June 3rd, 2006


The Radio Times

Throughout my life, the best-selling British magazine has consistently been the Radio Times, the BBC's listings guide to radio and television in the UK. (It was only recently overtaken by The Reader's Digest and What's On TV.) Copies of the RT used to lie around our family house, and when, as a first year Sociology student at Aberdeen University, I had to do a dissertation, I chose to write a semiological analysis of the advertising and editorial messages in one edition of Radio Times; "Barthes meets the British class system", you could say. I remember one sentence from my essay (which got the highest possible marks and resulted in my tutor begging me to stay on and do a Sociology major instead of English): "Myth thrives by incest, but there's always room for the reader in the happy family". (I returned to that a couple of years later, when I called my first band The Happy Family.)

Well, last night I found a website called TV and Radio Bits which, with admirable thoroughness, displays covers of the Radio Times throughout its history. I started in 1960 and followed the magazine's front page designs and featured shows down to 2006. It was a bit like seeing my whole life pass before me -- or, rather, parts of my life, because I spent big chunks of time outside the UK.

I don't remember much before about 1966. That's when I come onstream as someone who's aware of TV shows, cultural trends and design. Dr Who, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and chat show host Simon Dee (I think I actually pinned this dandyesque picture up on the side of a crate in our wine cellar at 6 Ainslie Place, Edinburgh) marked my life in the year or two before my family headed off to live under the colonels in then-fascist Greece. (Another influence on my Happy Family album, which concerns the assassination of a fascist dictator.)

In late 1969, as Robin Carmody (a Click Opera reader, as it happens) explains in his thorough guide to the history of the Radio Times, a new editor, 29 year-old Geoffrey Cannon, gave the Radio Times what I think of as its definitive look: a distinctive logo in the form of a black, fancy type flourish for the title, complemented by clear and crisp layouts featuring Franklin Gothic condensed, and reminiscent of the quality advertising and album sleeves of the era. This look continued for fifteen years, and represents, I think, the magazine's best period.

Britain's rightward swing and increasing class differentiation are all too aparent in the 80s, as costume dramas and aristocratic poise dominate the Radio Times cover. Around the time of Band Aid the magazine begins to use other typefaces, seemingly influenced by the more cluttered, post-modern style of Smash Hits. Then begins a terrible decline into visual hell. 1989's Angela Rippon Come Dancing cover looks like Woman's Own. In the early 90s the magazine becomes a supermarket celebrity title. As Carmody explains, this is because Thatcher's broadcasting de-regulation had allowed it to list ITV, cable and satellite shows as well as the traditional, more up-market BBC ones. The result of reaching out to more readers, though, was a certain loss of the magazine's soul. Not only did it lose its identity, it began losing readers (this was the era when any magazine could print TV listings -- they were everywhere).

In the 90s, as computers and the internet took over, I stopped watching TV. (Actually, to be more honest, I specialized my way out: early 90s, porn on Westminster cable and Twin Peaks, mid-90s MTV's The Real World, late 90s Arte via satellite, 00s TV replaced by internet, with occasional glimpses of UK TV in the form of Nathan Barley torrents or The Office DVDs.) I also left the UK to live in Paris. The Radio Times, meanwhile, re-designed its title in an apparent nod to Rolling Stone magazine, featuring endless grotesquely grinning celebrities. Charity-friendly comedian Lenny Henry became as unavoidable on the cover of the Radio Times as Oasis were on the front of the NME. The magazine's type got cluttered and garish, mixing styles and weights, adding drop shadow, random italicization and lots of "exclusive", "free" and "special" flashes. Like a whole new generation of British magazines (Q, Mojo and Heat, for instance), The Radio Times looked more American than British. The predominant theme of the 90s in the UK is all too clear from these covers: product formats are endlessly rejigged according to the requirements of a ruthless form of Thatcherite-Darwinian ultra-marketing. This continues under Blair.

The visual nadir for the Radio Times comes in 2001, when the magazine switches to Gill Sans and starts to look like an in-flight magazine or in-house corporate title. From that point on, I no longer care. There's no longer the slightest connection to the Britain I grew up in. I'm elsewhere, anyway. My own country's core narrative has become an irrelevance, a book I haven't read, a show I haven't watched. I wouldn't even bother to write scathing sociology about it; waste of bile, mate.