Dying to watch television

Television has claimed its first official fatality. Its aim was to please the masses but it has ended up trivialising life

Andrew Thomas, a 27-year-old unemployed man from South Wales, has entered the history books as the first recorded case of death by television.

An inquest heard that after losing his job as a supermarket worker, he spent the last four years of his life watching television all day and often for most of the night. In the end, said his father, he lost the will to live.

What is astonishing is not this unfortunate young man’s demise, but that he lasted so long. Anyone exposed to TV for hours on end is liable to lose all sense of reason and proportion. A life lived solely through television is the reverse of sensory deprivation, it is sensory saturation, but the effects are identical. Victims suffer disorientation, a loss of perspective, and mental and physical enfeeblement. They are willing to believe anything.

Although Mr Thomas’ was the first TV-induced fatality to be placed on record, there may have been other undiagnosed cases, for this was a tragedy waiting to happen. In its infancy, television was a quirky novelty. There was just one channel broadcasting for a few hours a day and a minority of people owned sets. The programmes strove to be intelligent, stimulating and, when appropriate, entertaining. The threat to life was minimal. Contrast that elysium with today, when we have five terrestrial channels and some 30 satellite and cable channels, and, with the imminent advent of digital broadcasting, perhaps hundreds more on the way. Television broadcasts day and night. In only 50 years, the goggle box has become the leading, and for many people sole, source of information, amusement, and diversion. For them, it has created a housebound, sedentary, inward, and often solitary existence. Lethally, as Mr Thomas’s case shows, it has become a substitute for life.

Any life lived vicariously is liable to be morbid, but one lived through the distorting prism of television is sure to be empty, meaningless, and dispiriting. The multiplicity of channels alone ensures that television is infantile. And, like a child, it screams for attention. Loud music and fast-moving, computer-generated effects seek to enliven everything from quiz shows to politics and sport. To hold an audience, drama has to be sensational, piling shock upon shock. Where would television be without Hollywood films stuffed with strong language, sex ‘n’ violence, and fireball explosions?

There is, however, only so much brutality, wife-beating, rape, incest, cruelty to children, sudden death, alcoholism, drug addiction, and sheer bloody misery that the human brain can take before becoming desensitised and eventually seizing up. Off-the-wall laddish comedy has the same effect, but more quickly.

And then there are the people. Poor Andrew Thomas lived the last years of his life in the cathode company of chefs, gardeners, starlets, and weather girls. It must have been like the worst possible nightmare, a vision of hell in which one is trapped at a party, pinned against a wall by invisible forces, rendered powerless to move amid a swirling mass of shrill egocentrics. And for Mr Thomas this was not an all-night party, it was an all-day, every-night, non-stop torment that went on year after year. Can you imagine being in a room with Anthea Turner, Jill Dando, Esther Rantzen, Sue Lawley, Ainsley Harriott, David Frost, Lloyd Grossman, Judy Finnigan, Richard Madeley, Mariella Frostrup, Paul McKenna, Carol Smillie, Bob Monkhouse, Angus Deayton, Gary Linneker, Sue Barker, Noel Edmonds, Michael Aspel? And then the door bell rings. Oh no, not her! Yes, it’s Vanessa Feltz. And she’s brought Mrs Merton and Chris Evans. Pass the hemlock, and be quick about it.

Television’s only light relief is to be found in its news programmes. They are entertaining because they are irremediably shallow but affect not to be. However hard they try, they are incapable of avoiding trivialisation because that is the nature of a medium that is either visual or it is nothing. If there is a story about the building industry, you may be sure that a voice will intone scraps of easily digested information over pictures of a bricklayer at work. If pensions are in the news, we are shown pictures of elderly and infirm people playing cribbage and shakily drinking tea in a rest home. If property prices rise or fall, the camera pans down a street bristling with estate agents’ signs. John Humphrys projects, Moira Stewart booms, Anna Ford breathily lets us have it in a tone that does not vary regardless of content. Boom or bust, feast or famine, good news or bad, all emerge from Anna’s vocal chords without for a moment betraying any understanding of the words conveyed. And why must newsreaders do it in pairs?

Martyn Lewis: “That’s all from us for now, the next news is at nine o’clock.”

Jill Dando: “But in the meantime, from Martyn and me, goodbye.”

Martyn: “Goodbye.”

Viewer (thinks): “I’m losing the will to live.”

When did television lose its way and become a killer? Paradoxically, the answer is when it sought to do nothing but please the masses in the way it felt the masses would understand. But the proletariat is not immune from the debilitating, sapping effects of round-the-clock, youth-driven trivialisation. If poor Andrew Thomas’ short life and miserable death get that message across, he will not have suffered in vain.

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