Francis Meyrick


The Gogglebox

Posted on February 29, 2008

The next story, written a long while ago, whistles back over half a century in time.
Before you read it, sit back, close your eyes, and ask yourself some questions. Then answer them honestly.

1) how many hours a week do YOU watch the telly?

2) how many hours a week do you read books?

3) Is this a good thing, a bad thing, or an ‘in’ thing?

THE GOGGLEBOX

Holland – 1955?

Holland.
Flowers, windmills, fingers in dykes, and… me!
Nineteen fifty something. I was three? four? Five? Something like that.

I was heavily into Dinky Toys. Die-cast toy model cars. Which I confess I mostly thieved from my brother, while he was away at boarding school. (and then I crashed ’em, knocking chips off, an’ he’d freak out on his return, an’, an’, but I digress…)
Dinky Toys. The world revolved around Dinky Toys, and my Mother. Mine, you know, MY mother.
We hadn’t got a Telly. As far as I can remember, none of my friends had either.
Anyway. One day (written in infamy) this big brown box arrived. Huge thing. Five foot high. Two struggling workmen. My Dad was there. Big excitement! I knew straight away what was in it. I had this immediate mental picture. To this day, I can recall vividly the glorious vision that burned itself into my imagination.
Dinky Toys!
A whole big box full of Dinky Toys for little moi!
I remember the picture I had was of little cars and trucks packed in loose. Not in individual boxes, but just piled in -helter skelter- on top of each other. With a gap at the top.
Dinky Toys!
I was so utterly cocksure that it was all for me, that I tried to direct the workmen.
That’s okay, boys, just put it there. I’ll look after it from here…
I remember strutting around in some self importance, reveling in the fact that all this commotion and excitement was -naturally- all for my benefit.

In the event, the unwrapping was a shocking disappointment. Very slowly, there appeared this… box, sort of. A big, wooden box. Stained dark red, I remember.
With a sort of window in it. Mirror. Thing.
I walked all around it.
What in hell am I supposed to do with THAT?

There was only one vaguely interesting thing: at the back there was this transparent bowl gizmo sticking out six or eight inches, with some interesting looking gubbins inside it.
Could that be a space gun?
I rather liked a cartoon space hero named Dan Dare…

A little while later, when the workmen did something, the gubbins inside the bowl lit up with a dull orange glow.
Definitely a space gun. But why the hell is it at the back? Most interesting bit, and they stick it where nobody can see it!

From then on in, I regularly, for years, would creep around the back to study this dull, interesting, orange glow. Somebody once droned on about cathodes or something, valves, vacuum tubes, God knows. I wasn’t really listening. I found that glow much more appealing.

So the Telly came to our household. Little was I to know that I was to be stuck with that monster for years. Sometimes I really resented it, I know.
I was heavily into games. Mostly played with my Dad, who was my playmate. Ludo. Tiddlywinks. Snakes and ladders.
‘Snap’. (I hated ‘snap’; I always lost; I’d end up throwing the cards all over the place)
The new ‘thing’ was a bit above my level, and I couldn’t really relate to it. But my Dad could. And he did. I was not impressed.
Bloody thing. Interloper.
Soon however, I started watching it. I must have been very young though, because for a long, long time, my favorite programme was the Dot.
The Dot…?
Yeah, well, you know on those early sets, because they were all valves I think, (none of your transistor rubbish), (integrated circuits? – you must be joking!)a funny thing happened when you switched off.
First the picture would go. Phut!
Hurrah!
Then, after a few seconds, everything would head towards the middle of the screen, until you got this little white Dot. The effect was that this little white dot was chasing away from you at some horrendous speed, and that fascinated me. I think I tried to catch it a few times, which didn’t go down well with the parents.
Keep your sticky fingers off the screen, dear!

So I don’t think I was massively attracted to the programs at first. Still, I always had the dull orange glow to fascinate me if I took the trouble to walk round the back.
In this manner I was introduced to Television.
To be fair, my Dad still played with me a lot, but I always maintained a certain resentment for the blasted thing.

I grew older. Finished primary school in Holland. Went to secondary school. The ‘Gymnasium Augustinianum’. Latin, Greek, all that stuff. Didn’t like it. Lost my religious innocence. Flirted with atheism, agnosticism, communism, and cynicism. It was while a disciple of the latter outlook on Life, that a certain vicar appeared on our screens. A Reverend, associated by everybody immediately with Northern Ireland and all that.

We were watching the ol’ gogglebox. You know, all hypnotised, letting it all wash over us, (99 per cent brain dead), utterly convinced that we were all taking it in, and that this ‘goggling’ was a most worthwhile pursuit. Funny business, really. I suspect we go into suspended animation, y’ know. ‘Permafreeze’ sort of thing. All these ‘living dead’ hunched around this box of tricks. For hours. Although most folk wouldn’t know what I was on about. Eh?
Well, ask yourself these questions. One:
Have you ever been three quarters of the way through a film, and some other body slumped nearby awakes sufficiently from its stupor (one brain cell slowly clicks into gear) and makes a shattering announcement:
“I think I’ve seen this before… “
(feeble ripple of interest around the room)
silence.
“Yes, I have seen this. This is where he kisses her… “
silence.
Passion oozes like used treacle across the T.V.screen.
“Yes! And now she belts him one… “
Smack!
Your companion is now quite chuffed with himself. After sitting through this riveting drama for an hour, he has finally remembered he’s seen it before.

I think it’s bloody tragic, but then I’m a renegade…
(You put the first page of a book under my nose I’ve read before, and I’ll tell you all about it after three lines)
Two:
Be honest. Do you ever wake up realizing that the adverts are on, and that you’re half way through being psychologically indoctrinated, (i.e. hoodwinked), that ‘Heineken refreshes parts other beers cannot reach?’
Or that ‘Daz really washes whiter because Daz washes biologically’?
Gawd!
I’ve caught myself at it. Like some half witted zombie, I’ve woken up and realized I’ve been watching the commercial tripe, with the same mooning, wide open cow’s eyes that I’ve being watching some cowboy film with.
Gawd!
Suspended animation…
But I exaggerate of course. Of course. It’s not really that bad…!
I think.
The gogglebox does occasionally have its up side. News. Documentaries. Audience participation.
Audience participation?
Oh, yes!
I was telling you about the Northern Irish Reverend. Ian Paisley, of course. There we were, goggling away, and the News came on. The Reverend Ian Paisley, full face, close up, the powerful mouth speaking as if he would not just beat his opponents with the force of his arguments, but flail ’em, roast them, mince them up.
Put ’em on the rack!
Powerful roar: “If the Pope comes to Northern Ireland… “
I gather he did not exactly approve.
EXPLOSION (Bang! there’s goes the ceiling!) from the other corner of the room. Interesting. My Dad’s just gone and blown a fuse!
Tirade at the T.V. screen. One adult yelling at another adult yelling on the Telly. The little boy in me kept stumm and enjoyed the show. I loved audience participation. Who are the real little boys?

“He’s not even a REAL Reverend! He wrote to some correspondence course in America and they sent him a dog collar through the Post! That man… “

He was away. No, he did not like Paisley. The little boy lapped it all up.
Why does my Dad hate Mr.Paisley so much?
Later in Life I was to meet people who really admired Paisley. Businessmen in his constituency who reckoned he was the best thing since sliced bread. But that’s another story. My Dad would not have agreed. Poor ol’ Paisley’s features had only to appear on the box, and, you know, I’d have paid for a ticket just to sit there and snigger in a corner. The heat of it!

Audience Participation in Television is interesting. At boarding school we had a T.V. room, and every Saturday Night we watched the ‘Late, Late Show’. This show has become a Western Culture thing. God knows why. I don’t think anybody was more surprised than the presenter, Gay Byrne. Happy memories for me, of a room packed to capacity of raucous sixth formers, late at night, cheering, clapping, hooting, gesticulating (no teachers present) in spontaneous emotion at a Telly screen.
Looked forward to it every week. Odd. Mass hysteria.
Good, though. I’ll score the old Gogglebox on that.

In common with a few other folk, I watched Neil Armstrong plonk his size tens on the Moon. A-may-zing…
Just before I peg it, and move on to happier spheres, I hope somebody asks me what were the greatest moments in my life. I can then pretend to look awfully wise, and pontificate noisily, and lie through my teeth.
How can you say: my first bonk? Wouldn’t do, would it?
(A-hem).
I think… I would certainly mention watching Neil Armstrong.
You got a bunch of guys here about to turn blue…

Too true, chum! I nearly died. Spectacular.

Most people would agree that there are two sides to Telly: the Good and the Bad. No surprise.
The Bad?
1) Sends people brain dead. Superficial attention only.
Zombie state. Trance. Square-eyes. Ga-ga.
2) Reduces family Life. Letting the kids watch the box to shut them up. Destroys games.
3) Knackers conversation.
Have you ever walked into somebody’s house by appointment, and they leave the ruddy telly on? How insulting can you get?
“How nice to see you, Francis! How ARE you? “
Thank you, very well, I…
(his/her face turns back to screen)
(Francis’ voice peters out…)
“Nice day, isn’t it? “
Yes, I…
(his/her face staring at screen)
“Would you like a coffee? “
Yes, I…
(his/her face staring at screen)
“Help yourself, kettle’s over there, coffee’s on the shelf! “
(his/her face… etc.)

You end up kind of desperate. What do you do to get attention? Let your pants down?

4) Definitely reduces people’s ‘shockability’.

Murder, viciousness, Terry Wogan, torture, sadism…
…and there we are, munching our crisps, slurping our coffee, belching contentedly, whilst some atrocity takes place in stereo and colour! (pass the biscuits, dearest!)
The copycat crimes are the menace. After “Clockwork Orange ” (I didn’t see it), there were apparently legions of sickos who went and did the same sort of thing.
I read an article about the results of the work of a ‘panel of experts’ who decided that the link between TV and increased violence was not definitely proven.
What proof do you need, beloved experts? Some freak with a chainsaw shouting:
‘Chainsaw Massacre rules okay!’
…whilst removing your favorite limbs?

(Not a leg to stand on…?)

The Good?
1) The News.
Look at the impact T.V. has had with events in the D.D.R., Romania, Poland, Yuogoslavia…
My guess is that the presence of Western camera men went a long way to deter brute military suppression/clampdown on supporters of democracy.
Would China have gotten away as easily with its rape of Tibet, and the destruction of an ancient culture – of inestimable value to the world – if there had been more Television back in those days? If public opinion had been more… powerful? Maybe not. I suspect we have little idea of the true degree of barbarism and primitive savagery unleashed on the poor Muslims in eastern Bosnia.
Things (world reaction) might just have been different if the Serb extremists had allowed in T.V. crews and journalists. But of course they didn’t. Not stupid, those boys. The scenes from the T.V. station in Rumania during the revolution that toppled Ceaucescu, had me riveted to the Box. Remember the army guy pushing his way forwards through the crowd?
Please Sir, can I say something?
Yes?
Well, I’m an Army officer, and I don’t think us soldiers should shoot our own people…
Really?

We might be tempted to be sarcastic. Ah, but we live in the West! How many Rumanian soldiers were watching the Box in amazement, and were grateful to take a cue from this hero? An excuse to sit still, and see what way the cat jumped? I could be wrong, but I suspect that those of us who witnessed one Army officer pushing his way forwards, one finger raised, just like school (Please, Sir, can I say something?), may have witnessed ‘true life’ High Drama, there in front of us, right on our T.V. screens, staring us in the face.
A novelist would have been proud to dream up a plot like that…
2) Documentaries
David Attenborough’s nature programmes fascinate me.
Can’t beat T.V. for that.
A picture is often worth a thousand words…
I can’t deny that. At the same time…
How can I put it?

A thousand pictures often boggle the mind?

Yes! That’s it! Terrible un-poetic, but sums it up.

3) Films of books

To read a book, and build up a picture, and then see a good film made about the book, is fascinating.
One finds oneself comparing one’s own views with those of the director of the movie. Sometimes, you disagree.
More often, you agree, and the director by showing you HIS vision has enriched and complemented your own.
An example is Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
I didn’t like all the book, in the same way I didn’t like all the film. Put the two together, remember vividly your favorite bits, and you’re left with a real treat.
Well, I think so, anyway…

Overall though, where Television is concerned, I suspect I’m biased as hell. For three reasons.

A) Pure jealousy.
I’m a reactionary. It’s not difficult to see why. As a struggling writer, I have to compete against the omni-present all-powerful Box.
Me: Have you read my book yet?
Them: Oh, no, sorry, I’ve been REALLY busy this last two weeks. But I’ll definitely get down to it next weekend.
Me: (thinks) (…and how many hours have you spent watching the Box this last fortnight? An average of four hours a day? Times fourteen = 56 hours? More? How long does it take to read my soddin’ book? Twelve hours? Fifteen?
Eh? And you haven’t even STARTED it yet!)
Me: (says) “Oh,well, be interesting to hear how you get on with it… ” (smiles with a little deprecating wave of the hand, which implies that it doesn’t really matter a damn)
Me: (fantasizes) (If you don’t read my book, what took me three months work, I’m personally going to wrap your sodding Box round your scrawny neck)
(KILL! KILL! KILL!)

B) I also have strong memories of two years spent in a single flat at Rathgar Avenue, Dublin. Two years of lots of diary writing, scribbling, reading, listening to music, and ‘thunking’. I was in my early twenties, I didn’t have a Telly, I don’t ever recall missing it, and in a funny way I was very much my own companion. No Box. Good times, in many ways.

C) And going back to my time in Holland…
I never did forgive that bloody box from taking up all the room where much more important things SHOULD have been…

You know what I mean.

My Dinky toys…

F.M.

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on April 19, 2016, 7:53 am


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2 responses to “The Gogglebox”

  1. Very well articulated. Forced to examine my own relationship with "the Box." Entertaining, funny, and still pointed enough to make the reader, me, stop and think.

  2. Loved the description of you as a child being more entertained by the back of the TV than the programming.  And I’m with you on Tess of the d’Urbervilles but I have to say that I still prefer my own imagination to movies made from books I’ve read. Once I have an idea in my mind I don’t want it to be skewed by actors in a movie.

    I remember when we first got cable TV and how obsessed we were with MTV.  We spent hours and hours watching that stuff.  But the older I get, the more I want quiet.  A lot of people like to have the TV on constantly, if only for background noise.  That drives me batty.  On the weekends that my son is with his dad, I leave it off and walk my dog and read alot and enjoy the quiet or just have music on in the background.  And on really nice days when the windows are open I can hear birds and wind and crickets…imagine that…peaceful sounds…no droning announcers…no canned laugh tracks!  

    Of course, like most bad habits, one is usually replaced by another bad one ….and yes, I would cite the home computer and FB and dare I say it…writer’s websites?  Nah, those are exempt…mostly.

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