Growing Up With the Telly

Graham Kibble-White discusses the results of the OTT survey

First published June 2003

On the 2 April, 1964, a 15-year-old youth broke into an unoccupied secondary school at Grantham by sticking paper over a window pane and using a glass cutter. He informed the Police that he had seen the method depicted in a television programme.
Taken from Cleaning Up TV: From Protest to Participation by Mary Whitehouse

My first ever memory is of television. It’s not of some family picnic in the rolling countryside (although that comes next), it’s of Tom Baker at the controls of a space-ship as it plunges headlong out of control on a crash course towards a spinning planet. I don’t think I’m unique in citing television as my first remembered sign-post on the road to growth and development – in fact (as we’re going to find out) I’m not even unique in including Tom Baker in that first flourish of consciousness. I’m part of a number of generations whose outlook, opinions and role in society have been influenced by TV. A post-war populace who, to varying degrees, have looked out at the world through the square window. Like it or not if you’re under 60, television has probably played a large role in deciding who you are today.

Sir Richard Attenborough once said that “television has a unique role in the society and cultural life of contemporary Britain. It is the forum … from which most people obtain the information they need as citizens”. It’s a fair, if slightly dry summation of how TV operates. Even in adulthood the telly will indicate to us what is considered appropriate behaviour. But when we’re talking about television as a factor in our growing up, well then the relationship really gets potent. Suddenly we’re looking at television at its most affecting, and by that I’m not talking about some apparently transparent process wherein we watch a programme and shortly afterwards find ourselves, glass cutter in hand, up to no good – as if it were ever that simple. I’m talking about a far more complicated, far more important influence. One that, if we tracked back down the roads we’ve come, we could find prompting us to take one route over another.

So with that in mind I decided I was going to try to discover the routes television had led other people on as they grew-up. And that, of course, meant a survey. The idea here was that by asking a selection of people questions about their memories of and feelings towards the television of their childhood I might be able to build a kind of picture as to how growing up with the telly really does influence us. From the middle of April, to the start of May, 108 people completed a survey published here on OTT. What I had on my hands as a result wasn’t really a statistically significant number – and with respondents drawn wholly from what we could term a sub-sub-culture (people with web access who frequented TV related websites or discussion forums), the feedback was always going to be weighted in a certain direction. Nevertheless it still represented an extremely well attended pub conversation, populated by people with a genuine interest in the subject matter. Nothing was going to be proven, but I was hopeful of spotting some useful indications.

The survey attempted to collect the following data:

1. Your name, age, occupation and gender.
2. Your first ever TV-related memory.
3. The three programmes you felt had the strongest impact upon you as a child.
4. What importance TV had in your day-to-day life.
5. Did your parents/guardians ever censor what you watched?
6. How did you feel television affected you growing-up?
7. Do you think TV is better or worse now than it was during your childhood?

In addition to the above, I also added an “any other comments” box as a kind of overflow trough. As the results began to fly into my inbox I quickly came to appreciate that in the majority of cases people were submitting quite lengthy and well-written responses. There was a sense that the respondents enjoyed filling in the survey and that a prompted reminiscence of their TV salad days was rather welcome. So, let’s look through those responses now and see what we can tease out of the data and – more importantly – the comments left.

1. Your name, age, occupation and gender
The average age of our OTT survey respondents turned out to be around 34 years old (if you like that sort of thing, the average female age was 34.5 and the average male age 33.3). This meant I was looking at a sample that’d generally be referring to television from roughly the early to mid 1970s. There would, however, still be a range of experiences here, with the youngest respondent just 16 years old (and citing formative memories of TV-am) and the oldest clocking in at 51 (Pathfinders to Venus).

By asking for occupational details I was hoping to see if there was any obvious correlation between the types of job people were holding down, and the way in which they felt TV had affected them. That my sample group largely had an already proven interest in television was somewhat borne out by the fact that there were a fair amount of broadcasters, writers and producers here. By the final count 25% of respondents were working within what you could loosely term an arts environment and an argument could be made that the role TV played in their formative years had some bearing on that. Certainly, only three people from this category rated television as anything less than an important influence on their growing up. One of these was Brian Kiggin (51) who explained, reasonably enough: “TV programmes were scarce when I was young and kids had the ability to entertain themselves.” Peter Haslam (50), meanwhile, felt that: “It was part of my life, but not the only part!!!” That both men are in their 50s is probably also a factor here; they’re referring back to a TV culture from the late 1950s and early 1960s that was arguably less developed and less pervasive than it would later become. Other third TV nay-sayer was Peter (37) who declined to qualify his comments. On the opposite side of the fence along with the majority of our arts producers was Jim Sangster (32) who wrote last year’s Unofficial 24 Guide and various other TV-related books. He mused: “I’m now working at the BBC, and it’s definitely been an ambition to be here ever since I was a child.” This proved to be just one explicit link made by respondents between their current circumstances and childhood exposure to the telly. We’ll look at some more later on.

And so to gender, with further unsurprising results. As expected, only 29% of respondents were female. So was there any difference in how the genders regarded TV’s role in their childhood? The numbers came in as follows: 45% of females regarded TV’s influence upon them as very important, whereas only 32% of males felt the same way. At the other end of the scale only 19% of females would claim television had been unimportant to them, with 10% of males concurring. It would seem that men generally took up the middle ground when it came to rating the telly’s power of influence, whilst women were far more from the all or nothing camp. But that’s where we’ll leave it, otherwise fearful of finding ourselves in the middle of a much larger debate about television and gender.

2. Your first ever TV-related memory
This question served a couple of purposes. Firstly I hoped it would produce some interesting and evocative memories of the telly. Secondly, I thought it might provide an insight into how TV had fixed itself into our psyches from the off. As you might expect, a lot of these memories took the form of striking images or pieces of music. Some examples:

“Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody video on Top of the Pops – 1975 I think it was. The special effects were so amazing, it stuck in my mind.” – Adam (32)

“It could be Nationwide as I loved the music and title sequence, and according to my Mum, perked up when it came on the telly when I was little!” – Andrew Spokes (31)

“The theme tune from White Horses.” – Colin Davidson (37)

“A blur between Fred Harris singing on Ragtime, space rockets lifting off, and staying up late to watch Dad’s Army.” – Martin (33)

“A commercial for Quavers – I seem to recall a giant pair of lips with legs.” – Sam Harris (29)

“BBC testcards – and a glimpse of an unknown Saturday early evening ITV programme which showed pianos on fire and disturbed me profoundly.” – David Sheldrick (39)

“Being scared to death by the end credits of The Feathered Serpent” – Jen (29)

The last couple of responses in particular also pointed towards another trend. Our first recognisable response to television often seemed to be one of fear. That in itself is an interesting indication, and goes someway to justifying assertions that television can act as a means by which children are educated about different facets of life. It certainly seems reasonable to conclude that the first time a lot of us experienced real fear was in front of the box; even if that hadn’t always been the programme-makers’ intention. Take the following into consideration:

“Being scared to death of Captain Pugwash.” – Steve (32)

“I think it’s … Hartley Hare from Pipkins scaring the crap out of me.” – Vince Stadon (33)

“Hiding behind a sofa, because Andy Pandy scared me.” – Tim Jones (26)

“Watching a really scary episode of Rainbow in which Bungle cut his foot open and I was dead scared and ran in the kitchen and hid under the table. Even after trying to coax me out with offers of Dandelion and Burdock couldn’t get me out for my tea. I stopped there nearly all day.” – Rich Boden (23)

The most telling remembrance of TV invading the viewer’s life, however, came from Jessica Mordsley (22) who recalled the “news reports of the Ethiopian famine in about 1984-5. I remember the whole family sitting around watching it, being shocked.”

Reassuringly for programme-makers and parents alike, the survey indicated that our first relationship with TV is generally formed via programming specifically tailored for youngsters, with 68% of respondents citing a children’s TV programme in this category. Programmes that went out under the Watch With Mother umbrella made a strong showing, however the stand-out culprit for our first TV memory turned out to be Doctor Who with 14% of people name-checking the series. It would seem that Doctor Who‘s combination of children’s TV status and genuine chills made for a potent mix. Of course, the beauty of Doctor Who is that the series is so well documented it’s easy for people to pinpoint exactly when and where their memories came from …

“I know this is an oft-repeated cliché by now; but literally hiding behind the sofa when ‘The Robots of Death’ was on Doctor Who. I actually went to bed one Saturday afternoon/evening out of fear of the Robots – despite my dad trying to tell me that the story had actually finished the previous week. I wouldn’t listen, and blind fear sent me to bed. I kid you not.” – Ian Paterson (30)

“I think my first really clear memory is of episode three (?) of Doctor Who: ‘The Deadly Assassin’. More specifically the cliff-hanger at the end of episode two/beginning of episode three in which the Doctor gets his foot stuck in the switched rail tracks and there is a small train bearing down on him.” – Jack Kibble-White (29)

“Probably Doctor Who. I can remember Jon Pertwee’s last season, when I was three years old. Dinosaurs and spiders mainly. And I half-remembered the Buddhist meditation as ‘Um ally pally um’.” – Jim Sangster (32)

“Something looming over a bed, and some tribal ritual with men dressed in boxes. Either nightmares or maybe glimpses of Doctor Who.” – Paul Cornell (35)

“As far as I can remember it was part four of Doctor Who: ‘Logopolis’ where the fourth Doctor fell from the radio telescope tower. I suspect that I saw a lot of television before this, but nothing else sticks in the mind.” – Chris Orton (26)

“Watching Hartnell turn into Troughton.” – Gary Russell (39)

A close second to Doctor Who when it came to forming memories was, surprisingly, all the bits in-between programmes with 12% of respondents talking about such miscellany as the Thames TV ident, the Schools and Colleges’ clock and the testcard. What can we conclude from this? Repetition also plays an important part in the formation of memories.

3. The three programmes you felt had the strongest impact upon you as a child
For some of us growing up, our allegiance to particular television programmes becomes a strong and stable part of our childhood. This part of the survey was designed to try and tease out the programmes that we clung to, and to see if we could provide some explanation for their influence over us.

Inevitably, Doctor Who put in a strong showing again, being the most name-checked programme overall (although, interestingly, females rated it equally with Blue Peter). All in all, 10% of people listed it as one of the programmes that made a strong impact upon them as a child. This figure raised to around 25% when we looked only at respondents within the 25 – 34 age range, with their childhood falling around the time Doctor Who was enjoying its peak in popularity. The main reason continually cited for the series’ success was its imaginative concept, described by Dan Higginbottom (29) as the “imaginative, frightening, funny”. There was also an element here of the show creating a quite unique relationship with its viewers. David Sheldrick (39) recalled: “A sense of anticipation and ritual surrounded Saturdays at 5.15pm like no other time, and when it finally came round it was 25 minutes of spine tingling fear and suspense, a rollercoaster of imagination extending into unforeseen realms. Doctor Who felt somehow ‘adult’ but wasn’t dull like many adult programmes. It felt like ‘my programme’ yet I loved talking about it and sharing my reactions with friends.”

Many people also associated Doctor Who with some very formative experiences. “It gave me imagination” said Gary Russell (39) who describes his current occupation as “Doctor Who Producer” (Gary is behind the series of Big Finish full cast Doctor Who audio releases), whereas writer Paul Cornell (35) felt it “gave me something to be, having been terrified of even the title for years before. Confronting the fear made me who I am.” Similarly, Mark Ridley (32), who logged his profession as “Robot Researcher”, claimed: “It taught me how to criticise and remain outside a society while understanding and tolerating what might be best for a particular set of people.” Truly Doctor Who was a programme fulfilling the role of television as educator and window on the world. Nevertheless, we should remain a little wary as to its high-scoring in almost all sections of the survey. It does seem to be the case that for many people a wider interest in television was initially sparked by a love of Who … and those with a wider interest in television are those most likely to fill in a survey about growing up with the telly. Quid pro quo.

In total 165 different programmes were mentioned here – with only 18 receiving more than two votes each. So, in order of popularity, here comes OTT’s chart of the top 18 programmes that our survey respondents felt had the greatest impact upon them as a child:

1. Doctor Who
2. Blue Peter
3. Play School
4. Grange Hill
5. Top of the Pops
6. The Tomorrow People
8. Coronation Street
9. Tomorrow’s World
10. Think of a Number
11. Rainbow
12. Grandstand
13. Watch With Mother
14. The Multicoloured Swap Shop
15. Schools programming
16. Newsround
17. Blake’s 7
18. The Muppet Show

Referring back to the specific figures, again, it’s worth noting that while Blue Peter came a poor second to Doctor Who with just 7% of the total respondents referring to it, it in itself still had a sizeable lead over the next two programmes, Play School (which received more votes from females than males as did The Tomorrow People and Coronation Street, whilst Tomorrow’s World got none!) and Grange Hill which only enjoyed a 4% and 3% share respectively. It’s at this point, however, that we have to remind ourselves that with a sample group of only 108 none of the above could ever be described as statistically significant. That said, it is interesting that the top two programmes are of such different genres. How, then, did Blue Peter come to enjoy such a favourable showing? Let’s look at some of the comments:

“I grew up with it from about four years old and I was still watching the omnibuses on a Sunday not very long ago if I caught them. I’ve always had a fairly short attention span and so the number of different items on the programme meant that I rarely, if ever, got bored.” – Catherine Halpern (30)

“John Noakes was your dad but more daring. I remember being particularly disturbed when Peter Purves left. It was as though your parents were suddenly getting divorced!” – David Bridgman (35)

“Efficient middle-class indoctrination for which I am still, on balance, thankful.” – Rob Stradling (34)

“It offered a wider outlook on life (hobbies, past-times, arts, other peoples’ interest) and the wider world (famine appeals) but still from a young person’s perspective” – Nick (36)

“This programme had the most impact on me most through its permanence. Its presence in the schedules was reassuring and its familiarity, even predictability, very appealing, especially at primary school age when everything else was always changing and unsettling. I never found BP patronising or smug. Its attraction was threefold: as entertainment, as an example of ‘live TV’ where anything could go wrong, and as a telly institution which I’d made myself aware of from an obscenely early age. It’s rediscovered all of those traits in the last five years, besides retaining that ability to talk about things in an entirely unpresuming, unpretentious way.” – Ian Jones (27)

In contrast to Doctor Who, Blue Peter seemed to affect a lot of our respondents because of its familiarity, what Ian Jones refers to as its “permanence”. But there is also another strand that does share a similarity with Doctor Who. Based on the comments given here it would seem that many people found Blue Peter affecting because it also provided an educational and forming experience. Although we may look cynically at “edutainment” it would seem that when we were growing up it was something many of us specifically craved. We were looking for programmes that would challenge us, and broaden our horizons. Some more examples, detailing other programmes:

“I was 13 turning 14 when this programme arrived. I went to a mixed comprehensive school and was roughly the same age as Tucker and co and it immediately captured my imagination. It was so like school it was unbelievable. I remember reeling with shock when Madeleine Tanner went shoplifting with Cathy Hargreaves for example. The show dealt with problems and situations that were very real to me and my friends, from school uniforms to bullying. Amazing, ground-breaking stuff. And mum didn’t like it which was always a sign of quality.” – Jon Peake (37) on Grange Hill

“It scared the bejeesus out of me as a 10 year old, but also taught me that honesty will always avoid problems later.” – Mike Williams (39) on Doomwatch

“Songs, arguments and lessons from Geoffrey in compromise and arbitration.” – Olie Staunton (30) on Rainbow

“It was just this whole world of ‘what the hell?’ – before that, to me, comedy was blokes in suits telling mother-in-law gags, farcical sitcoms or daft slapstick. Then you see Milligan and there’s no punchlines, no real division between sketches, no ‘fourth wall’, sometimes very dark and disconcerting material – stuff that made you think ‘Why am I laughing at this?’” – Pete Fenlon (34) on Q

“[I] was utterly bewildered by [Q], finding bits funny, and having a sense that there was a world out there beyond what I’d grown up with. Python was the same, but somehow not as shocking. The Goodies had the same feel too, but was cosier.” – Stewart Lee (35)

Looking at the overall make-up of the 165 programmes mentioned it’s good news again for makers of children’s TV. 54% of the 165 were programmes specifically aimed at younger viewers. So how did Top of the Pops sneak in at number five? And more importantly, what’s to account for Coronation Street‘s success at number eight? In both cases memories of the programmes were often tied into broader family moments, bringing these adult programmes (well, sort of, in regard to TOTP) into the front room as something to be shared between parents and kids:

“I always remember watching it with mum and my brother before we had to go to bed.” – LM O’Brien (49) on Coronation Street

“I got addicted at an early age because my mother was.” – Debbie Holness (44) on Coronation Street

“Putting up the Christmas decorations, me and my sister would always drape tinsel around our necks, play records and introduce our own editions of Top of the Pops. I loved pop music when I was young and so I loved that programme.” – Steve Williams (24)

Meanwhile, Sam Harris’ (29) memories of another programme – this time one specifically made for younger viewers, Paddington Bear – poignantly summed up the connection between family life and the telly: “I remember it being part of my ‘quality time with Dad’. Which sadly was rather scarce.”

As a side note, there were a couple of particularly interesting remembrances about Coronation Street which reveal that for some people the programme’s potency lay also in its ability to gradually induct the viewer into the rules of TV itself. Jim Sangster (32) wrote: “[It] was a show you could set your clock to. When ITV went on strike, I seem to recall it happened when Deirdre was raped (which I just assumed meant she’d been mugged), so when it returned to our screens and she was still sitting at the kitchen table crying I thought it odd.” Meanwhile, Jack Kibble-White (29) was learning about dramatic narrative and convention: “I am convinced that I was able to understand the grammar of television drama even at an early age. A lot of this was down to Coronation Street. I came to recognise that there would be a mini cliff-hanger before the break as well as a proper cliff-hanger at the end of the episode. The fact that I knew with certainty enough to flee the room in terror that Rene Roberts was going to die in a car crash just through the way in which the episode kept cutting between her and Alf arguing and a lorry going to fast and playing blaring music suggests to me a quite sophisticated understanding of TV drama for a seven year old.”

Of course we can’t underestimate the fact that certain programmes cropped up simply because when we were children we thought they were fun, or exciting, or cool. So while Will Tudor (17) was finding out that “there was always a good share of visual gags in Red Dwarf“, Spike (27) was discovering that in TISWAS “the anarchic, hyperactive Chris Tarrant pumped me up and the Phantom Flan Flinger inspired me to throw things”. Meanwhile Robert Peach (45) was being thrilled by Fireball XL5 where “robots flew round space having a fantastic time” and Nick Hutchings (25) was realising, thanks to Starfleet, that “anything with a robot that constructs itself from three separate parts is going to appeal to your average primary school kid”. And whilst all that was going on Jim Walton (39) could be found marveling at “the glamour, the fantasy [and] the girls” in The Persuaders whilst Ian (23) was lapping up the “pure entertainment value” of Super Ted. Yes, some of our formative telly viewing was simply just extremely entertaining, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

4. What importance TV had in your day-to-day life
Now, it’s all very well having lots of fond memories of TV – but when you were growing up just how much would you schedule your day around your favourite programmes? Would the birthday parties of your peers play a second-best to The Pink Panther, or was it a case that once the telly was switched off you’d be happy to make do with the real world? With this section of the survey I wanted to probe just how much the television managed to inveigle its way into our respondents’ young lives, and so I asked them to rate its importance: very important, important, not that important or unimportant. Interestingly, no one rated television as unimportant. Testament, perhaps, to the fact that this was in truth a survey filled in by people who would freely admit to being touched by TV. Emphasising this, only 15% opted for the “not that important” choice. Let’s see why:

“I like to think that I’ve never put too much importance on television. As a child I would play out after school rather than watch too much kiddie TV. Television was never the ‘be all and end all’ and having two older sisters and one television in the household meant that my viewing requests were never given the greatest priority.” – Clive Shaw (30)

“As a child my viewing was strictly limited and I had to compromise a lot with the rest of the family. I preferred reading because I had control over it, and could do it anywhere.” – Anna Hosey-Davies (45)

“I was out playing most of the time and didn’t really watch a great deal of television – something that’s wrong with the kids of today. They don’t play enough, therefore, they don’t have the vivid imaginations that we had as children. God, I sound ancient here!” – Elaine Dougan (30)

“Living in the countryside I spent more time outside on my bike or fishing than watching TV.” – Rob Draper (34)

“We had TV, but it was unreliable and kept electrocuting my mother. I normally read instead.” – DC Robinson (43)

Going by these comments there would appear to be two main reasons why these respondents felt that television remained fairly unimportant during their growing up years; They were either enjoying a well-developed and active social life away from the television set or their family life precluded them from having as much control as they might over their choice of viewing.

So how about the 44% who rated TV as important? A common theme emerged here of people who found the television to be a kind of surrogate friend or even social life. This is not to paint the picture of a swathe of TV-watching social inadequates, but rather a group of children who found that TV could provide a communal experience that was possibly otherwise missing from their life. Whether it was playing at Blake’s 7 in the playground with friends, or feeling oneself part of a tangible national audience simultaneously watching the same football match, television didn’t just provide a window onto the world – it gave an introduction into it.

Andrew Spokes (31) is now a radio presenter. He remembered: “Given my main job now, you could say radio was more important than TV, but I was very shy as a child and there’s no way then anyone would have guessed that I would end up in the media. However, the fact that everyone watched TOTP, Kenny Everett and other shows meant that I had things to talk about at school, which not being a sporty type, was quite important.” Here we can see that for Andrew, TV became an easy form of currency in social interactions. Craig Rollins (31) echoed those sentiments: “Me and my friends were obsessed with the telly – if you hadn’t seen that week’s Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, Morecambe and Wise etc then you were largely left out of the conversations. The people we didn’t, like the football crowd, didn’t watch the same programmes as us. All my mates watched the same telly as me.” Occupational Therapist Claire Terrington (25) went even further: “I feel TV helps us to develop loads of different skills such as social and interpersonal skills and encourages us to try new things.”

OK, so telly could fill in certain spaces within our lives but as we noted above, we shouldn’t discount the fact that it could also quite simply provide some much-appreciated entertainment. As Jon Peake (37) put it: “I watched it – and lots of it. As a very young child I could really take or leave it, but as I grew up there were things I couldn’t bear to miss. Ask Aspel, Doctor Who, Blue Peter, Carrie’s War, The Changes, Razzamatazz, Grange Hill – all important to me at some time or another. But it didn’t rule me. I was a big reader too so the two things went in tandem.” With the telly a permanent and reliable source of amusement in our homes it’s hardly surprising that for some of us it grew to become an important reoccurring element in our early years.

Our third group identified in this section is the remaining 41% who defined television’s role in their childhood as very important. Is there a significant difference between this camp and those who rated it as “important”, or are we just splitting hairs? To an extent we are, although we should remember that what this survey was trying to measure in part was the respondents’ perception of TV’s role. It could therefore be argued that this final 41% didn’t necessarily interact in any more meaningful way with the TV than our previous group, it’s just that in later life they can still feel the hold the box had over them – and in many cases still does. We’re talking here about children who took TV into their lives as far more than just a passive viewing experience and who in many cases have grown into adults who are still active in their interest and love for television.

“More or less every game I played in the back garden was based on a TV programme, I made up my own TV channel in exercise books, my ideal job at the age of six was TV presenter and I used to pore over the Radio Times each week. Yet despite this, I didn’t actually watch that much of it – Play School, See-Saw, a lot of children’s programmes on the BBC and various LE and quiz shows, yes, but I was always happy to turn the telly off and go and do something else. The stuff I watched, though, I was obsessed by.” This was said by Steve Williams (24), a regular contributor to OTT and editor/writer of’s “obsessive” weekly TV-listings guide. Comedian Stewart Lee (35) proved to be equally devoted to the telly when growing up: “I grew up in a suburb of Birmingham in a house with no books. We were not a cultured family, largely because of economics not choice. Everything I learned about that interested me and was beyond my immediate experience at school was via a stimulus provided by BBC2, Channel 4 and the John Peel show on R1.” Meanwhile Paul Cornell (35), novelist, script-writer and co-author of The Guinness Book of Classic British TV simply noted: “I was a TV kid”.

Universal to all responses across all three sections in this category was an overwhelmingly affectionate tone towards the TV of our youth. Although there were noted variances in just how great an affect our survey respondents felt television had had upon them, pretty much everyone seemed to concede that the telly did have some sort of moulding influence. We’ll return to address this point even more directly, below.

5. Did your parents/guardians ever censor what you watched?
It only struck me quite recently that I couldn’t remember a single instance of my parents dictating what I could and couldn’t watch on television when I was a boy. Quizzing my mother on this I got the impression that it had never really crossed her mind to actively govern my viewing and I suppose this was because we were always a very TV-orientated family; we’d have Sunday lunch in the living-room in front of Thunderbirds whilst a Saturday night would always consist of Basil Brush, Doctor Who, The Generation Game and then a few rounds of the card game “Misfits”. TV was part of family life, something that could be trusted. And the funny thing is, within this liberal arrangement I can’t remember ever watching anything I’d now recognise as unsuitable viewing.

I was interested, then, to see how other peoples’ experiences differed from mine in this regard, and wondered how other parents and guardians controlled (or perhaps didn’t) their children’s viewing. And so the question was added to the poll.

As ever, we start with the numbers. 36% of respondents revealed that their viewing was never censored, leaving the remaining 64% to grow up within a slightly more controlled TV environment. Did this majority feel at all aggrieved about that? Adam (34), for one, found it counter-productive: “It just made me more curious about the subjects (i.e. sex!) these programmes were portraying!” whilst DC Robinson (43) reckoned: “They were wrong. I was socially awkward throughout my childhood thanks to their interference.” In TJ Worthington’s (28) home censorship was implemented but proved ineffective: “I think it was obviously well-intentioned, but quite misdirected overall, as my parents would now be the first to admit. In my family we were generally banned from watching programmes if there had been a fuss about them in the newspapers or if a work colleague had voiced misgivings about the content; sometimes this was rather harsh or misjudged, whereas at others it was almost certainly the right decision. That said, I was disturbed more by public information films and by reports I saw on the news (particularly the arrest and trial of Peter Sutcliffe) than anything that I ever saw on actual programmes.” Nevertheless in the main there was a swell of comment retroactively supporting censorship:

“Pretty sensible decision.” – Angela Blair (43)

“At the time I thought that it was probably unfair, but looking back as an adult it is perfectly understandable and I would probably do the same when I have children.” – Chris Orton (26)

“At the time I resented it but now as a parent myself I think they did the right thing.” – Anna Hosey-Davies (45)

“At the time I thought it was unfair, but now I think it was for the best. Children need to be allowed to be children.” – Clair Terrington (25)

“[I was] annoyed at the time, but now I’m a parent myself, I can understand it.” – Anne Burge (46)

“Hated it at the time but now, looking back, it probably was the right decision not to let an eight year old boy see Glenda Jackson in a lesbian romp.” – Colin Davidson (37)

But why were some programmes deemed unsuitable? Aside from the obvious reasons such as adult themes, the lateness of the hour, sex, violence and bad-language some of our respondents revealed another agenda at play:

“The only time I can remember my parents not letting me see something was when it was clearly an adult show that was on too late. I was allowed to see Not the Nine O’Clock News (BBC = good) but not OTT (ITV = bad).” – Jim Sangster (32)

“[My parents] considered it better to watch BBC kids programmes than ITV ones. Although as we got into the ’70s that changed.” – Gary Russell (39)

“Dad preferred the BBC and wasn’t keen on ITV. It didn’t bother me as the programmes were good on the BBC anyway.” – Caz Orgill (31)

Strangely enough, no one recorded a pro-ITV bias in their household!

With those who grew up under censorship generally supporting monitored TV viewing, it’s interesting to note that those who grew up in an entirely unregulated environment were in the main in favour of letting children watch whatever they wanted to. Alison (25) reckoned: “I’d have been very annoyed if they’d censored my viewing and I’d never do it to a child of mine.” Similarly, Julie Screech (38) said: “It was part of being independent and making my own choices which I still do very much today.” Craig J Clark (24) continued this theme of unmoderated viewing aiding development: “I feel that being allowed to watch pretty much anything at any time, made me slightly more mature. Being exposed to any number of ‘grown-up’ TV programmes also expanded my knowledge of the world. I believe that ones’ education does not have to be primarily linked to textbooks and school.”

But things weren’t all free and easy as a certain amount of self-imposed censorship would still go on in these households:

“I sort of knew myself what I wanted to watch. I went to bed early but I remember staying up late on birthdays. The first horror movie to really scare me was Halloween III: Season of the Witch and the first science fiction film to haunt me was Blade Runner, both pretty violent I suppose. But I was mostly brought up to have an informed choice about such things; and I always got embarrassed anyway when kissing scenes happened.” – Stuart Ian Burns (28)

“One moment sticks in my mind when my Mum let us (around 11 – 12 years old at the time) watch Twin Peaks. Curious and amusing at the start, of course it became violent and bizarre towards the end (and, I might add, highly unsatisfying in conclusion). She didn’t say we couldn’t watch it, as we’d watched it this far, but it was clearly an awkward moment.” – David Bodycombe

The last word on this, however, should go to Jack Kibble-White (29) who noted: “Watching television in a family environment is a great censor anyway.”

Although I stated that those who hadn’t experienced censorship as children had mainly grown-up to feel that ungoverned viewing was the best option for children today, a couple of people did express some reservations. “TV has changed in terms of unsuitable content since those sanitised days,” said Nick (36), “I would not be as liberal with my kids if I ever have any”. This sentiment was shared by Stewart Lee (35): “I think it was easier to allow kids to watch anything then. They weren’t going to get freaked out by C5 documentaries about strippers etc.” The concerns touched upon here indicated an underlying conception about modern-day television versus TV from the past that I had always suspected would colour the results of the survey. I had the sneaking suspicion that were they given the chance to articulate it, the majority of our 108 would claim that TV today wasn’t as good or as suitable as the telly they had grown up with. So I was going to put that to the test. But before that I had to pop the big question …

6. How did you feel television affected you growing-up?
Here was where the survey smacked ‘em squarely on the nose, positing what was really the fundamental question behind it all. How did our respondents feel TV had affected them growing up? It came as something of a surprise when a whopping 22% of respondents claimed that television had had little or no affect. We’ve already seen that this survey was largely completed by people with a proven interest in TV, so for over a fifth of them to discount the possibility that the telly may have contributed to their development was quite baffling. Would their comments shed anymore light on this?

“It’s just a box in the corner that provides entertainment” – Steven Coombes (34)

“I don’t think it’s had a major impact at all and I can’t think of any long-term effects caused by watching television.” – Elaine Dougan (30)

“I don’t think TV has had that much effect on my career or political decisions. Books and films have always had more impact on me.” – Jessica Mordsley (22)

Some from this group did make a few minor concessions towards TV’s role in their life, however:

“It was there. I don’t think I made any life changing decisions because of something I saw on TV. It may have made me less sociable.” – Clive Huggett (38)

“I don’t think that it has affected me too much really – growing up comes mainly from friends and family, while I think that television is purely a form of entertainment. The long-term affects have probably been that I now watch too much television and want to read about television programmes. I think that I could have been a much more social and outgoing person had I not been bitten by the telly bug. I would probably also have a lot more money in my wallet these days too as being a fan of television can certainly hit the finances!” – Chris Orton (26)

“Not a lot. I got into a big thing in my life through films, not TV. It did keep me away from drugs … the message of how they screwed you up kept me well clear.” – Dave Bloomer (27)

Present in all of the above is a feeling that TV is somehow an inferior media. The television is just “a box in the corner” and “purely a form of entertainment” secondary to books and cinema. In short, it’s just not powerful enough to influence anyone. This attitude surprised me slightly, but then again perhaps it’s me who takes TV too seriously. Although, if that were the case, I wasn’t alone …

“I have remained fascinated by telly throughout my life, as can be illustrated by my regular trips to Birmingham Library to look through Radio Times back issues” reported Steve Williams who went on to add: “I also think that, growing up in a town where the majority of the population was white, telly told me a lot about different cultures when I was younger that I wouldn’t otherwise have appreciated.” Nick (36) could also identify a very specific way in which TV had impacted upon his childhood: “I lived alone in the country so TV was my only contact with the outside world for several years until my teens. TV then was sort of warm and fluffy and I feel it didn’t make me sufficiently ‘street wise’ for the later years of life.” But it was Mark Ridley (32) who best summed up the relationship many people had formed with the box in childhood which still persisted today: “It’s not so much a separate influence as a vital part of my life.”

Many respondents were also able to provide a far more tangible example of how television had affected them, by drawing a line between their childhood viewing and their current careers or pastimes:

“Well I’d say it has certainly inspired my love of performing and my ambition to become an actor. It’s also the reason why I have a big interest in TV history and aspects of presentation and advertising.” – Will Tudor (17)

“Who says I’ve grown up? Since I spend most of my time here in Broadcasting House either on the radio or the telly, I think that probably answers your question.” – Tony Currie (51), Broadcaster

“Television certainly influenced a lot of my abiding hobbies and interests, and not just those directly related to television itself. My interest in British cinema was fuelled solely by seeing Ealing comedies and A Hard Day’s Night on TV, and I probably wouldn’t have been half as interested in radio if I hadn’t started to listen to Lenny Henry and Kenny Everett after seeing and liking their television shows. Even a sizeable proportion of my interest in vintage music can be traced back to exposure to archive footage of bands performing on television. And while I don’t watch anywhere near as much television as I used to, it was my thoughts and feelings on programmes I saw whilst growing up that eventually led me to hold such strong opinions on the state of television and the media in general today.” – TJ Worthington (28)

“I now work for the BBC. Does it get any more affected than that?” – Tim Jones (26)

“TV has everything to do with my career choice and my advancement in the industry. I often claim that I learned more from watching TV than I ever did in school. Spitting Image and, latterly, The Mary Whitehouse Experience carved my political views and my belief that no cow is sacred, Kit Curran and WKRP inspired my interest in radio and Spike Milligan and ‘Python gave me courage to believe that you don’t have to please all of the people all of the time. I’m a proud TV kid and I’ve never killed anyone as a result.” – Spike (27), Broadcaster

“Watching the NASA programme probably made me want to be a scientist (though not an astronaut) which is a shame because I’m fundamentally unsuited to it and didn’t really discover this until it was much too late.” – Rob Stradling (34)

“I love current affairs (studied Politics at University) which I can definitely put down to sitting up with my parents watching Election results and stuff like that. History programmes have always fascinated me and have spawned a good size book collection now.” – Neil Sullivan (32)

As indicated with a couple of the responses here, another area where television proved to be particularly influential was in the formation of political opinion. Whilst Paul Cornell (35) felt that “[I] got my left wings politics from [Doctor Who writers] Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks!”, Rich Boden (23) reckoned “most of my contemporaries vote Tory. It’s because they didn’t grow up sat in front of the TV.”

Although news and drama were referred to by those who felt TV had had an impact on their political viewpoints, the majority of people cited comedies as the most influencing factor in this regard. “Ben Elton’s The Man From Auntie made me hugely interested in politics” remembered Alison (25). “Television painted a very bleak picture of ‘Thatcher’s Britain’”, said Clive Shaw (30), “aided and abetted by Thatcher-baiting comedians through programmes such as Friday/Saturday Night Live. When I first came to vote I guess that television must have had some influence in guiding my hand towards the Labour box on the voting slip.” Craig J Clark (24), however, reckoned he could spot a downside to TV’s involvement in shaping our political landscape: “The rash of cynical humour programming of the ’80s turned my head towards life. Because of this, I and many of my peers now share a mediocre and rather uninterested view of life. Which may or may not be a bad thing. In fact, the downward slide of voting can probably be explained by cynical humour on TV.” But where does TV lead and where does it follow? “I think it is incredibly difficult to unpick the influence TV has on your interests or politics” mused Jack Kibble-White (29). “Certainly as I hit my formative years all of my favourite TV folk were left of centre politically speaking – the question is do I relate to them because I too am of that persuasion, or am I of that persuasion because I relate to them?”

But getting back to the main question here – that of the telly’s affect on your childhood – the last word has to go to Claire (29):

“I don’t have that middle-class stigma of telly watching being a waste of time. I still read more books than anyone else I know and I managed to get a degree despite having square eyes as a kid (still have them now). It’s just information.”

7. Do you think TV is better or worse now than it was during your childhood?
OK, I admit it. This question was massively reductive, somewhat tangential to the matter in hand and not a little glib, but I thought it would produce some interesting results. And it did, with 68% of respondents claiming that TV nowadays was not as good as the telly from their youth.

In some quarters it’s been claimed that our assessment of modern day television is coloured by rose-tinted nostalgia for the TV of our childhood. It’s hardly an equitable comparison. When we were children television had a far greater capacity to influence us, in many cases introducing us to new emotional reactions (fear, for one). TV was opening up a world to us, becoming part of our own discovery processes. And alongside that it was, in many instances, wrapped up in our family life, gaining an added potency. How can the TV we watch as adults compete with all that? The obvious answer is – it can’t, but that’s not to say that there aren’t good arguments to be made that television now is worse than it used to be. So, did our respondents make them? The following trawl through the survey comments makes for depressing reading:

“I think it’s mainly worse – there’s no risks taken with children’s programming these days. It’s very bland, though to be honest it was starting to go that way when I was younger … I barely watch TV much these days – I prefer reading or the internet or my old videos of past programmes!” – Chris Orton (26)

“Much worse … everything has loud background music, and the presenters all seem to shout.” – Ange Allsop (38)

“TV was much better then than now. At least Big Ears from Noddy was allowed to say ‘What a gay day’ without offending anyone.” – Michelle Kernan (35)

“Worse. In every way. There are still things worth watching, but television has been devalued.” – Clive Huggett (38)

“In my childhood we had production values, intelligent scripts, less sex, more action, better soundtracks. I could go on. TV today is vacuous.” – DC Robinson (43)

“If my childhood TV gave me a view of the world that was an inch thick and a mile wide, current TV measures depth in microns and width in light-years. There are very few memorable events/programmes – by memorable I mean enduring beyond lunchtime tomorrow with any specific recollection of what was experienced, only a sense of what was there. (Sound and fury and signifying …)” – Simon (49)

“Much worse – too dumbed down and celeb-oriented” – James Castle (31)

“Standards. I suppose I’m beginning to sound old but I find shows such as Ian Wright’s efforts to destroy the English language very annoying. Channel 4, despite having E4, is turning into the domain of the under 25′s. Quality dramas, Hornblower for example, are few and far between. Sport is dominated by money and as a result any poor sport won’t get TV coverage. Grandstand has forgotten about all sports other than rugby, golf and horse racing, when was the last time badminton, hockey or sailing featured in the schedule? Repeats are becoming the mainstay of daytime TV, some episodes of The Simpsons are on their seventh showing. Real life TV such as Big Brother, Pop Idol etc are exploitation.” – Phil Wainhouse (41)

“TV is much worse now. The BBC have pushed all arts and culture onto channels where they are less likely to be found by accident, and this is actually the key to expanding people’s minds. Outside all the south bank buildings there are sponsored benches proclaiming the virtues of BBC4. What a waste of time. People who can afford to pay for arts and culture at the RFH don’t need a bench telling them about BBC4 outside the venue. These benches should be in crap suburbs of Midland towns, obviously. The whole thing is fucked.” – Stewart Lee (35)

In general people were criticising current television on the following grounds: it’s too orientated towards merchandising and revenue; it’s obsessed with replicating successful formats (“reality TV” took a battering here); quality of programming is sacrificed for quantity of airtime; programming has become more explicit in terms of sex, violence and bad-language; and children’s television is too loud and brash. In truth some of these points could equally be labeled at television from 20 – 30 years ago as they are today. Certainly levels of violence have actually reduced within children’s programmes today when compared to – say – a 1977 Doctor Who episode with its knife-wielding baddy. Likewise, what were Master of the Universe, Transformers and Thundercats if not extended adverts for action-figures? But this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a good case to be made that standards are falling, and some of the above respondents managed to do just that.

So who did come out to bat on behalf of today’s television?

“It’s very difficult to judge fairly without getting the rose-tinted specs out. I mean, I could say ‘TOTP is crap now’, but that’s because I don’t like the music and it’s not aimed at me anymore. The same goes for kids’ TV. Unlike many, I don’t have any problems with reality TV shows either, as done well, they can be very enjoyable.” – Andrew Spokes (31)

“People who say that television today is not as good as it used to be clearly haven’t seen old television listings. When a tired, end-of-the-pier comedian boasts how his show used to get 14 million, it’s because there was nothing else to watch.” – David Bodycombe

“I don’t think that can be answered without sounding like your own granddad when you were six. ‘It’s not like it was in my day’. Of course it isn’t. It’s neither better nor worse, it’s just evolved.” – Gary Russell (39)

“It’s neither better nor worse, just different. The TV of the late 1970s and 1980s did what it could do and was supposed to do extremely well, while the TV of today does what it can and is expected to do extremely well also. You don’t have a passive relationship with your TV set. You take from it what you want, and make of it what you want. It’s up to you whether you want to enjoy a programme or not, and not the fault of the programme itself. To slag off contemporary TV just because it’s contemporary says more about the person doing the criticising than the object of their scorn. TV will always be great, because it’s TV, and it’s a wonderful, magical creation.” – Ian Jones (27)

Despite these spirited words, however, it does seem that most of us who grew up loving television now look far less fondly upon it. Maybe it’s just the case that the initial secrets and treats revealed to us by the television lose their sheen as we get older. Or maybe television just isn’t as good as it used to be.

Anything else?
“Not really. I think you have been quite exhaustive” replied Katherine Hamblin when asked if there were any further comments she’d like to make. But some of the 108 did decide to linger for a moment more in their TV childhood. Here’s what those kids had to say:

“It makes me sad that generations will grow old never knowing the hideous joy of a start-up sequence. Or The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water. Ahem.” – Dan Higginbottom (29)

“But British television still is the best in the world and I know what I am talking about.” – Debbie Holness (44)

“I love TV and will defend its status as an art form till the day I die.” – Gary Russell (39)

“Soapbox time … I get enormously depressed by ‘The Magic Roundabout – they must all have been on drugs’ school of lazy TV comment that passes for criticism these days. All the post-ironic posturing has got to stop, cos we’re losing sight of why TV is great (and equally shite) under a flood of worthless toss spouted from overpaid under-intelligent media celebrities. Rainbow wasn’t cool because, hey, Bungle walked around with nothing on but put his pyjamas on to sleep in … I wish people would pick out why such programmes were good for a four year old audience, not why they’re so achingly funny to a bunch of 30 year olds … Sorry if that was a bit earnest and boring, I just feel strongly, that’s all.” – Nick Hutchings (25)

“I have met and spoken to Jane Root and she is a moron.” – Stewart Lee (35)

“We live on a small-holding in Scotland so our five year old spends a lot of time outside. She likes her CBeebies but often chooses a video instead. Mr Men as I type!” – Phil Wainhouse (41)

“I guess I was lucky in that television was a big part of my life, but my parents never just sat me down in front of it and went off to do something else – they were always there watching it with me, engaging with the programme and coming up with games and activities based on what me and my sister had been watching, and the older I get, the more I appreciate that. I think that’s been the reason why to this day I must always plan my viewing in advance and can’t just turn the telly on and watch whatever comes up – I must always have some sort of attachment with what I’m watching.” – Steve Williams (24)

“Bring back the test card.” – Tony Currie (51)

On the 3 April, 1964, a 14-year-old grammar schoolboy broke into a printers’ workshop at Brigg and stole £2 12s. 6d. Two months later he committed a further breaking offence at a bungalow, when he stole a “piggy” bank containing £9. He stated that he had formulate ideas about the commission of the offences as a result of watching the No Hiding Place and Z Cars programmes on television.
Taken from Cleaning Up TV: From Protest to Participation by Mary Whitehouse

So what have we learnt? Nothing’s been proven but we expected that from the off. It does seem fair to say, however, that every one of our 108 would have led different lives if it hadn’t been for the telly. Just how different is where all the conjecture lies. Like anything TV is only going to affect you as much as you’ll let it. Growing up, everyone who filled in OTT’s survey let TV into their lives at various points but it all comes down to how much, how often, how whole-heartedly … Certainly no one seemed to think that TV had had a negative impact upon them. No one reported breaking into an unoccupied secondary school or stealing £2 12s. 6d. from a printers’ workshop. Instead it seems fair to conclude that within our little survey group growing up with the telly meant that at one end of the scale a few new ideas were introduced into their world, and at the other a way to live their adult lives was revealed.

In the foreword to Cleaning Up TV: From Protest to Participation, The Bishop of Hereford says: “Never in the history of mankind has there been so powerful a medium for influencing and educating the masses of people as we have in television.” It’s the only sensible comment in the whole book. Because TV isn’t something to be feared. If this survey has come close to proving anything it’s that when we were growing up we all took from the telly what we wanted, and left the rest. I mean, this lot didn’t turn out too bad did they …?