my friends up the road could watch as many adverts as they liked on their more modern television set. I did eventually get to see ITV adverts and they were just as exciting as I'd hoped they would be. I'd go round to a friend's house and we'd watch ladies who extolled the virtues of washing powder and toothpaste, and we'd laugh at the cartoon salesman who raved about Esso Blue paraffin oil and who referred to himself, in moments of stress, as the Esso Blee Dooler (boom, boom, boom, boom; Esso Blue – I can still sing the jingle). In between the adverts my friend and I watched Popeye The Sailorman cartoons. They made a huge impression on me.

"Mum," I insisted, "I want to eat spinach!"

My mother was bewildered, but obedient. I'd never previously been observed to voluntarily allow potentially poisonous things like vegetables into my mouth. Indeed, on the rare occasions that my mother managed to force a pea or possibly a bean into me, I immediately threw it back up. So I wanted spinach did I? She shot off to the village shop where, to her mild surprise, they actually had some spinach for sale. She cooked it and served it and I rejected it immediately.

"That's not spinach," I insisted. "That's yucky green stuff. Spinach is grey!"

I have since come to realise that the only food that could possibly be shown accurately on the television of the day was porridge, the world's only grey food – if indeed it is a food at all; opinions on this differ. But as a child I lacked such sophisticated insight. The fibrous green mass on my plate could not possibly be spinach. I practised projectile vomiting for a while in order to take my mind off it.

My father eventually succumbed to the lure of ITV. Seduced, I suspect, by the prospect of extra cricket, he had words with the man in the TV shop. An ugly black box was bolted on the side of the Pye television. This was supposed to allow us to re-tune it so that we could watch ITV, but it never worked very well. The picture was shimmery and it faded in and out. The sound was crackly. Eventually my father couldn't stand it any more and the Pye, that faithful workhorse, went to the great television studio in the sky and other, more anonymous television sets replaced it.

In the early 1960s, the BBC fissioned, rather like an amoeba, and turned into BBC1 and BBC2. This last was supposedly a more intellectual channel and it was full of panel games where talking heads declaimed pompously about art, music and literature. On one such show, a poem was read to the panel:

She (We gave her most of our lives)
is leaving (Sacrificed most of our lives)
home (We gave her everything money could buy)
She's leaving home after living alone
For so many years. Bye, bye

"That's a Beatles song," I said.

"Rubbish," said my father, who knew everything about everything. "They wouldn't put pop music trash on a show like this."

The panel had obviously never heard the poem before and they were very impressed with it. They discussed the cleverness of the imagery and the honesty of the emotions it portrayed. They begged the host to reveal the name of the talented poet who had produced such a marvellous work. This poet, they were sure, had a brilliant future.

"Well actually it's a Beatles song," said the host.

"See?" I said to my father.

"Humph," he replied.

To a man, the panel then repudiated everything they had previously said. The imagery was a little clumsy, the rhythmical patterns were flawed, the emotions at best second hand. An obviously juvenile work, shallow and trite.

This kind of two-faced intellectual snobbery was rife throughout BBC2 and it wasn't long before popular pressure caused programmes such as this one to vanish from the airwaves. BBC2 then became pretty much indistinguishable from BBC1. I'm not completely convinced that this was a good thing.

By now the television companies were starting to broadcast some of their programmes in colour. The programmes were also a lot more daring than they had been in the past and every so often, if you were very lucky, the leading lady in a bodice ripper would indeed have her bodice ripped. Attracted by the prospect of bare breasts in glorious flesh tones instead of gloomy grey, my father got a colour television.

Only about half the programmes were broadcast in colour. Every day my father would carefully check the details of that day's potential viewing in the Radio Times (BBC) and the TV Times (ITV) and make a list.

"Dad, can we watch..."

"NO! It's in black and white!"

He seemed to regard it as almost heretical to watch black and white programmes on a colour TV. He also harboured the vague suspicion that if the colour TV showed too many black and white programmes, its colour tanks might dry out through lack of use and render the set inoperable. Only the constant watching of colour broadcasts would keep the tanks topped up and their contents properly moist. Fortunately the number of programmes broadcast in colour increased daily, so the colour tanks on our television set were constantly being replenished. This kept my father very happy.

As the years passed, I moved from house to house and from country to country. Televisions came and televisions went. None of them made much of an impression on me. However each of them (sometimes in combination with other gadgets) allowed the reception of more and more channels. Eventually Robin and I found ourselves with about 50 channels to watch, most of which broadcast utter rubbish 24 hours a day.

All of the televisions that we watched this rubbish on had one thing in common; they contained bulky cathode ray tubes which projected a square picture. As time went on, we began to find this more and more frustrating since a significantly large proportion of the programmes we were watching were now being broadcast in high definition with an oblong aspect ratio. Watching these on square screens was, shall we say, a distinctly sub-optimal experience.

"We need a new television," said Robin. "One of those beautifully slim LCD ones that are specially set up for oblong pictures."

I had to agree with her. The world was imploding into a financial crisis and spiralling into a recession. I had just seen $8,000 vanish from my life savings in less than a week. It was obvious to the meanest intelligence that now was the absolutely ideal time to spend lots of money on a new TV.

"Let's round the loss on my superannuation to $10,000," I said. "That gives us $2,000 spending money."

"Shopping!" exclaimed Robin and she went to get the car.

The new Sony Bravia in my life dominates the lounge. It has a gigantic 42 inch oblong screen. My father's original Pye would just about be able to accommodate the newsreader's nose, as long as the newsreader doesn't have a cold. Audio cables connect the television to my stereo system, and an S-Video cable connects it to the Telstra-Clear decoder. 50 channels of appalling mediocrity are sharp, crisp, colourful and stereophonically loud. Bill and Ben make political statements on TVNZ one, Popeye eats authentically green spinach on the Cartoon Network, the ladies in the adverts extol the virtues of washing powder and toothpaste. Robin and I watch it all, enthralled.

But sometimes, as the old, familiar images from my childhood invade my lounge (albeit in colour), I suspect that not a lot has really changed since the 1950s.

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