The Age of Static by Phil Harrison

4.5 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

I watch much less TV than I used to, and I am very much more selective now about what I choose to watch too. I tend to prefer to watch documentaries on a variety of subjects, occasionally a drama and some humour or panel game. Much like my reading.

A lot of what passes for popular culture passes me by as I have my head in a book normally. I have seen one series of Big Brother, I think it was the second series, I don’t watch Bake Off, though the rest of my family do. I can’t bear the braying alpha males and females on the Apprentice, who seem to think that the only way to get ahead is the trample on all those around them. If fact, almost all the programmes that he references, I haven’t watched…

He has somehow managed to divide these TV programmes into five sections that loosely hang together. The first, Reality TV Reality focuses on Big Brother, the Apprentice and Britain’s Hardest Workers but he also manages to squeeze in, The Office, The Thick of It and Have I Got News For You. When Big Brother first started they took a bunch of people off the street and shut them away under the pervasive gaze of cameras and an intrigued and bemused audience. Not much happened but it was a big success. This lead to more profiling of the people selected to join in and a house that was more spikey and not quite as comfortable as the earlier series. It has made a number of people famous for no other reason than being on there. The Office was not a programme I liked. As I work in an office usually, the little I watched felt far to close to home but to pull off a drama that felt like a cringe-worthy embarrassing documentary takes some doing…

The fascination of seeing people who live differently will never go away and this sort of documentary is never going to go out of fashion. In How The Other Half Live, Harrison considers various programmes that give us a window into these other worlds. The Secret Millionaire is a programme that took the super-rich out of their opulent mansions an into the lives of ordinary people. In principle, it was a good thing, but in practice, it became a way of the show exploiting those in the lower levels of our society and probably showed as much the chasm between those at the top and bottom that is still widening.

I have watched Top Gear since William Wollard waxed lyrical over different types of engine oil and the cars they feature you could see quite often broken down of the side of the road. It was reinvented with Clarkson et al and became a lifestyle show that I must admit has made me laugh a lot. He was a man who didn’t let trivial things like facts get in the way of his opinion and he drove as close the edge as he could. In Hypernormalisation by Adam Curtis, he shows how we can all retract into our particular bunkers and by consuming a niche of content from various providers we reinforce our particular world views.

The BBC is a common thread throughout the book and they merit a special chapter to themselves. Harrison goes onto list the flaws of the corporation and the way that it works, especially the delusional attempt to get a balance on every single subject they talk about. I like the BBC, even more so now that I have stopped listening to their news output, but they do make some excellent programmes on a variety of subjects.

In, A Very British Identity Crisis, he considers various programmes that show us as a culture and he begins with those programmes that have increased thousands of waistlines across the country. It feels like a country fair where villagers take their garden and kitchen produce to be judged by the great and the good. Another of the programmes that he uses as points of reference, Downton Abbey, I have never seen or wanted to see for that matter. But I completely get his point that it has been written to show that the English upper class have the right to remain in charge in perpetuity. Glad to see that he mentions the Detectorists, a show that is gently funny, but has quite deep truths in ti and shows that two men can have fallen in love with their local landscape and the history below the soil.

I thought that this was a fascination book. In my opinion, Harrison hits the mark each and every time with his analysis of how culture, society and what we watch on TV act like some grim hall of black mirrors back on society. There are contradictions, what works for one class now days is frowned on in other classes even though the behaviours are the same. There have been certain milestone programmes that have provided a stark, if not shockingly vivid image out our society and the way that it has changed for the better. He celebrates the great TV that has been produced and hopefully still will be but is also wary of those programmes that seek to shame and polarise particular sectors of our society. He rightly bemoans that we are losing that common TV conversational starters as so many people are watching very different things. If you love TV, then why not read a book on it? This is a very good place to start.

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  1. Liz Dexter

    This sounds really interesting. I do watch Bake Off and Strictly (well, came back to the latter this year after we got sick of it, to support Nicola Adams and Bill Bailey) and then Taskmaster which is the funniest programme ever and documentaries mainly after that. Something for everyone in this book, it seems.

    • Paul

      It was. Sarah is going to read it, then I would be more than happy to post the proof on to you.

      • Liz Dexter

        Oh I’d love to read it, thank you (no rush, though!!)

        • Paul

          Excellent. Will chivvy her to read it after she has finished her current book

  2. Annabel (AnnaBookBel)

    I’ve just read this, and was quite pleased to find I’d watched most of the programmes he references – at least a little. I thought it was really well done. Glad it was fascinating even if you hadn’t watched the programmes.

    • Paul

      I was aware of a lot of the programmes even though they were never something that I would watch. His analysis was really good

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