As seen on TV
A few months ago, Liza and Tim made fun of the way I say ‘television’. “Tele-VIZH-un,” they chanted, “Go on, say it again.”
My parents got a black-and-white television when I was five. RTE was the only station and it ran from 3 pm to 11 pm. Quicksilver, a quiz show, was on at half past six. Bunny Carr, the balding gnome of a host, had a catchphrase, “Stop the lights!” that was repeated for years until we forgot where it came from. Then there was Hall’s Pictorial Weekly, a satirical show set in the fictional Ballymagash. At five, I failed to get it, but it brought down a government. There was Feach, a current affairs show in Irish, despised by all kids. And there was endless News read by Charles Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell was our Walter Cronkite. I was shocked to see him interviewed on a chat show when he retired ten years later. It didn�t occur to me he could have a life beyond bringing us news, or indeed, that he might have legs as well as a pinstriped torso.
Most of the ads on RTE were for agricultural supplies and public service announcements. Ciba-Geigy, Hoechst, Massey Ferguson: these were the brands of my childhood, more than Kelloggs or Mattel.
- Stamp out mastitis! �
You can’t beat a Massey Ferguson tractor.
Liverfluke. Roundworm. Tapeworm. Scour. Triple X knocks them out—fast.
One striking ad (in color—this must have been later) showed a cartoon Labrador dozing by the fire while his owner patted his head, turned out the lights and went to bed. By the light of the moon, we saw the dog wake up, steal out of the house and run across the cartoon hills of rural Ireland. In the next frame, a flock of sheep bleated and bled, trying to escape this snarling predator.
“Family pets can be killers. Don’t let your dog worry sheep,” warned the ad. This dog worried me.
In 1980, we got a second station, RTE 2. Things didn’t improve much. Wanderly Wagon was a bright spot; a kids show with puppets and Godmother and the kindly, portly O’Brien.
- Here comes the wagon
Wanderly, wanderly wagon
The most unusual wagon
You ever knew
At Christmas, they invited a group of children on the show, sitting in little primary school chairs or cross-legged on the floor while Godmother and O’Brien told stories and Judge the puppet dog interrupted. I was fascinated that ordinary children could be on telly. I quizzed my mother about it, but came to accept that it was not for the likes of me. Every Christmas Eve, I tried to hold my breath for as long as possible while Santy read out dedications on the radio to the kids he was about to visit. I was afraid that the breath rushing in my ears would make me miss my name being called. But I never heard it, so I supposed that Santy also only dealt with Dublin children.
Years later, I discovered that the Wanderly Wagon writer was my future husband’s uncle. I was unable to keep two notions of the show in my mind satisfactorily and preferred not to think about Joe tapping out all those scripts in a Blackrock attic. But Barry, his son, had been one of those children on the Christmas shows! I tried to be casual, but I felt touched by showbiz glitter and not a little envious. Was Judge really cranky? I wanted to ask. Did Barry feel the same way about the characters that I did? Or were they like my schoolteachers, powerful creatures to my friends, but to me just Dad’s work friends who drank beer in the living room?
I never learned how to watch TV properly. Having a single state-sponsored channel, or even two, teaches you to accord too much respect to the box. I don’t know how to flip channels. I watch programmes from start to finish, even when they’re patently stupid. And I can’t concentrate on anything else because the television is on and I never learned to treat it as wallpaper. So I avoid its voodoo now.