What is good TV taste?


Is it possible to define “good TV”?

TV the world over often features in controversies over what is and is not “good taste”. (Of course this is not a new problem, all media have to face it at one time or another.) In the end one must probably maize the same answer as Rabelais, “Each to his own, as the woman said when she hissed her cow”, but for those responsible the problem remains. What do we in television think? julie elwell-sutton makes this report.


Cover of 'Fusion' issue 1
From Fusion issue 1, May/June 1958

At first sight it did not look a very difficult task to find out what people working in TV considered to be good taste in TV, but when I began my tour of TV House, braving the intricacies of PBX, wasting the time of a long-suffering TV Times writer — having a cosy lunch with a member of the Advertising Dept. — maddening (I am sure) harassed secretaries, overworked members of Prg. Correspondence and kindly producers, and being over-awed by a Head of Depts.’ office, well, then I began to realise that I had probably bitten off more than I could chew. For it seems that good taste is almost impossible to define; being a negative quality; nobody watching a good play, dance, or documentary says — “by jove, that was in good taste” — but the moment something offends their personal susceptibility, for taste is after all personal, then they are vocal enough. So it’s bad taste you’re going to read about, and below I give you the opinions of all those I talked to.

I found their thoughts both fascinating and contradictory, one producer put it to me that good taste and good showmanship made uneasy bed-fellows; another, that good taste was too bound up with safety, and the criterion of truly appalling taste was when a programme made you feel uncomfortable, without any sense of guilt, whereas if a programme gave you a sneaking suspicion that your attitude was of the ostrich with head in sand variety, then the subject matter, whether it is homosexuality, prostitution, the H-bomb, or the needling of a politician in the Robin Day manner, is almost certainly permissible bad taste, as it forces you to stop and think about your responsibilities as a citizen, a responsibility it is often more comfortable to ignore.

My friends in PBX objected to some of the dance presentations, which they found too suggestive, and this was as true of ballets as of the modern dances. What interested me particularly was that if they had seen the same thing in a theatre or cinema, they wouldn’t have minded. It was the “intimacy in the home” of TV, which makes this kind of thing offensive. I had the same complaint about the interminable and suggestive apache dances we are subjected to, from the Advertising section.

Back to PBX. Quite a number of comperes come under fire as indulging in orgies of bad taste, being personality pushers with little thought to spare for the programme they compere, and many commit the cardinal sin of talking down to the viewers, something any intelligent person resents.

Quiz programmes also brought a baleful look to the eye of my beholders, on the same grounds of being an insult to the thinking viewer. High on the black list is the spurious type of chumminess of the — What is your name?—Mary Jones.—May I call you Mary? — type of dialogue, and the imbecility of the questions, which would be an insult to the intelligence of a child of six, but by answering them, any adult can win that all-steel kitchen unit, the magnificent chromium plated little family car, with the two spare wheels and extra roomy boot, or that three-piece bedroom suite in light polished oak, picked out with raised facings in darker oak. Who but a Dr. Schweitzer could resist the lure of such glittering rewards for so little brain fag?

Again they object to the often humiliating forfeits competitors are asked to perform, for the supposed amusement of the studio audience and the viewer at home. The sad part is, that they very often do cause immoderate mirth — it is the man slipping on a banana skin mentality which is encouraged in this type of show.

In the Ad-Mag outfit I found a very definite feeling of antipathy towards the Amateur Talent Programmes with their larger-than-life comperes introducing some very amateur amateurs. All those would-be Beverly Sisters [sic] in over-fussy frocks, net nylon mittens and diamanté clips and slides; those raucous Lonnie Donnegans, where only the shirt is similar, the heavy footed Fred Astaires, and those sordid xylophone players whose only talent is to play the damn thing with their feet, can surely only be an embarrassment to their relations and a discomfort to everyone else, even the over-optimistic band leader or hardboiled talent scout — or so think Ad-Mags. By the same token one Head of Dept, felt that a vulgar joke told by an incompetent amateur can only be in the worst of taste, whilst the same joke told by a highly skilled professional will almost surely succeed in being extremely funny.

All those I questioned recoiled visibly when I mentioned the “personal tribute to a living person” epics. All that gooey mass of sugary sentiment, with the well-known personality in well chosen tears, while dear old Nanny Plumwood or dear old Mr. Satherwaite, who taught them to skip, hover above them in badly chosen clothes, produces nothing but a strong feeling of nausea in the stomachs of my viewers.

The mothers among our staff thought it very bad taste to show scenes of viciousness and violence to the young, although one did disagree, saying that it was Robin Hood, Sir Lancelot and the good sheriff of so-and-so city, who caught the imagination of a child and I must admit that among the children I mix with there is always a Robin Hood to pin me to the tree with his mighty bow or a rangy Davy Crockett to shoot me stone dead … come to think of it, excellent as these characters may be, you’re still dead, whether killed by a goody or a baddy! My TV Times writer gave me a long and thoughtful lecture on the evils of the “Top Ten/Twenty Favourites cult”. He explained that the public taste is very malleable and is manipulated quite unscrupulously by the song pluggcrs of Tin Pan Alley, who naturally find it a great deal easier to discover a mass of mediocre songwriters and singers, than it is to discover good ones. So out go the mediocre songs and music, week after week, and down goes public taste.

Everyone I spoke to disliked watching people in obvious mental distress, whose relations perhaps, had been lost in a spectacular disaster, or who might be connected with a much publicised and very unsavoury happening. In both eases, they felt that apart from the person actually appearing, it might quite well cause infinite and unnecessary suffering to someone the other side of the screen. It is a point of view one can’t ignore. On the other hand we want to hear what these people have to say and it is only a matter of presentation.

Well, there you have it. I wonder what you think. Should we have such impeccable programmes, such self-effacing good taste, that none could possibly take exception? What a ghastly thought. Henry VIII was in shocking bad taste, but what a man, how he lived and how he enjoyed life, high and low, and how many treasures he left for posterity to savour and admire. How sad it is to think that many TV Programmes, however brilliant, will never go down to posterity.


From the Dick Branch collection

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