What’s on telly tonight? Guilty pleasures from Mass Observation Project: 1980s

26 June 2020

Cultural Studies | History

After 18 weeks of lockdown, many of us are missing the regular pastimes of life before the pandemic. Having exhausted Netflix, I turned to the recently published Mass Observation Project for ideas on what to watch next.

The programmes watched by participants in the 1980s are surprisingly close to today’s offering, with respondent H1265 listing a few familiar favourites:

I really enjoy period/rural drama such as Mayor of Casterbridge/South Riding/ and any dramatization of classics or well know novels, this is my favourite viewing I would say. Certain comedy I enjoy, Young Ones, French & Saunders, New Statesman, Fry and Laurie […] rather too many nature programmes right now but as a rule I do enjoy them […] The two soaps that I follow are Neighbours and East Enders, and I do not like to miss them.

Respondent H1393 lists the following – with some useful side notes:

Excerpt from H1393's response to 1988 Autumn directive part 1. © Mass Observation Archive Trustees. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

And E178 lists their favourites along with (perhaps more importantly) ones to avoid:

Excerpt from E178's response to 1988 Autumn directive part 1. © Mass Observation Archive Trustees. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Many of us have experienced pangs of guilt after binge-watching a series or sitcom, and H1265’s comments reveal the same was felt about watching TV in the 80s: “Although I find TV watching very relaxing I do really regret the 6 or so hours of wasted time each evening.” To make this use of time more constructive, H1265 takes the opportunity to knit and notes they “just watch quite selectively and not just for the sake of watching”. H254 makes a similar point that “With regards to T.V. unless I have time to waste I always select the programmes I want.”

Many of the respondents noted their TV watching habits, which aren’t too dissimilar to today’s (who doesn’t enjoy unwinding to their favourite programme after work?) E178 notes that they watch TV “from around 5:30 to 9:30 if no visitors.” Likewise, H1393 observes “The television is on every evening, sometimes in the afternoon, but not often, unless I happen to spot a particularly good old film.”

Perhaps most comforting of all is that certain debates about TV programmes are as lively now as they were back in the 80s. H1393 makes a firm statement on their preferred Poirot actor: “David Suchet is the perfect Poirot – much better than Albert Finney or Peter Ustinov.” A sound observation, given that David Suchet dominates prime time viewing on ITV3 to this day.

And of course, East Enders has not changed, as H1393’s comments reveal: “East Enders is fast becoming all doom and gloom – going off the boil.”

What is most impressive, is that each of the respondents had no issue finding something to watch, despite the limitation of four channels: “On the whole we do usually find something worth watching from the 4 channels but occasionally not, then we turn off, but this isn’t very often.” [H1393]. One thing that certainly has changed since the 80s is the amount of time spent deciding what to watch next!

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About the Author

Sophie Foan

Sophie Foan

I joined the editorial team at Adam Matthew in August 2018. My interests include contemporary art and design history. I'm currently working with archives and the academic community to develop new projects.