‘Did I say I had a TV set now?’ wrote Philip Larkin to Kingsley Amis in March 1979. ‘Where’s all this porn they talk about?’ By October, he had still found
nothing but chat shows and non-comedy and B-films and NEWS – God I hate news – can’t watch it – to see these awful shits marching or picketing or saying the ma’er wi’noo be referred back to thu Na’ional Exe’u’ive is too much for me. Why don’t they show NAKED WOMEN, or PROS AND CONS OF CORPORAL PUNISHMENT IN GIRLS’ SCHOOLS?
The following year JR was shot, which allowed Larkin to see lots of Pam Ewing in her high-thigh swimsuit, and two years after that his chances of finding naked women further improved with the launch of Channel 4. By the time he died in 1985, EastEnders had been running for ten months and had he watched it – as I’m sure he did – Larkin would have enjoyed the scandal of Dirty Den getting Michelle Fowler, his teenage daughter’s best friend, up the duff. It was a Fowler family tradition, as The Guardian’s TV critic Nancy Banks-Smith put it, to be impregnated by the landlord of the Queen Vic.
Larkin would have made a good TV critic. Not because he was especially insightful about television, but because most TV critics try to sound like Larkin. TV critics love to hate television.
Writers, in general, love television and are unashamed of their passion. If you want to find out what’s worth watching, go to a book launch or a literary event: the main topic of discussion will always be what everyone is recording in order to see later that night. Since the first episode of the HBO mafia drama The Sopranos in 1999, writers won’t hear a word against television. Individual episodes of The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, or the Danish thrillers The Killing and The Killing 2, are not only better, literary folk insist, than any recent Hollywood movie or West End play, but richer and more challenging than most contemporary fiction.
Writers are voyeurs: we like watching but don’t like being watched. How perfect then, to have this one-way screen in the dark heart of the house. And because many writers dislike spending too much time with other human beings, television provides the perfect companion. Writers also like strong narratives, and television – currently going through a golden age – provides these on tap. Just as the original serialisations of The Old Curiosity Shop and Middlemarch once held readers in thrall to the magazines, we are now gripped by the endlessly expandable plotlines of television dramas which run for months and months before the series ends on a cliffhanger. In 1841 the New York docks were lined with frantic Dickens fans shouting ‘Did Little Nell live?’ at the sailors on the incoming mail boats, who had read the latest instalment. Today’s equivalent experience would be the US audience wanting to know in advance whether Mr Bates in Downton Abbey will get his reprieve.
So completely has television drama replaced the nineteenth-century novel that a large percentage of the country now only knows the works of Dickens, Eliot, Austen and Trollope through television programmes. Writers, however (apart from Larkin, who described Z-Cars as ‘chaps walking about and standing and staring and watching each other and cars drawing up and chaps not getting out, just watching and staring’), prefer cop-shows to costume dramas. Dickens would have been addicted to The Wire; Henry James would have preferred the Englishness, repression and melancholy of Morse; Hardy would have watched Midsomer Murders while Virginia Woolf secretly enjoyed Prime Suspect, because all women are in love with Helen Mirren. For those of us who spend our days alone at a desk, there is nothing more thrilling than the thought of entering an open-plan office through swing doors with a plastic cup of coffee and calling someone ‘sarj’.
Television dramas tend to focus on the one subject the novel shies away from: work. Writers like television because we like to know about people who have real jobs. Over a glass of warm wine following a recent poetry reading, the four poets on the panel discussed not the Poetry Book Society’s loss of government funding, but Mad Men, a series about an advertising firm in the Sixties. The discussion was less our need to linger nostalgically on a pre-feminist age in which everyone drank before lunch, smoked excessively and was tacitly racist, than whether all men want to be Don Draper – the amoral antihero who has stolen the identity of a dead soldier – or simply are Don Draper. It’s a question that takes us to the heart of our current television culture, obsessed as it is with helping us both to find our roots (Who Do You Think You Are?) and to reinvent ourselves (The X Factor and so forth). But none of these reasons, I was told later in the week by another poet of international standing, really explains why we like Mad Men. The appeal of the series, he stressed, is Joanie, the voluptuous office manager: all men want to have her and all women hope that, should they quadruple in size, they might look like she does.
Once considered mad, bad and dangerous to know, television is clearly good for those who live by the pen. As well as taking us into offices, it provides the ‘real people’ otherwise so hard for writers to find. Reality television is as real as most literary lives get; what we know about class comes from Wife Swap or Come Dine with Me; what we know about being young we get from Big Brother, The Only Way is Essex and Made in Chelsea; what we know about modern families we learn from Hotter Than My Daughter and The World’s Strictest Parents. If you have a problem, television provides the solution: we are invited, on a daily basis, to watch other people have their houses, bodies, families and marriages ‘made-over’ by experts. Real life at the end of a remote control: had Larkin lived to be ninety rather than dying at sixty-three, he would not have said: ‘TV seems awful these days … the novelty’s worn off I suppose.’