The emergence of television

Political satire (such as That was the week that was) challenged the idea that politicians were ‘better’ people, and black comedies such as Steptoe and Son took a bleak but realistic look at ordinary peoples lives. Television had become so important to the ordinary people of Britain by the 1960s, that it was feared to have an effect on voting turnout. In 196_ Steptoe and Son was postponed until after the polls had closed to encourage working class Labour supporters to register their vote, and possibly as a result, Wilson won the election.

Television’s popularity continued into the seventies, where statistics showed that around 90% of the British public owned a television, and the extreme popularity of new shows gave seventies’ television the title of ‘the Golden Era’. In comparison with cinema, television has been substantially more important as a leisure opportunity on a longer timescale. However, it could be argued that the cinema of the thirties was also a key turning point in the improvement of leisure opportunities for ‘ordinary people’.

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Undoubtedly, cinema was the most important form of working class leisure in the 1930s. Dubbed the ‘essential social habit of the age’ by A. J. P. Taylor, we can see that the attendance figures of the decade were huge, on a nationwide scale and rising throughout the thirties. Attendance statistics rose from 903 million in 1934 to a massive 990 million in 1939 and cinema construction boomed – with an average of 160 new cinemas in Britain every year between 1926 and 1939.

Big cities such as Birmingham could boast to homing 110 cinemas by the end of the thirties, a two-fold increase since the end of world war one. Despite a middle class following in the newly built ‘cinema palaces’, cinemagoers were more often working class, due to a number of reasons. Whereas other forms of leisure at the time were expensive (such as the theatre) the cinema offered enjoyment even to the downtrodden sectors of society. Many cinemas offered a cut rate during the middle of the day – giving the unemployed a chance to enjoy themselves.

Cinemas were important to urban communities, as independent exhibitors controlled the majority of picture houses, (only 21% of cinemas in the thirties were owned by major companies) and looking at the situation of cinemas of the decade, we discover that most were found in the traditional working class areas of northern England, Scotland and southern Wales. The experience of going to the cinema was very important to the working classes. Despite being the source of news for many people (especially as the war drew closer) it was also regarded as a type of social ‘club’, and an escape from the harsh realities of economically depressed Britain.

The importance of leisure changed after world war one – even though many were hit by depression, those who were lucky enough to work found themselves in a changed society. Women had a slightly less subservient attitude after their role as workers during the war and began to go out more often. Leisure found an audience, as people were more willing to spent their money on the cinema, football games and dancehalls rather than other commodities such as alcohol.

Workers had their hours reduced after the war and the average working week of the twenties went from 54 to 48 hours, leaving the working classes with more free time. Trade unions became more powerful after the war and in 1938 negotiated paid holidays – giving workers the opportunity to spent more money during their leisure time. Into this environment, cinema made a huge impact and played a key role in providing the ordinary people with an appropriate leisure activity – it was cheap, widely available and tied in with the strong sense of community found in traditional working class areas.

However, it could not compete with television and even by the end of the 1930s, cinema owners were anxious about the threat TV could pose. On a timescale of the last 60 years, it would be accurate to say that while cinema has gradually died in popularity, television has gone from strength to strength. Between 1946 and the 1980s 15,00 cinemas closed down all over Britain and the average attendance figure shot down from 40 times a year to only 1. 2.

Whereas after world war two, television became what cinema had been beforehand. Furthermore, unlike the popularity of cinema, television-viewing figures climbed to dizzying heights in the seventies when audiences could reach numbers of ____ for certain shows such as ‘The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special’ of 197_. Compared to the changing prices of other leisure activities, the traditional television package has remained relatively inexpensive, yet has improved technologically and has stayed in tune with youth culture.

In the nineties television caters for all sectors of society – whether it be due to the choice of programming or channels found on terrestrial TV (ITV is commonly known to provide shows aimed at a more working class audience whilst Channel 4 is often identified as a more youth orientated channel) or the vast amount of channels on satellite and digital television ranging from Punjabi music television to gardening channels. I believe that television was the key turning point in providing leisure opportunities to the ‘ordinary people of Britain’.