It’s clearly a truth universally acknowledged (at least by journalists) that you should never let the facts get in the way of a good headline – especially when, it seems, they have had their Christmas party early.

According to the Daily Mail today, I have claimed “that the TRUE meaning of Christmas is sitting around the telly with the family watching the depressing Eastenders festive special”. The Times and the Telegraph also gave us their take on the article.

Put simply, I wasn't writing about the “true meaning of Christmas”. I also wasn't writing about turkey farming, the origins of the Christmas tree or the ethics of mistletoe.

The Radio Times asked me to write an article for their Christmas edition about the value of families watching tv together. In it, I merely supported the idea that, with the ease with which we can now view programmes on our own, telly still has the power to bring us together.

So, not the “true meaning of Christmas” exactly; but, nevertheless, watching telly together can have meaning, at least more meaning than merely slagging off the outfits, left feet or judges’ remarks on Strictly (for example).

Doesn't Gogglebox (for example) show how it can be a springboard for all sorts of discussions around values and world events – and even the ethical dilemmas raised by EastEnders? Seeing how others react can help us develop our own response and opinions. (And engaging with real people has got to be better than a constant diet of peoples’ perfectly curated lives on Facebook.)

In a world of solo, multi-platform viewing (and even though my own day is punctuated by frequent reference to Twitter), surely shared experience has always got to be more powerful than private browsing.

Here’s the original Radio Times article:

A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of presenting an award to one of our leading television writers, Tony Jordan, for his series that re-told the Nativity story on BBC One. Tony was one of the driving forces behind EastEnders for many years, who has since gone on to create many a small screen hit, most recently Dickensian, the mash up of Dickens stories on the BBC this Christmas. So, when I asked him what made him choose the Nativity – after all, it’s fairly well-trodden as a narrative path – I knew I was picking the brains of a master story teller. He replied simply: “I know a true story when I read one.”

Well, this is why millions of people go to carol services and nativity plays – to re-live the Story together. We engage with stories because they bring us together in ways that create a common experience. And not only did Tony Jordan shine a new light on a familiar story, but he also set off a wide conversation about our response to that story. How? Because people clearly watched it together on the television.

Royston Robertson, used with permission

Now, I don't think this is peculiar to Christmas, but there is something about this particular season that encourages us to share our screen-watching experiences with those around us, and not hive off to spectate in splendid isolation.

It isn't all that long ago that the prophets of media doom were confidently predicting the demise of the television as a medium for common conversation – that is, for example, a family sitting together and watching the same programme at the same time and in the same place. Well, they have been proved wrong. Despite a plethora of platforms, most of them individualised and personal such as mobile phones and tablets, television has generated renewed capacity for the shared experience. Does anyone watch 'Strictly' all alone? Why do people still talk about Gogglebox and sports games they have watched in company? We really want to do it together.

What I do know is that in a world in which anyone under the age of forty has to be surgically removed from their phone or tablet, the screen on the wall or in the corner still has the power to get people to sit together and watch together. Indeed, in a recent poll of 2,000 parents [reported in the Daily Mail last September], watching television was seen as one of the top activities for family bonding.

The exciting new manager of Liverpool FC, Jürgen Klopp, recently told an interviewer that his aim in life is not to be the greatest manager, but to “live in the moment”. I guess this is why he seems always to enjoy himself, whether being asked odd questions on the telly or watching his team play on the pitch. And his phrase is relevant to how we celebrate Christmas, too.

So, here's a thought: for those lucky enough to have someone to share the remote with this Christmas, put down your mobile, switch off your tablet and, like Jürgen, live in the moment. You may be surprised by what you can do. Whether joining in a carol service from a distance, watching an imaginative re-telling of the Christmas story, debating the merits of Dickensian, or the latest relationship catastrophe in Eastenders, the telly still has the power to bring us together… and give us the perfect excuse to ditch the personal devices and detox from the solo habits. Live for now with the people who are there with you.

In the original Christmas story, it was groups of people who came together to meet Jesus together. Presumably, this also meant they could talk about it all when they went away. Wise men from the East travelled together and, after a bad brush with a mad tyrant, worked out together where to go afterwards. Shepherds had an encounter on the hills with choirs of angels – no one-on-one experience here. Shared experience is always more powerful than private browsing.

In a world of instant news, multi-platform viewing, privatised experience and customised catch-up, let's hear it for the telly at Christmas. There's life in the old screen yet.

[Cartoon by Royston Robertson, used with permission]

 

Monday saw the annual Sandford St Martin awards ceremony for religious broadcasting. Lambeth Palace is a wonderful venue for this prestigious event and a large audience of programme makers, commissioners, presenters and others saw the best in religious broadcasting recognised.

The term 'religious' is a difficult one – and one that produces in some people a blanking reflex. Yet, as I have argued before, broadcast media need to take religion seriously – not for propaganda or naive evangelistic reasons, but because religion is a phenomenon that needs to be understood, explored, interpreted and explained if we are to defy mutual incomprehension and comprehend why people live as they do. Like it or not, religion shapes and motivates individuals, communities and societies.

So, this year's awards – the judging panels were chaired by art critic Brian Sewell and (ordained) veteran radio presenter Cindy Kent – dug deep into what makes for excellent programme making that does the above. The Trust also gave a personal award to retiring Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks and a new Trustees Award to Frank Cottrell Boyce, writer of the London Olympics Opening Ceremony.

Full details can be found here. The Guardian reported here, the Independent here, the Tablet here and Ariel here.

 

It seems that wherever you go in the world now you see the same television programmes, worked according to the same formula. And why not? If it works, repeat it wherever you can get away with it.

Here in Germany I have channel-hopped a bit in order to see what’s going on. I’ve seen some great political coverage, high-quality extended interviews (never deferential, but always respectfully penetrating and usually productive) and some good German football. I have followed the newspapers and seen how Haiti and Afghanistan (in particular) are being covered here. As I keep saying (usually with reference to Helmut Schmidt), you learn a lot about your self and your own culture when you look at it through the eyes and listen to it through the language of another people.

It’s a bit worrying, therefore, that what sticks involuntarily in my mind is Germany’s version of X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, Pop Idol (they all seem to blend into one vision of tears and self-insightlessness). Here it is called Deutschland sucht den Superstar. The panel is formulaic, too: one young woman who generally looks sympathetic but sad, a bloke who says almost nothing but looks shocked, and the Cowell-esque ‘been there done it’ ageing rock star whose vocabulary seems limited to ‘Scheisse!’ and who looks as if he’s been ‘fanta-ed’.

I’d never heard of Dieter Bohlen before. That’s what is always interesting about seeing something that is familiar in format, but where you have no idea what the credentials of the judges actually are. He’s big in Germany, but he’s brutal to the people who submit themselves to this public humiliation. Bohlen makes Simon Cowell sound diplomatically adept.

I feel like I just don’t ‘get’ it. I know what’s going on, but because I don’t know the characters I can’t relate to them. I have no idea who the other two judges are, but they say almost nothing and defer without demur to Bohlen. I’d love to know what it sounds like through German ears.

But this sort of entertainment is an old formula in new dressing. I was sitting in a cafe in Friedrichshafen this afternoon – my last before returning to England tomorrow – reading Clive James‘s North Face of Soho, the fourth volume of his wonderful Unreliable Memoirs. I didn’t know he had done the pilots for New Faces back in the 1970s. Feeling he would be too critical of the punters, he didn’t go ahead with the job. But he did say this:

I thought the aspirants were touching even when untalented, and if they were talented then they had a better right to hug the screen than the judges.

Clive James knew his limitations. Even if as orange as Simon Cowell, at least Dieter Bohlen has performed on the stage and plied his trade.