During this crisis we are discovering all sorts of things about ourselves, as individuals, nations and as a world. Tales of tragedy, heroic fortitude, despair and resolve abound. Since the lockdown began in the UK two weeks ago I’ve noticed something at the smaller end of the scale of the upheavals that’s still worthy, I think, of note. A lot more people, shut in at home — and resisting for the moment the exhortations to take up a life of contemplation or self-improvement — are watching daytime TV.
Daytime television has been a largely unexamined part of our cultural life for many decades. Now it’s being examined, and that’s bringing all kinds of interesting tensions and divides to the surface.
The ITV afternoon quiz Tipping Point has even been trending on Twitter recently, in a tone of irony and amusement that an only slightly higher tech version of a seaside arcade Shove Ha’penny machine has somehow become a nail-biting highlight of the day.
As long-time shut-ins such as freelance writers (ahem) have known for long years, daytime television obeys completely different rules to the TV seen by normal people, either before or after their working day. Let me, an old hand, guide you through the surprisingly deep waters of the mainstream.
The first thing you’ll notice is that TV in the daytime is far more civil, and civic-minded. Occasionally at night a kindly announcer will follow up a challenging drama or a sensitive documentary with contact details to help anyone that’s been affected by the issues raised in that programme, but that happens now and again, as and when. The viewer notes it as unusual.
Daytime TV, however, is the land of helplines, factsheets and links to online advice. You’re never more than 10 minutes away from one of these, sometimes all three. Health advice, money advice, relationship advice — it never stops. Overdrafts, divorces, breasts, testicles — all are regularly brought out, checked, and then checked again. Cervixes and prostates are smeared and probed like there’s no tomorrow.
A word of warning to daytime newbies — while maintaining a commonsense awareness of these things, you must learn to shut out most of this. If you don’t, you will start to become neurotic (and then you’ll need the helpline for that too). Every twinge means you have an obscure and deadly medical condition, every unrecognised call to your mobile means your bank account is imminently to be cleaned out, any slight change in your partner’s behaviour means they’re having it away with your best friend and you’re going to have to get on the sofa to tell Holly and Phil the heart wrenching tale of this sordid betrayal.
That’s because normal people are the bread and butter of daytime, and particularly so when something freakishly terrible has befallen them. These events will start to seem routine, even expected. Beware the availability heuristic!
Despite their reputation, the daytime magazine shows are anything but bland. They are hotbeds of sex and violence, but unlike the dramas and salacious reality shows of the evening they come in a gentler, more compassionate frame. Judgment, particularly moral judgment, is mostly withheld. No matter what someone’s concealed, or even blatantly lied about, they are empathised with, reassured, and often told they are ‘strong’, even when the exact opposite is the case.
The recent recursive spectacle of Philip Schofield himself being pushed front-and-centre onto the confessional couch is an object lesson in this. There were hugs, tears, encomiums to bravery, and not one single drop of doubt or cynicism. We all know a Philip is ‘nice’, so how could there be?
Of course, such revelations and ghastly tales wouldn’t have an impact if daytime didn’t work off a baseline of ordinary life as it ‘should’ be, what you need all this advice to get back to — the life of the ordinary woman (men take a definite back seat) in the street. This person is older, more conservative, more likely to have a nest-egg or to be accumulating one (hence the preponderance of shows about antiques and moving or renovating property, such as Homes Under the Hammer and Escape to the Country). They may not be retired yet but it’s something they’re thinking about. They are much more likely to be Somewheres than Anywheres — in fact, Anywhereism is often regarded with ‘and who do they think they are’ open suspicion.
Even the overtly contentious and political Jeremy Vine phone-in/panel show on Channel 5 has an affability and even-handedness that would be unthinkable at the dark heart of Question Time.
Daytime dramas are similarly gentle and community-centred. Doctors has a large regular cast whose function is to cure the guest cast of each individual episode, who present at the Letherbridge NHS surgery with symptoms including Issues, Emotions and Acting. The remedy for a complaint more often than not is listening, understanding and dispensing advice rather than medicine.
Surreal juxtaposition is another feature of daytime that amuses the beginner. Erectile dysfunction crashes into granny makeovers, which crashes into putting your life back together after your husband was murdered, which crashes into a round-up of all the gossip from the soaps.
Over the years I’ve worked out that the ‘rules’ of television change very abruptly to daytime at 8.55am and revert back at about 7.30pm. There’s an intriguing twilight zone on BBC One as Pointless gives way to the news and you think the gears have shifted, only for daytime to rally back for a final gasp ahead of The One Show, before the rubicon is firmly crossed. The ghost of youth TV haunts the axis point on Channel 4, which follows 4 In A Bed or Coach Trip with a serving of The Simpsons and Hollyoaks before Jon Snow very firmly kills any trace of afterglow geniality at 7pm.
In an era where most of the television that’s talked about is niche-targeted, curated and demarcated by demographics, daytime remains resolutely mainstream. It still has the “here one moment, gone the next” ethos that all television used to have in the distant days before domestic video recorders. Very few people are streaming Loose Women on catch-up. These programmes are like buses. There’ll be another one along in a minute.
So it’s interesting to see the reaction of blue-ticked liberal Twitter, forced by the lockdown to face this wider realm, the unschooled culture of the Untermenschen who voted for Brexit and the Tory landslide. It’s no longer possible, for the duration, to mistake the counterculture for the culture, Twitter trends for real people’s opinions, ‘lived experience’ for life.
Even the BBC has been shocked out of its headbanging for race-baiting ‘inclusivity’, and is shortly to begin a lockdown season of Ealing comedies in the afternoon. It seems it’s taken an international emergency for them to acknowledge, after years of disparagement and open scolding, that we have a common heritage that bonds all of us.
For the first time since the 1940s we’re really all in this together. Whether we like it or not we’re all daytime viewers now.