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October 8, 2020

‘There was not a moment of the day when it was not possible to find The Golden Girls’- An ode to the TV repeat

By Sam Leith

Telly used to be a sort of cultural texture. Certain shows defined a generation because – even if they totalled only 15 or 20 hours of screen time – they were on constantly

In this long, dark fag-end of the lockdown, friends, I have had a vision of the future. I certainly wasn’t expecting one: as I write this I am in a tiny bothy in a drizzly sheep field in a scantly populated quarter of Northumberland.

The internet reaches not here, no, nor Vodafone neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so. I’m going to have to hike to the top of the hill for the glimmer of signal that will allow me to convey it to Spear’s HQ. So: the future.

This bothy does have a small TV, as a concession to modernity. And my three kids, while Dad writes more of his nonsense, are currently watching it. And they are watching, with great interest, on live TV, on one of the handful of terrestrial channels available… You’ve Been Framed.

This isn’t so much entertainment as archaeology.

Here are members of the TikTok generation watching a show whose premise is that members of the public film each other’s hilarious coconut-in-the-groin mishaps on videotape (what’s that?), then send the tapes through the post (hello?) to Jeremy Beadle (who he?) in exchange for a crisp fiver in the old money. And these hilarious injuries are compiled into a half-hour compilation to be broadcast on telly at a particular time. Palaeo-virality!

You remember You’ve Been Framed, right? Course you do, because it was on constantly through the childhoods of anyone between about 30 and about 50. Any popular show was repeated constantly. Most telly was repeats. Even when there were only four channels there were constant repeats, and when satellite telly got going there were even more. For much of the early Nineties there was not a moment in the 24 hours of the day when it was not possible to find an episode of The Golden Girls on one channel or another. And let’s not get started on Baywatch.

The only things that repeated more often than telly programmes were articles in newspapers complaining about the number of repeats on telly. I remember an annual tradition of papers going through the Christmas schedules and solemnly totting up the percentage of repeats on the BBC in order to moan about it. Gosh, it was bliss. And we’ve lost all that.

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‘Post-scarcity economics’, much predicted by futurologists, hit entertainment before it hit other sectors. With a simple Netflix subscription now (let alone its host of rivals) you could die of old age watching TV 24/7, if you wanted, without ever seeing the same thing twice.

We gain, of course, but we also lose. Let me put it this way: telly used to be a sort of cultural texture. Certain shows defined a generation because – even if they totalled only 15 or 20 hours of screen time – they were on constantly. The agreeable suggestion is that, just for a while, the Covid crisis may have changed that.

The supply has been interrupted. Nobody has been able to make new telly for months (apart from those desperate self-shot lockdown docos they’ve all had to do). Shows have been interrupted or abandoned. Many won’t be resumed. The industry has shrivelled. And friends in the BBC tell me that the crisis is compounded by having to fill hours of schedules they’d confidently expected to be filled by (inter alia) the Tokyo Olympics, Wimbledon and Glastonbury. Here, if you ask me, is an opportunity.

Let’s see some creative repeats. I’m thinking Hawaii Five-0, Kojak, Hill Street Blues, LA Law, Murder, She Wrote. I’m thinking Knight Rider, The A-Team, Airwolf, Blue Thunder, Street Hawk, Manimal, The Six Million Dollar Man, MacGyver. Hell, let’s see Only Fools and Horses, Quincy, M.E., Last of the Summer Wine.

Television could become, just for a few months, not the amnesia machine it is now but a means of allowing our children to inhabit the cultural hinterlands of their parents and thus create inter-generational harmony where once there was incomprehension.

Indeed, we can unite around that cosy feeling of rolling our eyes, generations XYZ as one, and exclaiming: ‘Oh NO! It’s another bloody repeat!’ Seriously: this is an opportunity too good to miss. Maybe in the interests of this newfound harmony, though, we’d best give The Dukes of Hazzard a miss…

Read more

Sam Leith’s lockdown reads

How Homeland tracked the temper of our times

Why the Star Wars universe is more morally complex than you might think

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