About a year ago, I met Stephen Moffat at the Edinburgh TV Festival. Well, I say "met". It was more of a case that I saw him in a certain place and resolved to shoehorn myself over in that direction. While Moffat has a faithful reserve army of fanboys for his work on Doctor Who and Sherlock, when I summoned up the blood to talk to him, it wasn't the time traveller or the high-functioning Zone 1 resident I wanted to talk about.
Before becoming the superstar scribe he is now, Moffat wrote a series called The Press Gang which ran from 1989 to 1993, starring Saffy Monsoon and the concierge from Hotel Babylon. The show revolved around a newspaper for and by young people called The Junior Gazette, and I was always struck by what a terrific idea this was in a whole host of ways. In the time that has elapsed since, I've been a youth worker helping young people set up all kinds of different community groups, including newsletters. Simply put, Steven Moffat had a massive effect on how I've lived my life.
Another similar influence was, odd as it may seem to be, Henry Kelly. It was watching him presenting the oft-spoofed intercontinental quiz Going For Gold when the notion crystallised that there was a career of sorts to be had in media, knowing facts and rampant Europhilia. Several years later, as a long-time quizzer who had worked as the sole Irishman in Brussels with a group of multinational journalists, I realised The Kelly Prophecy had been fulfilled. In later years, Hawkeye Pierce from M*A*S*H* held enormous sway over my teenage self. I'm also more like this guy than I'd care to admit.
TV may be primarily a means of entertainment, but its influence in shaping views can't be underestimated. It's a subtlety pervasive and effective way of changing social views, precisely because of its familiarity and entertainment value. As I was writing this, I asked some friends and colleagues, both in the flesh and online, if they had any TV show that has shaped the way they think, the things they do or the way they do them. The responses were fascinating.
A lot of them I could personally identify with. The West Wing came up a number of times for making people think more about politics and public service. It wasn't the only show that influenced vocations: a lawyer friend of mine cited Boston Legal's Alan Shore as a major reason he studied law. Both comedian and journalist friends said that Brass Eye irrevocably shaped the way they look at the media, while The Daily Show has showed the power of smart and funny in a world of oft-duplicitous news media. Another knew he wanted to be a hack after watching Lou Grant.
In what has turned out to be a very environmental and animal conscious generation (Captain Planet and The Animals of Farthing Wood anyone?), it's unsurprising that David Attenborough documentaries were another popular influence, credited with broadening a great many horizons. One friend who cited Attenborough as an idol also recalled the effect a QED report on animal cruelty in a zoo in Monaco, saying it was the first time she realised what a cruel place the world could be. Now in her twenties, she's a human rights activist, mitigating that cruelty wherever possible.
Perhaps the most interesting of all the shows I heard cited was cross-border cop drama Due South, its main character Constable Benton Fraser held up as a paragon of manners, morals and an all-round good role model. This is all the more intriguing when you realise that most of the people who mentioned it were tweens when they first saw the show. Who needs to reintroduce the cane when you've got a Mountie?
Some programmes have wider societal effects. It's a well-made point that The Cosby Show was a transformative force not just in America but across the world, as it was the first time a sitcom featured a family that were incidentally black as opposed to the stereotypical pastiche, paving the way for the likes of Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Sister Sister which ended up run of the younger audiences' milll. In the UK, Desmond's had a similar effect, it being a mainstream sitcom about an immigrant family. There's a direct line to be drawn between shows like these and the ebbing away of insular attitudes and old-fashioned preconceptions, especially when other elements of everyday life are culturally homogenous. How can you entertain racist notions when you grow up along with this guy?
Soaps too are often a great way of challenging social concerns, with characters regularly facing issues like homosexuality, domestic abuse, mental health, and even euthanasia. And, due to the passive nature of the likes of Coronation Street and Emmerdale, seeing these issues is often a good indicator of the extent to which these issues are accepted, comprehended or even publically mentioned.
Then there are some shows that are more explicit in their role as an agent of social change: programmes like Secret Millionaire, Undercover Boss or Holiday Hijack shine a light and have genuine effects on perception and general awareness of philanthropy, corporate governance and ethical consumerism.
A couple of weeks ago, I talked about the impact of shows like Jersey Shore, and how TV can do so much better. As some of the shows mentioned in this article testify to, it frequently does. Television is very much a "live in the now" business, and short-term hits in ratings, press, controversy and new series can be very profitable. But when it's done right, when TV truly makes an impression, the good reviews will keep coming for decades.