TV: dory-hunky or dumbsilly?

Posted by
The Roald Dahl Museum
Posted on
11:00am, 12th November
Charlie, Museum
Mike Teavee by Quentin Blake

Ahead of the Roald Dahl Museum’s Mike Teavee weekend on Nov15 and 16, we look at Roald Dahl's thoughts on TV

Mike Teavee is the telly-obsessed and rather rude Golden Ticket winner from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Like the other children in the factory (Charlie excluded of course), it was apparent that Willy Wonka had little respect for Mike’s self-obsessed and surly nature influenced by his constant TV watching.

When Mike Teavee was taken from the Television Room after disobeying the rules and ‘sending himself by television’, the Oompa-Loompas began a song about the dangers of television:

“It rots the senses in the head!
It kills imagination dead!
It clogs and clutters up the mind!
It makes a child so dull and blind
He can no longer understand
A fantasy, a fairyland!
His brain becomes as soft as cheese!
His powers of thinking rust and freeze!
He cannot think – he only sees!”

Clearly they were not fans of the box, and thought that it turned children’s brains to mush. But what did Roald Dahl think of TV? Was the Oompa-Loompa’s song just a way of emphasising the moral of the story, or did it reflect Roald Dahl’s own beliefs? A little look into the Museum’s archive gives us some insights....

Roald Dahl often made the point that too much TV is bad for children, a viewpoint that was perhaps influenced by his own television-free childhood. In an article titled Books Remembered written by Roald Dahl in 1990, he talks about the absence of the TV and radio in his home growing up, and how, on the cold winter nights, children would have to occupy themselves with reading or being read to. Two years previously, in an article for the Sunday Times, he stated that

“…nowadays the dreaded television box has stolen practically all the reading time of young people.”

But did he think this was a dangerous development? We can see that he did when we look at his notes for a speech he made at Cambridge Union in 1979. The motion: Is television undermining the arts? Roald Dahl’s argument was clear; TV doesn’t harm the established artist or institution, but is damaging the minds of the next generation of would-be geniuses. He uses various examples to great effect, illustrating what would have happened to past artists if TV had been around during their childhoods:

“Imagine for a moment that when Mozart was three and just starting harpsichord lessons at home, in 1759, he had television in the house, and today’s programmes. If that were so, then I contend that the young Mozart would have been sucked toward the box and mesmerised by it just as all modern children are. “Come along, Wolfgang!” his father would shout, “Get way from that b***dy box and let’s practice!”
“Not now, dad,” the little bleeder would shout back, “I’m watching Top of the Pops!””

What’s interesting is that we can see his attitude to television change over time. In another interview made in 1989, after the publication of Matilda, Roald Dahl talks about how his views on TV have altered. He recognises that there are some benefits to watching television such as its educational value.

“And so I’m not as against it as I was 25 years ago when I wrote Charlie, and had a great harangue against it, and Mike Teavee, and go and throw your television set out the window and all that sort of thing. No, I’ve changed a lot since then…”

However he was consistently against one thing: too much television. Roald Dahl noted that more time in front of the TV meant less time for reading and thought that it was vitally important to create avid readers from an early age.  A letter Roald Dahl wrote to schoolchildren in 1985 sums this up:

“…with luck you will become a reader of books for the rest of your life. An adult reader of books has a terrific advantage over the non-reader. Sooner or later, all of you are going to suffer some kind of loneliness or illness, and the comfort you will get from being a ‘book reader’ as opposed to just a silly television watcher will be enormous.”

Modern interpretations of the story including the new Charlie and the Chocolate Factory musical and the 2005 Tim Burton film have reinvented the character as a computer-loving, video game-addicted child, with the same pitfalls in his character; a reflection of the growing role of, and concern about, the internet and cyber world in children’s lives today. What would Roald Dahl have thought this new technology? Maybe he would have come to appreciate it’s educational role in time.

So throwing our telly (or computer) out of the window might be a bit drastic, but perhaps we should switch it off from time to time and reach for the bookcase instead…

Join the Roald Dahl Museum for their Mike Teavee Weekend on Saturday 15 and Sunday 16 November 2014.


Mike Teavee Weekend events