The Ghost of TV Past

Today I found evidence of TV before it was populated by the general public, all engaged in some sort of contest for survival on the road to minor celebrity. Whether it’s baking cakes, singing karaoke, going to car boot sales, or doing up their house, so much of what gets on telly these days is as competitive as it is voyeuristic as it is judgemental.

On YouTube, I found an old black and white edition of the BBC’s Monitor programme, chaired by Huw Wheldon. Orson Welles, Peter O’Toole and an unidentified elderly actor sat, smoked and talked about Hamlet – the play, not the cigar. That was it – simple, but extraordinarily captivating. There was no jeopardy, no put downs by a judge, no back story, no excitable and orgasmic studio audience. However, they did agree that the ghost is the most difficult character and that because Shakespeare himself played it, he must have been a very fine actor.

The programme came from a time when the Reithian principle of informing, educating and entertaining was still the Corporation’s guiding light. Paternalistic yes, but enriching also. It’s a spirit kept alive on BBC4 and whatever other mistakes the BBC makes (and there have been many), it is the only broadcaster capable in the modern commercial world of maintaining a place for “difficult” television.