Television: birth of the little bioscope
The SABC is a figure of fun in the contemporary media pantomime, but how many of us remember that the public broadcaster has been mired in controversy for almost all of its 40 years?
Shortly after the service began (on New Year’s Day in 1976), the SABC aired a locally produced series about a bookshop-owning family called the Dingleys, causing much unhappiness across the length and breadth of suburbia. Under the heading "The Dingleys are dreadful", a reader — one of several who were critical about the series — complained to the Rand Daily Mail: "If The Dingleys is supposed to show typical family life, we must be a nation of morons."
An early episode of the programme – which was shot in the main in a Jo’burg studio, though the Dingleys were portrayed as living in Pietermaritzburg – featured a visit to the town by rock group Rabbitt, the country’s then hottest act, leading to suspicions of nepotism. Rabbitt’s frontman, Duncan Faure, was the brother of the series’ producer, Bill Faure, and letter writers found this narrative twist both egregious and implausible.
They sharpened the tips of their pens about other things. There were continuity lapses: The milk served at the Dingleys’ breakfast table came in Jo’burg bottles and the newspapers were from there too; the dialogue was as soggy as milk-drenched breakfast cereal and the acting was so wooden it might as well have been done by pot plants.
The bookshop angle was clearly ill-conceived, because there was never any discussion about books or authors, let alone about whether the latest Neville Shute or Dick Francis novel was scuttling off the bookshop shelves. Only the theme song was decent, perhaps because it was taken from Rabbitt’s latest album at the time, A Croak and a Grunt in the Night.
As the series developed, some pointed out that it was unacceptable that its only black actress, Celia Motsie, who played the role of a servant, had to be written out of the action because she was forbidden to share a table at the SABC canteen with other members of the cast during downtime.
Some, however, found the depiction of middle-class, white SA life realistic, though detractors bemoaned the fact that life in the last outpost was excruciatingly small-town. Richard West, writing in The Spectator in April 1977, captured the prevailing Zeitgeist perfectly when he wrote: "The Soweto riots, the Russian threat and the economic recession have all during the last year stirred the emotions of white South Africans, but perhaps none has caused more controversy than The Dingleys."
For all the complaints to the liberal newspapers, it didn’t take long for a slice of SA to secretly fall in love with television. Newly built hypermarkets sold TV trays in one aisle and TV dinners in another. Families frequently postponed social engagements or reneged on civic duties to watch the test pattern before tucking into Longstreet (featuring a blind detective), or The Avengers, with characters John Steed and Emma Peel.
The Peel character was played by posh-sexy Joanna Lumley, whose dress and hairstyle inspired of flood of wannabe "Purdys" in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs.
Municipal election meetings by parties such as the Progressive Reform Party were known to be postponed for fear of a low turn-out due to more appetising adventures in the TV room. From the Book, the reading from the Bible, after five hours of night-time viewing, had its fans; a snap poll conducted among Afrikaans viewers showed that 43% of them gave the programme a rating of 10 out of 10.
Evenings of The Brady Bunch, followed by How Green was my Valley, were succeeded by Blitspatrollie dubbed into Afrikaans — Van der Valk was another dubbed series).
It was a single-channel service, with only limited hours of nightly viewing, and television sets were initially expensive, as were television licences.
There were issues of exclusion (Motsie’s ritual death in The Dingleys) and indoctrination, not to mention a glut of wildlife documentaries and travelogues. The Sunday Times’ Gwen Gill complained in January 1977: "What’s in store for us this week? Excitement galore? Sparkling entertainment? Titillating TV? No such luck. Documentaries about faraway places, the bane of early days, are scattered around the schedule with gay abandon. Germany on Monday, Kathmandu on Tuesday, Haiti and Japan (Wednesday) and East Africa (Saturday). We’re really on a trip."
Television’s late arrival in SA had been fervently debated in the upper echelons of the Nationalist Party for years. The right wing of the party, exemplified by minister of posts & telegraphs Albert Hertzog, was opposed to the introduction of the new medium for religious and political reasons, referring to it as "a miniature bioscope over which parents have no control". Hertzog paid for his backwardness by being removed from his post, as the party’s left wing got its way and experimental broadcasts started in the major cities in 1975. Nationwide broadcasts started a year later, a full year after state broadcasting began in Angola, six years after the introduction of television in North Vietnam and 11 years after it arrived in Ghana (in 1965).
Even the verligte wing of the party had its concerns, though these tended to revolve around issues of language. It was felt that the importation of English and American series like Bonanza; Rich Man, Poor Man, and The World at War would marginalise Afrikaans as a language and alienate Afrikaans speakers.
In the years immediately after television’s introduction, the distribution of advertising revenues also became an issue. According to West, who was writing in 1977: "The Afrikaans newspapers fear that TV advertising, due to be introduced next year, will hurt them much more than it hurts the English language press, which is stronger because of its large black readership. I have heard it suggested, though this can’t be proved, that recent attacks on the national government in the Afrikaans press were inspired not so much by doubts over apartheid, as by resentment
What neither Hertzog nor the comparatively enlightened wing of the National Party appear to have factored in was the degree to which television could take the leisured classes minds’ off more frightening things. In later years, the travails of Dallas’s JR Ewing became the stuff of urban legend, and who will ever forget the cruel attention with which the character Falconetti pursued Wesley Jordache in Rich Man, Poor Man? With or without advertising, whether Hollywood slicks alienated Afrikaans viewers or not, here was a commercial gold mine. You rejected its commercial claims at your peril.
Television certainly had its opiate dimension, and became more ideologically fixated and censorious as the 1970s segued into the overt repression and states of emergency of the mid-1980s.
Despite this, it is difficult to forget the heady early days, when the arrival of the test pattern was an event, with families bending over their TV dinners to watch.
All of us have our memories, whether these involve newsreaders Michael de Morgan and Dorianne Berry, who appeared on opening night 40 years ago with Heinrich Marnitz, or listening to Laurence Olivier’s superb narration in The World at War.
My memories centre on the beautiful watercolours (one showing the front of the Jordache bakery, with a delivery bicycle parked outside) that appeared at the beginning of every episode of Rich Man, Poor Man, and being petrified of Falconetti, my first encounter with evil.
As new televisions were expensive, my family only came to the jamboree comparatively late. I visited a Jewish friend and was explicitly forbidden by my father to watch The World at War episode that dealt with the Holocaust, an injunction I’ve never forgotten.