Jeremy Clarke

Low Life | 17 October 2009

The great switch

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Prince Philip is right about modern television sets. He says they are poorly designed. If one needs to adjust one’s set, he told a television interviewer, one has to get down on all fours with magnifying glass, instruction manual, and a torch between one’s teeth, and virtually make love to the thing. He also has a horror of remote controls. The smallness and mysteriousness of the symbols irritate him. For keen-eyed ten-year-old children, he says, they are fine. But for elderly dukes they are a maddening, unfathomable mystery.

I wonder whether he’s been on all fours on the carpet with a torch between his teeth because he and Her Majesty the Queen have gone digital. We have down here in the West Country. It’s been a protracted and confusing business. Helpful pamphlets, dropped through our letterboxes just after Christmas, warned us about the change from an analogue to digital TV signal well in advance. They also led us to believe it was going to happen overnight and that no great technical knowledge would be required of us. Pamphlets in braille were also available, they said. Operatives manning a call centre were standing by to console, encourage and advise.

But our village is midway between two distant transmitters. One switched over to digital in August, the other didn’t change over until a week ago, and for six weeks we were in TV limbo. No one could get BBC 2. Channel Four was a snowstorm. Some reported receiving a French channel for the first time. It was an anxious and distressing period in all our lives. Here on the coast we are an elderly community and Noel Edmonds and his floral shirts and the exciting mystery of what some humorous old biddy has in her box is one of the few things in this world that can take our minds off death for one hour five afternoons a week. 

Cash in the Attic is another marvellous palliative to the horrors of old age and the growing certainty that soon we will be nothing more than a handful of dust. It was the modest hope that he might one day see Anne Robinson ‘riddled full of bullets’ that made my Uncle Jack’s otherwise pathetic life worth hanging on to during his last few months. After a morning reading out to each other the most mind-boggling bits of the Daily Mail, we spend the afternoons engrossed in the most puerile TV shows on offer. That’s us and that’s our routine, I’m afraid. And those six weeks without a reliable TV signal were like staring death in the face.

When we were at our lowest during the ordeal, I rang the number given in the pamphlet to ask how much more of this torture we were supposed to endure. But in order for him to advise me, said a helpful Scot, I had to give him the names of our nearest transmitters. He looked at his list to give me a clue. Were we on the Hangman’s Hill transmitter, perhaps, or the Scabbacombe Head? Did Longdon Down ring a bell? I hadn’t a clue, I said. And it annoyed me being expected to know.

I sometimes drop coins into a ticket machine on which there is a sticker telling me to ‘Know Parking’. Apparently, it now behoves us, as good citizens, to memorise particularly those laws and penalties designed to oppress us. One of my country cousins used to rear ducks for the Chinese restaurant industry. I once asked him whether the ducks became agitated when the time came for them to be rounded up to have their throats cut. ‘Oh, no. Quite the opposite,’ he said. ‘You just have to call them and they can’t get there fast enough.’ This is the level of obedience now expected of its citizens by our county councillors. Soon I expect to see other such stickers. ‘Work. Consume. Obey’ and ‘Know Thought Crime’ are perhaps already at the printers. Patrons queuing at the ticket machine are sometimes startled to hear me quacking like a duck as I wait for my parking ticket to appear. Being expected to become a student of the local TV transmitter network in order to qualify for help seemed to me to come into the same category.

And then a caption appeared on our blank or snowy screens telling us that the changeover had been completed and that we must now retune our sets to the new digital signal. One of my accomplishments is knowing how to do this. On the strength of it, I became something of a local hero by offering to come and do everybody else’s. By Prince Philip’s definition, I’ve made love to virtually every television set within a quarter of a mile. Noel Edmonds’ shirts in digital are more colourful than we could possibly have imagined. Once again we can abandon ourselves to inanity. Once again our daily release from the morbid anxieties of old age is guaranteed.