If the art of conversation is dying, just talk back to the television
BRITISH humorist Keith Waterhouse always had his ear to the ground when it came to writing about something which had caused the Brits to get their wee in a froth.
Going through his delicious book, Fanny Peculiar (Corgi, 1984), a collection of the late writer’s pieces from the now long defunct Punch, I came across a column in which he warned against BBC television and the prospect of further boring programmes.
“What then will the nation be doing with itself,” he asks, “during the yawning void between cocktail hour and closedown, apart from propagating the species?…”
The answer, he goes on, is that the BBC will be resuscitating the nearly lost “art of conversation”. Until then, the only conversation one did hear was based on complaints about television.
This got me thinking about South African television in the early days, and its closedown. It was so awful it was probably just as well. The proof that it was an appalling service was shown by viewers’ rush to buy video machines when they came out – and then stock up on recorded tapes and rentals. Soon many of these were gathering dust as the VCRs and much later, DVDs, freed viewers from their self-imposed couch potato status. Restaurants, cinemas and theatres began receiving patronage again.
But did the art of conversation ever die here? Not in my experience. In the beginning everyone complained about the paucity of decent television – while it was on or at the breakfast table next day.
Most people I know – former partners, housemates, family, friends, neighbours – all talk back to the telly, particularly when a soap is on. I remember that during Dallas, which a group of us used to watch together, poor, lip-chewing Sue-Ellen used to be bombarded with advice about how to get back at her husband, JR. “Don’t listen to him, girl!” someone would call out, popcorn flying every which way.
“Yes, divorce the bastard!” another would cry out in mid-grasp for the peanuts which were strewn all over the carpet.
“Maid’s coming tomorrow,” I’d say cheerfully, looking at the floor.
However, I would never do what a group of friends have done: spend a weekend totally engrossed in the entire series of Brideshead Revisited. There were periodic breaks for tea and meals, but knowing my friends I could not imagine their talking back to Evelyn Waugh’s beautifully written characters. I have never bothered to watch the series, but I loved the book. All of Waugh’s stuff, in fact.
Nowadays I have to put up with a flatmate who is enthusiastic about tennis on the box. I don’t mind it terribly, but his enthusiasm is like watching a one-man mardi gras. He loudly applauds well played shots, cries out in alarm when a ball is challenged, groans when the ball is declared out and cheers when his favourite player wins. Roger Federer and Pete Sampras are his heroes. To me they’re both as dull as dishwater. I am scornfully put down if I say this.
And then suddenly I am told to “watch, watch, watch! Look at Nadal scratching his bum again!”