TALES FROM THE FRONT ROOM. 1: Master of the Television

Growing up in Scotland meant spending a lot of time indoors every year, from the end of September to at least March, unless driving winds, snow, leaden skies, and cold rain pelting your skin like thousands of needles, got your juices flowing.
I grew up in a time when even prehistoric games, like Pac-Man or Asteroids, were still a glint in the eye of their inventors’ parents; an iPad was something you put on your face after a visit to the optometrist.
We did own a Monopoly set, but it wasn’t in what you’d call in museum-quality condition; a fair amount of the ‘money’ had disappeared, and most of the tokens had been lost over the years. Cards. We did play cards. This became tiresome after a very short time, especially when the deck was so old that by looking at certain folds, chocolate stains, and dog-eared corners on the back your opponent’s hand, you knew whether or not they were going to trump you.
There was always physical combat. My sister and I did quite a bit of that on those endless, gray afternoons.
Television, then, was our prime source of entertainment. Oh, I hear you say, were there no books in this household? Did not your imagination soar and swoop through fantastical worlds? Yes, I remember books, and these many years I have been a voracious reader, but back then, I was more of a comic (graphic novel) kind of guy. They’re good for about twenty minutes.
Including my parents, six of us lived in our little house on the Moray Firth in the North East of Scotland. A television sat in the front room, next to the fireplace; the screen a rounded, almost rectangular, fourteen inches (from corner to corner), and in glorious black and white. It took about three minutes to warm up, depending on the time of year. There was no remote control, but instead a rotary dial that clicked between channels. A beautiful piece of cabinetry, with book-matched veneers on either side, it received a loving polish by my mother every week. This wood and vacuum-tubed wonder sat on a matching wooden stand that swiveled to face the viewer.
That prime viewer, when he wasn’t working, or on the golf course, was my father, and the television pointed directly at his armchair.
He was a benevolent dictator. A man who lived by that old parental dictum – do as I say, not as I do. It worked well for him, for it was backed up by the ever-present, and definitely not-to-be-wished for, Wrath Of Dad. We very rarely experienced it, and once having done so, it was a scene to be avoided at all costs.
There also existed the wrath of Mum, but that we could handle; she was all smoke and no flames. I suspect the old man relied on her to be the policeman on the beat, keeping the natives quiet. He was the SWAT team, the riot squad, the nuclear option. Don’t get me wrong—we’d josh with him, like lion cubs nipping at their father’s ears, but should we cubs ever try out our growing claws on his scrotum, we’d be swatted like flies.
Back to the television. In the early sixties, we had a choice for our viewing pleasure. There was the BBC, the British Broadcasting Corporation, and in direct competition, the only competition, we had ITV, Independent Television. We got Grampian Television, a regional offshoot of ITV, that served our area. It was so named after the Grampian mountain range, the highest in Scotland.
Very little was on during during the day. If you were desperate, you could watch the test card, a potpourri of lines and technical-looking circles that engineers used to calibrate cameras and televisions. This would go for hours at a time. Children’s programming started around 4pm, for kids back home from school. This lasted until 550pm, when the national news came on. At that time, we would just be sitting down for our evening meal, our “tea”.
My father, having already arrived home from the office, would sit in the front room until tea was ready. He’d read the paper, and often as not, grab a quick nap. My mother would call us all to the table. To my mother’s eternal exasperation, this was my father’s cue to go to the toilet. Upon returning from his ablutions, he would swivel the TV on its stand, and take his place at the head of the table in the kitchen. We weren’t allowed to watch TV while we were eating, but my father had the catbird seat, and was the only one who could both hear and see the broadcast through the door into the living room.
When we had finished our tea, my father would say something about the food having been fit for human consumption, thank my mother for cooking it, rise from the table, and head back into the front room to take up residence for the evening in front of the tube.
Paper in his hands, sometimes actually reading it, he’d listen to the program as he held the broadsheet in front of his face. This was frustrating to us serfs, but only when there was something on Grampian we wanted to watch, like Thunderbirds, or Fireball XL5. The exchange would go as follows:
“Dad, it’s almost seven o’clock. Can we switch over to Grampian?”
“What for?”
“Um, Fireball XL5.”
“That thing with the puppets?”
“Yes. It’s really good.”
“It’s rubbish.”
“No. Anyway, I’m watching this.”
(This, would be some political discussion about the funding for a new water treatment plant in Aviemore.)
“But Dad, you’re reading the paper.”
(He was. It was totally obscuring his view of the screen.)
“I’m doing both. I’m listening while I read.”
“Haven’t you got any homework to do?”
And that would be the end of that.
An hour later, my mother would enter the front room, having done the dishes, tidied up, cleaned the kitchen, skinned and gutted a deer, and brushed all our shoes for the next day. (One thing in the previous sentence is not true.)
Dad, done with the paper, having read it from stem to stern, was watching the TV. Mum would pick the paper up from his lap, and have a look through. By this time, the rest of us were engrossed in something that we all wanted to watch, Dad included. Z Cars, or No Hiding Place. We always watched Hans and Lotte Hass, they were a pre-Jacques Cousteau/Steve Zissou, underwater couple.
Apart from the TV, silence reigned until Mum inevitably started a conversation with Dad about something in the paper.
“Did you see that Bob Scott died in an accident?”
(Mum, reading from newspaper) “‘Local mechanic Bob Scott died on the A98 yesterday after his car collided with a tractor hauling hay. Mr. Scott, a war veteran—’”
“I know. I read it.”
“was attended to at the scene by a passing doctor, but was pronounced dead on arrival at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.’ Isn’t that terrible? His poor wife.”
“It is. David, turn up the television.”


5 thoughts on “TALES FROM THE FRONT ROOM. 1: Master of the Television

  1. Wonderful piece! I was mesmerized not only by your story but the masterful way you drew us into it so that if we wanted to just review with a quick eye for the gist of the story it was impossible. I love you wit, wisdom and writing style and will definitely look forward to the next Tale from the Front Room.

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