- - Tuesday, November 1, 2016



By David Thomson

Thames & Hudson, $34.95, 416 pages, illustrated

David Thomson has written extensively about movies for many years now, notably in “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film,” now in its sixth edition. Significantly, he calls this magisterial survey of English-language television and its impact on both sides of the Atlantic a biography, with its etymological root in the Greek word for life. I am old enough to remember NBC’s brightly-hued peacock proclaiming a show would be in what was then a novelty “Living Color.” It is fair to say that whether Mr. Thomson is considering black-and-white or multi-colored programs, from today and past decades, embarrassments as well as the best and the brightest, he brings everything he writes about to life with an immediacy and quite outstanding vividness.

His range is astonishing: Who else could find a predecessor to today’s Larry David in John Cleese’s irascible, madcap hotelier Basil Fawlty from the BBC of the 1970s? He rightly marvels at the contrasting figures of the languid aristocratic, donnish Kenneth Clark in his monumental “Civilisation” with the Polish-born polymath Jacob Bronowski, twin pinnacles of television at its best. And he can be witty and irreverent, too, pointing out about the stars of “I Love Lucy” that “Lucy and Desi would last longer on screen than in life.”

Mr. Thomson divides his massive volume into two parts titled “The Medium” and “The Messages,” but even someone as dedicatedly opposed to Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum that the medium is the message as I am can be happy with this division: The plural in the second — and longer — section says it all. For if there were any further proof needed that the multifariousness of the messages which this ever-expanding medium has conveyed to billions all over the globe, Mr. Thomson’s masterful survey of programs, advertisements, and just about everything else associated with television and its development has provided it.

Highly attuned to quality though he is, Mr. Thomson can see the significance in schlock: and even the humdrum, which is perhaps an even greater feat. As he jumps back and forth in time as well as across the Atlantic, he is always insightful but never condescending. He resolutely refuses to worship blindly at the altars which are prone to intimidate less perspicacious critics:

“The BBC could be staid and provincial (it still can) … A lot of its entertainment is rubbish, and it has always relished shows that can’t go outside the country,” but he rightly gives it its due as well by saying that “it overflows with altruistic, unexpected ideas in programming and in shows designed for just a few people.”

Mr. Thomson titles his introduction “The Elephant in the Room?” but as he nears the end of his text nearly 400 pages later, there is no longer any question of that question mark:

“It’s not quite that there’s an elephant in the room — by now the elephant has become the room. And television is not simply a means of fun, education, and art for the world. Our being wired to and by screens is the world we have. Throw your set away — you’re still ‘on.’ ” Diehard McLuhanites will probably see this as vindication of their guru, but I see it as conclusive refutation. The message has left the medium far behind.

We now all take television in all its technological glory very much for granted, but the one quality it has had from its very beginnings is the ability to draw people to it. I was particularly struck by the rapt attention paid by a family huddled in front of what is by today’s standards a pathetically small screen. As someone who grew up during the 1950s in South Africa, which was not to get television until the mid-1970s, I well remember my thrill at seeing it for the very first time the day I arrived in London. My family used to joke that you could tell newly arrived South Africans because they drew their chairs right up to the set as if drawn by a magnet, which of course metaphorically they were.

I can also claim a distinction with regard to television which if probably not unique, must be rare: I saw a television program being filmed some years before I actually watched one being broadcast. Alan Paton, the bestselling author of “Cry, the Beloved Country” was staying with my family on one of his visits to Cape Town from his home in Natal and the Canadian Broadcasting Company was interviewing him in our garden. I asked if I could watch and was told sternly only if I kept well out of sight and absolutely quiet. When I remember the heavy, cumbersome equipment which I beheld with such wonder, I realize how far television has come and my awe at its evolution and its power has grown along with it.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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