Not having grown up with television, my family was unaccustomed to sitting passively in front of the Goggle Box. So when we moved to America and acquired our first TV set, my parents treated it like an opinionated and rather exasperating guest: they listened politely for a while, then began to argue with it. Not for us the hushed murmurs of a silent family gathered as if in worship in front of a blaring telescreen. Mum and Dad would frequently talk back to it, and so, inevitably, did we.
As we turned on the TV on a Saturday night to wait impatiently for Sherlock Holmes (“Warlock,” my sister called it, with Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson), my Dad would make comments throughout the last few minutes of The Lawrence Welk Show that preceded it, referring to its geriatric audience as “the Geritol set,” after the ads for the product that sponsored the show. Mum and Dad regularly told prevaricating politicians and tiresome talk show hosts to stuff it and in so doing, taught us to treat it with a healthy irreverence. The only exception was when a James Bond film was playing.
In the 1970s I was newly sensitized to the rampant sexism in the mass media, first exemplified for me by the infuriating regularity with which Penny, my favorite character in Lost in Space, was overshadowed by her kid brother Will. When I realized that Pennie never starred in an episode, but always seemed to get lost or abducted by aliens so that cocky little Will could rescue her, I was outraged, and told the television so, along with everyone else in the room. My father usually tolerated my tirades (or tuned them out, more likely), but as he settled down to enjoy the super-cool Bond, who he knew would provoke an predictable stream of criticism from me, he would warn me pre-emptively that he wanted not a word of running commentary, and that if I couldn’t oblige I had better leave the room. I would do so, ungraciously, no doubt, muttering that I didn’t want to see that male chauvinist pig anyway.
One of the first things we learned about American TV was that the advertisements were longer and more frequent than the adverts in Britain, and that they were aired at a significantly higher volume than the regular programming. No remote control devices in those days, not until the late 1970s/early 1980s; as soon as the ads came on, one of us had to dart over to the television set and turn down the volume knob, another task that kept us active as viewers. But in my last year of college a technological breakthrough changed all that, thanks to Andrew’s younger brother Dan.
Dan was a tech wizard; there was nothing he couldn’t put together, from engines to electronics, hardware and software alike. As a teen, he had already set the house on fire with his homemade fireworks and made a pair of windscreen-wiper sunglasses for rainy days. But the master stroke of genius was his new invention: the Blab-Off.
Amazingly simple but brilliantly effective, the Blab-Off was a little box that attached to the television set with a cable and allowed us to mute the sound with a simple on-off switch. Dan had already made one for his own set, to our deep admiration, and when it was our turn to contribute a home improvement project to the college co-op house we lived in, he gave us the parts and the simple instructions to make our own. With what triumph we shut off the volume, and watched gleefully as the salesman on the screen opened and shut his mouth helplessly, like a fish gasping for air.
Although we now have a remote control device (or three), I still scramble to press Mute, not only because my reflexes are slower (although they are) or because there is such a proliferation of remotes for the various machines that I can’t remember which knob to press, but because I am conditioned to react like a Pavlovian dog when I hear the tell-tale tones of a TV ad: my blood pressure rises and I reach for the Blab-Off. Blissful silence, and I breathe a deep sigh of relief.