Few modern devices have been criticized so widely as television. TV is charged with corrupting the intellect of the populace, skewing elections, and training young children to be cold-hearted warriors. It is therefore almost a relief that Swift takes such a simple and direct approach to TV. Television exists for his characters as a wedge that modern times have driven between parents and children. A related problem for Swift's characters, particularly Harry Beech in Out of This World, is that television has evolved from a medium that conveys reality to one that confers reality.
In Shuttlecock, Prentis complains that his children avoid the natural world by burying themselves inside the world of TV. Of even greater significance, the boys replace their male role model (their father) with a fictitious one (the Bionic Man). This substitution naturally arouses Prentis' jealousy -- there is no way to compete with a bionic man for the respect of two young boys. For Sophie in Out of This World the problem is much the same: "Look at them, watching TV, while I watch them, a bringer of bad news, poised in the doorway. Cookies and milk. My angels. They're sipping in the pictures. Lapping up the universe. Who needs a mother any more?" (p. 27).
Part of Sophie's revulsion for television is by her jealousy of the camera. Her father Harry is a photojournalist and his career has taken him away from family, from friends, and from Sophie. "Cameras, though. That's more complicated, isn't it? When every true American child . . . is directing their first home movie at least by the age of fourteen. Watch them [my children] in front of the TV. Lifting the cookies to their mouths without even moving their eyes. You got something to tell us, Mom? To explain? What, now? While we're watching -- " (p.74)
Sophie's husband Joe, however, knows that sometimes parents seek out the convenient barrier of television. His parents bought their first TV in 1953 to watch the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth even though there "was nothing to stop us catching a bus to Westminster and watching the real thing. But I think I knew even then that the real reason for getting that TV was to fill the gap between them and me." (p.151) People have stopped experiencing reality in order to let television experience it for them. Joe's childhood observations qualify him to criticize the television in his own house, "Even today . . . I can't look at a TV without feeling a twinge of rivalry." (p. 151) Even so, Joe does not get rid of his family TV because he knows, as Harry knows, that while it sacrifices experience it allows the entire world to keep in touch with events. Television is a technological evil with a higher purpose.
Television has grown in stature to such an extent that it has outgrown mere reporting. It now confers reality on events. "It goes without saying," says Harry, "that a task force of cameras should accompany the Task Force to the Falklands. As if without them it could not take place." (p.189) Harry attributes much of the blame for this to the narcissistic impulse in people, "Not to be watched. Isn't that a greater fear than the fear of being watched?" (p.189)
Television as chronicler, television as reporter, television as intruder.
Television is all of these things in Graham Swift's world. It has become both the creator and curator of events. And it has tragically evolved from a family barrier used by parents to a barrier employed by their children. The children in Swift's novels often get the final say, as the past progresses towards the future and the generation gap widens.