Monday, July 24, 2006

A Dog, Cat or a Television? -- July 24, 2006

Which is the odd man out? The answer? Of course it’s the cat. But, say my dumfounded American friends, shouldn’t it be the television? Not so, sayeth your friendly Brit. You need a license for the dog and for the television. You don’t need one for the cat. Years ago, Monty Python explained the simple point, when John Cleese walked into the Post Office and declared to the clerk – “I need to buy a fish license.”

And so, like John Cleese, I stood in front of the Post Office clerk. I had bought my television, but didn’t have a license. At least I don’t need to demonstrate I can operate the wretched item. All they need is my name, addy, date of birth and – yes the National Insurance Number. I found my old one from thirty five years ago. Then I had to fork out the dough-- 131 pounds (about 250 US clams.) You pay it every year. Can you get away without paying it? You can sure try, but every now and then the TV police cruise about the neighborhood in a big van armed with antennae, looking like a giant insect. They pick up working TV sets and pounce on anyone watching Big Brother without a license.

That also goes for Friends, CSI, Desperate Housewives and the US invasion. Since coming here we’ve watched little television. In the States, I watched little partly because I detest commercial interruptions. Here, thanks to the TV license, the BBC channels are commercial free, but the programs still don’t grab me. The reality TV craze has hit the UK, and there’s little sign of something new to tear you away from a good book -- a script written by a talented writer. On this side of the pond, the creative well seems to have run dry.

Turning on the radio, we find another world. We listened to half an hour while someone explained what music he’d take onto a desert island. The series has been alive for over fifty years. Then I found a radio play, performed by voices that sent the shivers down my back. I didn’t need to see what was going on. I could imagine. Somewhere out there a coffin descends into the depths, a stranger knocks on the door, figures from the past awaken and send the protagonist into madness. Radio is full of such pieces, some modern and written specifically for radio, or adaptations of literary works. And you’ll hear them without commercial interruption. I wonder who the listeners are? My sister listens on the weekend while she is ironing. I’m sure many others do. I am more in awe that the art form has survived in an age where everyone is rushing to get from A to B, moving too fast to sit down and listen to the radio. Have I stepped back into the world of Bizzarro? Who pays for radio drama? Actually we do with that !@#$% TV license. Radio drama is like poetry or opera. It never pays for itself, but then it doesn’t need to. There are no advertisers out there trying to sell a Rolls Royce to the radio drama audience. The program directors know there are folk who tune in each week to the play, and like it, and that’s enough. You need writers, and there appear to be some with a well trained ear for good dialog, who are still paid for their scripts.

So we bought not only a TV but a radio. In the empty living room, I sat by the large windows and struggled with the TV aerial, waiting for a picture to appear on the (fully licensed) gadget. From the radio issued a violin concerto by Philip Glass, hearty music that filled the empty space. Enchanting. I may never hear it again but I’ll remember it.

I doubt that his CD sold more than a few thousand copies.

i guess this might prevent the epidemic of having a tv in every room of the house...
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