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The TV Guide - Dr Helen Wheatley on the cultural importance of television

Kid watching TV

“They’ll wonder what they’d ever seen
In that ridiculous machine,
That nauseating, foul, unclean,
Repulsive television screen!”

That’s what the Oompa-Loompas sing as Mike Teavee is carried off in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But far from becoming the scourge of society or the drug of the nation, great and groundbreaking television has become a positive and important part of our culture. And one particular genre seems to have a very special place in people’s hearts – kids’ TV.

“Children’s Television is a form of culture that everyone feels connected to,” says Dr Helen Wheatley, Reader in the University of Warwick’s Film and Television Studies department. And she should know – she has seen it first hand as thousands of people from all generations have moseyed joyfully through an exhibition on kids TV which she helped to curate.

Dr Wheatley, and her colleague Dr Rachel Moseley worked with curators at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum who assembled over 200 items for the exhibition entitled The Story of Children's Television, from 1946 to Now in 2015. Partly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and supported by partners including the BBC, ITV, Ragdoll Production and Kaleidoscope, the classic television organization, it was originally shown at the Herbert, where the event broke museum records, attracting over 83,000 visitors during the run. It has since toured the country and has just finished at its final venue after visiting cities including Derby, Bristol and Portsmouth.

Dr Wheatley, explains: “This exhibition trebled the expected visitor numbers in Coventry alone and I think it is because people have this strong connection with the television of their childhood. Adults are connected with it many times over in their lifetime, as children themselves and then as parents and grandparents.

“We did some research at the exhibition observing how people interacted with the exhibits. We spent time watching families moving round the exhibition. It was fascinating to see people’s ownership of that culture and how important those programmes were for them at a particular point in their lives. We saw the joy in three generations of people – grandparents explaining who Muffin the Mule is and as they moved on, parents took over the narrative, talking about Grange Hill and Blue Peter and, because the exhibition went right up to the present day, then the children also felt they had a real ownership of the exhibits and the history that was being told. We saw the same translation work as the grandparents talked to children and then as the children explained their programming to their grandparents.

Gordon the Gopher

The sound of strangers

But it wasn’t just families interacting at the exhibition. “There was a real sense of a shared culture; of points of connection not only between members of families but also between strangers,” continues Dr Wheatley. “Many times we observed people striking up conversations, asking each other if they remembered this, or singing theme tunes to each other. In fact one of the things which was really striking, which the front of house staff at the Herbert commented on, was that the space was filled with sound. Normally museums and art galleries are quiet and sedate places but for the summer of 2015 it was this noisy, buzzy place.

“We did some visitor research looking at the people who visited the exhibition and we found not only were there a number who hadn’t visited the Herbert before, but had never visited any museum before. So there is this sense that rather than past television being something that stays in the past, it was this thing that really energises people and brings out connections between them. Lots of my current work is building on this idea that people’s reencounter with past television can be productive and full of pleasure, joy and insight.”

Ghost Town

Continuing along the theme of using old television to forge new connections, Dr Wheatley is working towards a new project within Coventry entitled Ghost Town. She explains: “Having seen how old television can work within a community, we would love to bring old television programmes made or set in Coventry back into the city in a number of creative ways. Current ideas include re-screening the consecration of the Cathedral or the showing the day that Duke Ellington came to play in Coventry in 1966. The idea is that they will appear in and around the city - sometimes on a cinema screen or perhaps projected onto more unexpected places in the city. We are also planning a TV gig where local bands will play in-between footage of local bands who have appeared on television over the years – so new up and coming bands will appear alongside bands like Selector and The Specials. With this project we are investigating the idea that television is one of the best ways to explore a city’s living cultural heritage and excite people about the history of a city.”

Digital future

One of the changes Dr Wheatley is observing within the world of TV is the positive effect of digitisation.

“It’s an exciting time for TV research as there are various initiatives to open up the TV archives,” says Dr Wheatley. “Kaleidoscope, one of the partners of our Centre for Television History, Heritage and Memory Research, is one organization which has been working to find, digitise and bring to light archive footage. But also the BBC is working hard to open up its archive and the British Film Institute has various initiatives to make more and more archive TV available. So the really exciting thing for TV historians like me is that it enables greater access to past programming. We can mediate it in various ways to bring that history to life, by interpreting and bringing out its significance and connecting it to the present day.

“I’m excited by things like BBC Store, which enables you to catch up with things that you’ve just missed, like for instance if you missed The Night Manager, it is no longer on iPlayer but you can get it from BBC Store. But also as part of this service, the BBC is also going back into its own archives and curating seasons of programmes in themes such as children’s drama, dark comedy and LGBT characters which it then makes available, so it’s a really exciting initiative from my point of view.”

25 May 2017

Dr Helen WheatleyDr Helen Wheatley is Reader in Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick. She has interests in TV history as well as contemporary television and has written extensively on the subject. Her most recent book, Spectacular Television: Exploring Televisual Pleasure (IB Tauris, 2016), has just won the Best Monograph award from the British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies (BAFTSS). Her latest research project is about television and death – including how death is depicted on TV (both fictional and real deaths) and includes work on how the TV archive give us access to programmes, people, and places ‘beyond the grave’.

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