The online edition of the Cambridge Dictionary [i] states that ‘cultural appropriation’ is ‘the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture’. And – quite possibly – there’s a lot more of that going on in the way of watching television than there ever used to be.
As I think I mentioned before, I’m rather fond of jazz (even if nobody’s ever really explained the rules to me). And I’ve encountered various notions that jazz has been a prime subject of cultural appropriation by anyone of non-African-American descent (which as far as I’m aware, includes me) but who had a keen taste for polyrhythms. But many of the people who composed jazz – in common with most creatives – seem to have espoused the view that they’d like their tasty beats to reach as many ears as possible around the world. And I’m sure that programme makers past, present and presumably future feel the same way.
Just to make it clear, the larceny that I’m considering here is not the programmes themselves… unless they’ve been obtained by illicit means which I – naturally – deplore, because that means the people who make them aren’t being paid properly somewhere along the chain. No, what I’m talking about isn’t the product, it’s the way the product is being consumed.
I’m talking about binge watching. Usually of box sets [ii]. Or, to be grammatically correct, boxed sets – now a rather archaic term because in most cases in this modern Age of Stream we don’t even have the boxes anymore.
In recent years, some of those within the faith of television appreciation have uttered sentiments of scorn to me about the practice of ‘binge watching’ [iii] a series. And I don’t quite understand why. Because it’s really our sub-culture that invented it. It’s just that we didn’t have a name for it. Apart from – I guess – life.
I think the sentiment stems in part from a form of resentment – an appropriation of a practice which was once ours. A simple but clever trick to be closely guarded and only shared with new inductees to our strange religion. Now, it has become a badge of success and status, like being able to put the right postcode at the top of your letterhead or driving around in a car that is slightly bigger than you actually need. When somebody says ‘I did a whole season of Danger Patrol [iv] on Sunday’, in many respects they are in the fortunate position of being able to say ‘By Sunday, I have dealt with my weekly familial, social, employment and moral obligations, and I am both time and money rich enough to be able to devote several consecutive hours of my life to watching editions of an episodic television series which, most likely, was designed to be consumed on a weekly basis.’
But, nevertheless, it was fandom that invented it. Because before that, it wasn’t what normal people – general members of the public who paid their TV licence – did. Honestly. I’m over fifty. I can remember. That’s not what they did.
Whereas back in April 1992, I nipped down to my local Virgin Megastore and spent £19.99 of genuine coins and notes of the realm [v] on a double VHS pack of Sapphire & Steel Adventure Two, took it home, and watched the whole 208 minute, eight instalment assignment that evening, right from George Tully setting up his lights in the deserted railway station through to Steel telling █████ to ███ back along the ██████ where they’re basically going to █████████ him to the ████████.
So, I think we’re agreed, that was a binge watch. Over three hours of quality, atmospheric, studio-bound television. Yet, Sapphire & Steel (1979-1982) was designed to be a twice-weekly serial – so, over four weeks I’d have half an hour on Tuesday and Thursday nights [vi] rather than a single evening.
And the greed of a hopeless telly addict – even one who didn’t sit on Noel Edmonds’ sofas – didn’t stop there. Since the 1970s, fans had been assembling at conventions or London’s Scala cinema to watch back-to-back films of The Avengers (1961-1969) or The Prisoner (1967-1968). While doing some routine re-filing, I recently found a rough timetable for a 24 hour video marathon held in August 1984 on the moonstruck outer limits of Sheffield – a now frankly frightening document which suggested that in one rotation of the Earth, those present were going to be exposed to the debut episodes of Space: 1999 (1975-1977) and Land of the Giants (1968-1970), the whole of Quatermass II (1955), an entire six-part Doctor Who (1963-forever) serial plus seven additional assorted editions, all of the final Sapphire & Steel assignment, the entirety of Children of the Stones (1977), the complete opening serial to The Tomorrow People (1973-1979) plus odd episodes of The Avengers, Fireball XL5 (1962-1963), The Prisoner, The Outer Limits (1963-1965), The New Avengers (1976-1977), Phoenix Five (1970), The Champions (1968-1969), Doomwatch (1970-1972), Adam Adamant Lives! (1966-1967) and – as a fantasy detox – a visit to The Young Ones (1982-1984).
And – goodness help me – I think I watched the lot…
So, I think we’re agreed, that’s not how normal people watched television. And that was in the days when it wasn’t just a matter of streaming at will, or even ordering physical product online, or yet popping into town to stock up on VHS tapes at Our Price… these were recordings pulled from private collections, flying from the Antipodes or liberating themselves from industry archives. All a bit of a fag when you think about it now.
As such, we were there first. And if you still see this as a social blight, then blame us. We started it.
But, please. At a time when people are being asked to stay at home and isolate themselves from society, if you feel the need to box set binge as a distraction technique to get you through, then, yes, please go ahead and steal from fan culture. I think, for once, fandom will be happy that they’ve shared something socially worthwhile… rather than keeping it to themselves.
Andrew Pixley is a retired data developer. For the last 30 years he’s written about almost anything to do with television if people will pay him – and occasionally when they won’t. At the time of writing, he and his wife are effectively working from home and barely venturing out. And their stand-by binge watches will be Naked City (1960-1963) [vii], Chance in a Million (1984-1986), The Phil Silvers Show (1955-1959), Lord Peter Wimsey (1972-1975), Death in Paradise (2011-) and maybe even those box – sorry boxed – sets of Babylon 5 (1993-1998) that have barely been out of their cellophane. But enough about us, what will you be watching?
[i] Other university cities are available.
[ii] In some popular newspapers, I’ve found the term ‘box set’ used as far back as 1980 to refer to collections of LPs or cassettes, and as a collective noun for Digital Versatile Discs from 2001.
[iii] … and the first instance I’ve found of that is 2013. Of course, it existed long before that, but we just never had a name for it.
[iv] I can’t believe none of you have ever heard of this…
[v] Or put it on my Access card.
[vi] Or that was the plan. Of course, the ITV strike scuppered that and it actually took over three months to get to the end on the original transmission.