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A box full of history: TV and our sense of the past.

ON TELEVISION one recent evening Buddy Rich (1917-1987) was playing a solo as the other musicians in his band sat in patient silence, watching the master work. A drum solo can be mind-numbing, a senseless demonstration of ego and physical strength that quickly exhausts the patience of the audience. Or it can be, in the hands of a virtuoso like Rich, four or five minutes of ecstatic concentration, a sweet abandonment of self, a noisy cousin of Zen meditation.


The good drum solo stands outside the normal boundaries of music in a place all its own, beyond tonality, a separate realm of rhythm and sound dynamics. It abandons notes, chords, and melodies in favour of a structure that the drummer designs spontaneously, inventing his own logic and creating his own momentum as he goes. The great drummers ignore the audience when working, losing themselves in the ingenious deployment of their muscles as they rush down the baroque corridors of their own architecture. But even as the drummer forgets us we realize that this event contains powerful elements of the visual. Who can watch it without enjoying the look of the equipment that the musician coaxes to life? Who can ignore the light that dances off the Zildjian cymbals or the exuberant chromium on the rims of the drums? The Cubist complexities of the drum set, with its primitive lever-and-gear technology, slowly reveal themselves under the scrutiny of the camera, making a drum solo perfect television.

Intensity rises and falls as the performer drives us through climaxes and anticlimaxes, great thunderous bursts alternated with feathery passages so delicate that they walk up to the very edge of silence before coming back to us. The drum solo, when it works, amounts to a one-player drama that subsumes all the performer's talents in a single wordless narrative, emerging as exquisite theatre.


All of this Buddy Rich, dead now for eighteen years, delivered to my bedroom, unannounced as usual. Pushing the buttons on my remote-control wand, I stumbled on the solo just as it began. Where was this tape made? When? As so often happens, television did not tell me. The musician's clothes suggested it was around 1980, when Rich was in his sixties, still working, a marvel of energy and survival in a profession that killed many before their time.

Television didn't pause to celebrate this miracle and didn't seem interested in the fact that it was showing us a piece of cultural history. In truth, it seems possible that the people who run television are a little ashamed of the old tapes and films they replay, as if anything less than new carried a stigma. They haven't yet developed a sub-profession of broadcasting scholars to explain the date, provenance, and context of whatever appears on the screen. The television people are unaware that a great museum of history has fallen into their hands. It will be some time before they understand the opportunities and duties this inheritance brings with it.

A SENSE of the past has become one of the great gifts of television, and one for which I grow steadily more grateful. Only twenty years ago it was commonplace to argue that television was creating a present-tense society in which memory lost meaning. No one could say that now. A multitude of channels, rerunning the triumphs and disasters of the past, provides viewers of the early twenty-first century with a visual history that was available to no previous generation.

History is always with us on television: soldiers storming the beaches of Normandy, the caisson carrying John Kennedy's body to Arlington, the student defying the tank in Tiananmen Square, the Berliners turning their hated wall into fragments for sale to tourists, O.J. Simpson getting away with murder before our eyes. Television displays, perhaps with even more effectiveness, another kind of history, the texture of life as lived fifty or sixty years ago. It plucks out of the past all the details no one thought important at the time, details we now view with the fascination of amateur anthropologists.

Once upon a time, public events possessed a grave formality: congressional hearings, plays, and office work all required that men show up in jackets and ties; a law, apparently, decreed that men on the street must wear fedoras at all times. Houses in situation comedies were all designed in the same style, more or less up-to-date and certainly with huge windows. In that distant era many of the most beautiful women were heavy by twenty-first century standards, their faces heavily made up.


Television delivers a third kind of history with even more effectiveness, the history of itself. As it grows older and the channels grow more numerous, television turns increasingly to its vaults. This means that I can turn on television at an odd moment, perhaps while getting dressed in the morning, and find myself transfixed by a black and white production of The Cocktail Party, by T.S. Eliot, a now-forgotten play that was once taken seriously as a Christian exploration of contemporary sensibility. As the work of a mid-century intellectual, it naturally deals with both psychiatry and martyrdom.

This production is from 1960, which means there was no videotape yet. We watch a kinescope, an always murky kind of early recording. We find the CBC drama department at its most self-conscious and serious, when it believed its duty was to display the "important" plays of the era before a mass audience. It might have been tedious when it first appeared; now it has the patina and charm of age. It speaks more of anglophile Canada 45 years ago than of Christianity or even Eliot; there are seven principal actors, each of them bearing a name from the British Isles. The late Jane Mallett is in the cast, her mannered performance rendered historic rather than annoying. The youngish-looking man is William Hutt, forty years old. He's not yet Canada's favourite Lear or Tartuffe. He's sharp and sardonic in his self-absorbed way.

Moments like this give entertainment a stimulating dimension of time. We can now see television in layers, noting differences in performance, content, and above all pacing (everything was much slower then, from the commercials to the movement of cameras and the editing). The situation of television has slowly come to resemble the context in which we understand printed material; we can begin to compare one era's ideas with another, laugh at or respect our ancestors as we reinterpret what they believed according to our own knowledge and sensibility. Our understanding of the people we watch naturally colours our responses. When Judy Garland sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" on her program the week after John F. Kennedy's murder, she looked grave and resolute. Today, watching the same performance, knowing that she died just six years later, we may see little but her fragility, her wan attempt to hide desperation behind the courage that the moment required.

For those who want it, this kind of experience grows more available with every season, on channels like Bravo, History, BookTelevision, the Documentary Channel, CoolTV, the Independent Film Channel, and the multitude of channels devoted to old films. Elsewhere ancient TV series reappear, from I Love Lucy to The Rockford Files, displaying tastes and habits that the old have mostly forgotten and the young never knew.

Lately I've discovered a British series called Playing Shakespeare, in which John Barton of the Royal Shakespeare Company works through a few scenes with half a dozen actors. Together they unlock a text, discovering what words and phrases to stress, where to breathe, what meaning Shakespeare encoded in the words, how the actors should react to each other. Barton comes across as a master teacher and a bit of a TV star (like Buddy Rich, he forgets the camera). What makes this historic is that the lessons take place in 1982 and the actors he works with--Ben Kingsley, Judi Dench, Ian McKellan--are among the best of their generation, all caught relatively early in their distinguished careers. It offers a privileged glimpse of a long-ago reality.

Ancient public affairs programs have a similar effect. In the 1950s and 1960s Nathan Cohen chaired Fighting Words, a kind of intellectual argument that appeared on the CBC late on Sunday afternoon, bringing with it an astonishing parade of artists and heavy thinkers, from Morley Callaghan to Hannah Arendt to Isaiah Berlin. These programs, showing up now on BookTelevision, provide delightful (sometimes) glimpses of what Canadians thought was important two generations ago. Occasionally I have even come upon my young self pontificating for the Fighting Words audience on some now antique topic. To my horror, I once saw myself pause self-importantly, in mid-oration, to light a cigarette. Well, I was young. So was television.


IN 1950 the radio critic of the London Daily Mail (a newspaper never considered a world-beater) wrote that "Television is the biggest time-waster ever invented.... People will sit watching for hours--even when they don't care much for the programmes they're viewing.... It's so easy to sink into an armchair and switch on entertainment until bedtime." He wanted a royal commission set up to investigate the "hypnotic effect." Poor man, he had no idea of the horrors to come. At that moment there was only one channel in England, operated by the BBC.

In the spring of 1961, Newton Minow, a previously little-known lawyer, became a celebrity by denouncing American television. As Kennedy's newly appointed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, he was addressing a convention of the National Association of Broadcasters. He told them that when television is good it's powerful and eloquent, "But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and .... keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off." The fact that no one uses television this way didn't discourage him. He believed he had articulated an important point. He told the broadcasters they would see a procession of game shows, violence, audience participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, more violence, etc.

"I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland." That phrase went into the dictionaries of quotations and in later years achieved even more eminence by becoming the basis of questions on Jeopardy!, Trivial Pursuit, and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? For years no one spoke of TV without using the word "wasteland." Minow set the tone for respectable attitudes to television. He made it acceptable for just about anyone to look down on it. The intellectually stunted, the emotionally dead, the culturally blind: they can all take a superior position when giving their views on television.


To this day, newspaper columnists who may not have had a fresh thought in decades nevertheless feel licensed to tell us that TV is worthless. They know we would be astonished if they told us anything else. Those who write regularly about television are unique among critics, being the only reviewers assigned to analyze what they find inherently despicable. They believe themselves severely put upon, and they make their readers (not to mention the broadcasters) suffer for the pain and indignity they must endure while watching programs beneath their contempt.

In order to maintain this stance, one must ignore much of television and concentrate only on current programs, if possible the worst of those--the "reality" shows are a mine of inspiration for those seeking the pleasures of chronic disapproval. Meanwhile, many of us are looking elsewhere, happily exploring the history that television so generously provides.

The most interesting moments retrieved from the past are often the result of happy accidents, the work of unsung heroes in archives departments who had the sense to keep the kinescopes or videotapes in a safe place until someone recognized their value. This is not, of course, the history that television celebrates. Pious television executives and bureaucrats like to lecture us on history as something we are compelled, out of duty, to absorb in its quasi-official form. What they admire, and vigorously sell, are programs that in structure parallel the books they studied in school--programs that select some choice theme for examination and then deliver it coherently to the audience, if possible with an actual book published as a tie-in.

In their lectures on the significance of whatever self-conscious history programs they have just made, TV people like to quote George Santayana's "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," possibly the most fatuous of all contemporary mantras. Teachers, journalists, and textbook publishers use Santayana to intimidate those who are not yet impressed by the Federalist Papers or the BNA Act. But anyone who thinks about it for a moment will see the flaw in Santayana's claim. Some of the great figures of recent times, such as Winston Churchill and Harry Truman, were devoted students of history, yet they were condemned to repeat the disasters of war, though of course with variations. Surely there was never a generation more learned in history than the young men who graduated from Oxford and Cambridge in the early years of the twentieth century; and they went off to die needlessly and (some would say) thoughtlessly in the trenches of the First World War.

Yet we persist in arguing for history on instrumental grounds, as if it will help us avoid future peril. Governments and public broadcasters have other demands to make on it; they expect history to buttress national spirit, justify our system of government, fill us with something like civic pride. This impulse leads to a demagogic assertion that Canada's history is, as many popular historians argue, "just as exciting and interesting as anyone else's," which would be an invitation to ribald laughter if Canadians had not silently agreed to hear all such nonsense with solemn faces. That argument is usually made by someone trying to sell a book, justify a TV budget, or set up a new curriculum. In no other circumstances would it be possible to suggest that a history that lacks a Napoleon or a Lincoln or a Churchill is just as interesting as a history that possesses such figures.

The national and educational arguments for history as a source of social improvement are made during the promotion of programs such as The Civil War, the 1990 series Ken Burns made for Public Television in the US, or Canada: A People's History, which Mark Starowicz produced five years ago for the CBC. These can be good programs, but they have the disadvantage of embodying a past that's been processed by professors and broadcasters. Canada: A People's History, for all its virtues, teaches us that from the beginning Canada has been a land of conned and defeated populations, a sea-to-sea convention of losers: natives victimized by whites, French victimized by British, Scots victimized by English (who drove them out of Scotland), and of course everyone victimized by the Americans. As the list of the oppressed grows, from program to program, a viewer may wonder how it happened that these wretched and demoralized people ended up owning a country rich enough to pay for Canada: A People's History.

That approach to our history no doubt deserves airing, but the CBC distributes it without any indication of its flaws, as the only ambitious account of our past delivered by our broadcasters in this generation. I would not like to have missed it; but as I watched it I realized that almost every incident it portrays could have been shown from an entirely different perspective, or perhaps several different perspectives. This is the problem that never fails to arise with big-budget network history in the manner of Burns or Starowicz.

Another kind of history, unmediated and unpromoted, freed from committees and consultants, reaches us in the spaces between significant programming. It comes to us routinely and offhandedly, in romances that are at least half true to their period, in TV serials that try to create period tone (like Little House on the Prairie or Anne of Green Gables), in war stories that at least suggest the nature of military life.

SANTAYANA had it wrong when he suggested history could help us frame our future. Knowing it probably won't help us avoid the calamities to come and may not even make us any wiser. Nevertheless, it remains essential. History thickens daily existence and gives life meaning by linking us with chains of ancestors. History, if understood even a little, becomes the background against which we enact our lives. Without some personal sense of history, we work on an empty stage. Television, these days, helps fill that stage with a magnificent array of props.

ROBERT FULFORD is a columnist for the National Post and the author of, among other books, The Triumph of Narrative.
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Author:Fulford, Robert
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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