I’m entertained by retro-futurism; I love vintage advertising and books that predict bold new frontiers in society and technology, often guesstimates that turned out to be wide of the mark. Last week I bought a bundle of 1950s books on eBay, amongst the titles were ‘Teach Yourself Books – Television Viewers’ Handbook’, ‘How to Make the Most of Your Television and Radio’ and ‘Ward Lock’s Book of Practical Television’. My favourite by far is ‘Television’s Story and Challenge’ by Derek Horton, published in 1951. The title on the dust jacket is set in a great atomic-era Roman serif typeface. The blurb on the back illustrates the tone of the author brilliantly, ‘Television is discussed not only as a means of entertainment, education and propaganda, but also as a terrible aid to warfare.’ Some of Horton’s predictions for the future are spot-on; for instance, he foresaw that television could provide a sizeable source of income for sports promoters, and that people might prefer to watch major sporting events when televised in public places, perhaps discussing the game at the bar.
The first chaper of the book, ‘The Challenge’, begins:-
Into this feverish world of atomic bombs, balanced so perilously between peace and war, has come a new menace – the menace of television, Jekyll and Hyde of the atom. Television has brought us a new factor of civilisation – a new industry rich in the promise of jobs and financial rewards, irresistible in its beckoning horizon, a force capable of bringing a revolution to culture and entertainment, yet at the same time repulsive in its inherent evil, its latent power to destroy.
The whole story of television is the story of this new, up-thrusting, dynamic age in which we live – the age of the atom. And just as the atomic bomb altered all concepts of battle in the closing months of the Second World War, so to-day has television brought new concepts to the nature of atomic war itself. The Germans, on the eve of defeat, were even then harnessing television to the chariot of Mars. And since the war a curtain of secrecy has dropped between the public and and those who work to perfect the terrible, destructive possibilities of television.
This book is an attempt to present television in its proper perspective; to warn of its Jekyll-and-Hyde nature; to demonstrate how it may be used to destroy life – or to make it richer than ever man has dreamed. It is not a technical book. It is an effort to strip the subject of all its forbidding language, to reduce it to terms within the understanding of the man in the street, whose knowledge of the everyday things of life cannot be complete until he has grasped the essentials of this magic thing, television. Beyond question television has come to stay – and not only to stay, but to exert a tremendous social influence. Its impact on the world of entertainment will be more significant than that of the talking picture, a shattering reminder that the brains of science are never still.
Already in two great countries, Britain and America, the advent of television has caused alarm and panic among sponsors of of various other forms of entertainment. They see in this tremendously alive and vital things challenge to their very existence. And, argue as one may about the outcome of this conflict, television is a challenge; a challenge shot through with drama and great inspiration to those who dream of One World, a world united in understanding among its many peoples, free from the horror of war.
Television today is in its infancy, yet already has achieved a degree of technical efficiency that is quite remarkable. It is a vehicle that will carry a whole generation of young men and women to new peaks of fame. Others it will pass by, leaving them with the cold remains of honours that belonged to other spheres, other days. The radio actor who climbed to great heights in the privacy of a studio, away from the public gaze; the little man who played the giant (often in his shirt-sleeves!); the girl with the honeyed voice who won hearts that would sink at the sight of her unphotogenic profile; the star who could wring tears from a written script, yet knew nothing of the arts of the stage; the bald-headed Casanova of ‘blind’ radio – to these television means the end of the chapter and a new struggle to ‘fit in.’