Thursday, May 1, 2008

The sound of silence

I can remember when there was literally nothing on television. Weekdays were largely TV free till the late afternoon when the children’s programmes started. They showed the testcard so that TV repair people could check that the set actually worked. At around 11 pm a presenter would tell us that the evening’s programmes were over and wished us all a very good night. Sometimes they even played the national anthem as a subtle hint that it really was time to go to bed. Even radio stations were silent at night.

Today there is still very little to watch on television but it goes on round the clock. 57 channels and nothing on. When they can’t think of anything to broadcast they switch over to TV-Shop with hours of hysterical ads about miracle fitness devices and anti-wrinkle cream. Or they show 5 back-to-back episodes of some instantly forgettable Dallas lookalike soap from the eighties. Who watches this stuff in the middle of the night? Anything to avoid silence.

Some channels show a very special type of phone-in quiz show. A young aspiring TV presenter gets the daunting task of filling an hour or two of non-prime time TV by trying to persuade the sparse audience to phone in and answer questions. The cash prizes are quite tempting and the questions are often along the lines of “What colour is the White House?” But no one phones and the presenter has to fill the time by commenting on the weather, what she/he had for breakfast etc. They can go on for 20 minutes without anyone phoning and you can sense the creeping desperation in the presenter’s voice as the nagging suspicion grows that there may not be anyone watching at all. I must say I admire their courage. If you survive a few months fronting one of these shows you deserve to go on to more rewarding roles. It takes guts to talk and smile non-stop for 2 hours in front of a camera knowing that your nationwide audience may be in single figures, including several who are unconscious.

We fill our lives with noise. People of all ages have their iPods almost permanently plugged in; when walking, jogging, gardening or travelling. Comfortable, handy, fun but again a sort of padding to block out the world, the avoidance of silence. When do we have time to rest, to think, to just be? Silence is awkward, it demands reflection. Sunday as a day of rest was an excellent idea and just as relevant today as it was for the Israelites of the Old Testament. Imagine a day when the shopping centres are closed and people just rest. A day when it’s OK to switch off. Hardly likely in our 24-7 globalised individualistic society but a nice dream.

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