Can ITV educate?

From Television Annual 1957, published by Odhams

Caryl Doncaster

Of course it can educate, and does educate. And now I’d like to drop that rather awe-inspiring word because I don’t think it fits very well into the context of what television aims to do for the family when it has finished school or washing up or work generally.

The pundits sometimes forget this simple fact, that viewing is not compulsory, like school or clocking in at the factory. Viewing is voluntary and experience has shown that when the screen adopts a school-mastering demeanour the set is switched off, or over. I for one am against those programmes, which are based on the idea of the man behind the desk who looks at you in a benign sort of way (often at the wrong camera), and talks and talks about what he feels ought to interest you. A lot of this is done – not, I’m happy to say, by ITV; and there is one word for it: it is a bore.

When a treatment bores it does not teach. When a treatment entertains it does teach automatically, because the mind is in the best possible condition for receiving ideas. The political parties have arrived at this obvious conclusion very quickly. Today the political messages in their party broadcasts have not changed, but their presentation has. They aim to please, on the principle that the wrapper sells the goods.

In television, the cult of personality is a very important factor in the twin objects of entertainment and instruction. The man, for instance, who likes classical music will listen to it in any case. But if the conductor is as vivid a personality as Sir John Barbirolli and the presentation of the orchestra is entertaining, the chances are that converts will be made – slowly but surely. They begin by looking for the wrong reasons (just as a child begins to write by following lines) and end by listening and viewing for the right ones.

An ITV informational series that caught the public’s fancy was Meet Mr. Marvel. In this Hugh David demonstrated domestic gadgets and appliances of all kinds. Here, Miss Muriel Young is with him in the role of an enquiring housewife.

What I like about the ITV approach is that the stress is on entertainment first. In This Week, for instance, we aim to give even the most serious item “presentation” value – the way it is filmed, the sound effects, the music, the bite in the questions – and we consider all this just as carefully as actual content.

The same is true of the series called Look in on London, which is about the people who give us a service: dustmen and firemen, charladies and fluffers. There is nothing so entertaining as the so-called ordinary man showing us the ins and outs of his so-called ordinary job. I learned a great deal, by accident – by proxy if you like – from the little film on dustmen, without the aid of a single chart, blackboard or professor. The kind of work and approach represented by the professorial attitude had been done before this film got to the screen: research, script, “presentation” – that was the order.

What so often goes wrong is that the first phase in the venture, research, looks as if it is being done on the screen. It’s like the man who goes up on to a platform to make a speech and holds in his hands and works from the first rough draft of his notes. He might just as well sit down because we all know he is going to be a bore.

I know I am laying myself open to all kinds of charges in the future, but I’m prepared to say that this is not the ITV approach. All our programmes that are about events of the week or about people with problems are designed to entertain. For instance, there’s the new series called People Are Talking, which is about the kind of problems that affect us all – income tax, gambling, drinking, sex – and all done without any schoolroom equipment. But the facts and the points of view are there just the same.

Memorable in Caryl Doncaster’s ITV series on London life, Big City, was the story about a Teddy Boy in the Elephant and Castle district. Here a scene is being shot.

We take the not very revolutionary view that the approach to the man on the other side of the cathode-ray tube must alter according to the time of day. In the morning, when you read your newspaper, the mind is fresh; it can take a barrage of dry facts, which it will absorb. At night, however, the situation is entirely different. We’re all a bit tired – and yet the world keeps on turning; news and views still keep pouring in. But if they are presented “straight” the tired mind sets up a resistance.

The answer, if we aim to put over a point of view, lies in one word: presentation; and we would like to think that we are getting close to the secret of it. Can ITV educate? Answer: it already does.

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