Friends in Herefordshire said they were both fit and well but confessed to ‘watching far too much television’. I thought nothing of it until a Wiltshire couple whom my wife and I have known for ever said almost the same thing but with more foreboding. ‘We’ve got to break the habit of watching so much — even the good stuff.’
That’s the problem. There’s just too much good stuff on telly. It’s starting to become an issue, a tyranny of sorts, and certainly a drain on what Americans like to call ‘downtime’.
Gone are the days when TV was mainly rubbish and you could just get on with life — when Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars were all we had by way of police dramas, before the relentless onslaught of Scandi crime thrillers that have done wonders for Nordic interior design. Nowadays we’re so spoilt for choice that the only solution is to surrender to ‘catch-up’ night after night. And playing catch-up is never much fun.
In our household, we’re currently playing catch-up with Cold Feet (sentimental but highly seductive), Fleabag (brilliant, her lipstick is fabulous) and Victoria (horribly silly with ridiculous, melodramatic music). Thankfully, we’re about to give up the chase with Victoria, not least because a new series of The Crown will soon be upon us and we don’t want to get our prime ministers muddled.
More to the point, if you’re not watching The Crown or, right now, Line of Duty, it’s easy to feel you’re no longer — to coin that infuriating phrase — ‘part of the conversation’. At least the final series of Game of Thrones begins this week, so we can finally stop talking about that.
You can’t win, even if you try to keep up with the shows as they are broadcast. When I asked a colleague what she thought of the scene in Fleabag where the priest and our heroine snog in the confessional, she started shouting: ‘Don’t! I’m not there yet.’
I yearn for the days when we all watched TV together — just as I love it when we sit down to watch big England football matches, when not one of us knows what’s going to happen, when no one is catching up. It adds to the drama.
The exploitation is a bore, too — although one can understand the commercial imperatives. If you have a good TV series, milk it. Wring every last penny from it.
We’ve felt this with Sky Atlantic’s The Affair. My sister-in-law mentioned in passing four years ago that we might enjoy the first series. And we did, spending an inordinate amount of time ‘catching up’. Then came the second series, followed by a third and then a fourth (all with 12 one-hour episodes) — and now, even though Alison, Ruth Wilson’s character, has been killed off, there’s going to be a fifth. I fear we won’t have the willpower to resist it. We’re in too deep.
There’s a nagging generational twist to all this. The young are programmed for a world where everything is on demand, whether it be groceries, movies or the recovery of facts with the help of Google. My parents always treated television as an inevitable irritant. Growing up, there was no daytime TV (that didn’t come in until as late as 1986) and we weren’t allowed to switch on until at least 5 p.m., although I recall that an exception was made for Crossroads because my mother had a soft spot for Mrs Richardson.
At first, it was wonderful to have access to so many programmes whenever you wanted. But because there is now no immediate need to watch them, it’s tempting to have a bath instead and say ‘we’ll watch later on catch-up’. That’s when the list gets longer and the grip of oppression tightens. It also requires extra discipline to read a book. Or rather, there’s an easy excuse for not reading because there’s so much TV to catch-up on.
On reflection, I could have helped our friends by suggesting they abstain from ‘catch-up’ for Lent. But they’d then have so much to do after Easter, they’d be in an even worse state.