101 Things Brum Gave The World. No. 78: The sound of silence
I’ve got something I need to tell you about Birmingham. It’ll be legend…
– wait for it –
I need to tell you about Birmingham and how it invented the dramatic pause. Well, the one they have on the telly anyway.
Rhetoricians have always known that the pause is a powerful thing: it’s the white space of oratory design. Just as a graphic designer needs to balance harmony and discord to create, and then play, with tension on the page, so too the public speaker uses silence, the pause, as negative space to better punctuate their message.
In broadcasting one cannot be quiet. Radio folk talk of ‘dead air’ – silence in other words, a moment when no one is speaking, no music is playing, nothing is being advertised. The one thing a radio broadcaster can never have on their show is dead air because the moment that you are silent is the moment that you lose your audience. Dead air suggests that the receiver has lost signal from the broadcaster. Perhaps the radio needs to be retuned, or perhaps the station is off air – whatever it is it’s time to touch that dial. On most stations there is an ‘emergency tape’ (a copy of an M People record) that will kick in automatically should quiet pervade for too long.
When the BBC started to broadcast television, they essentially showed radio with pictures. The techniques of broadcasting had been shaped on the radio, and everyone who worked in television had worked on radio, so television was merely radio remediated with an extra quality: the picture. It took 70 years for the innovation that changed everything: it took 70 years for the invention of a broadcast silence.
It took Brummies, of course, to take the big risks and to bring about these changes: it took a Brummie mindset to realise that with a picture you could sustain a silence in your work because the audience could see that you were still there. This was intentional silence, not dead air: it took Brummies to bring the art of public speaking back to mass entertainment and they did that when they invented the silence.
I can tell you how they did it. I’ve got the answer here in my hand…
…but we don’t want to give you that.
Will you read on, or take the answer? You’re going to play!
Silence has enabled television to create new moments of tension. Silence has enabled television to tease and titillate the audience, tickling them somewhere special to hold them back for a few moments. I’ll tell you all about it…
…after the break.
End of Part 1
Birmingham’s place in the pantheon of advertising doesn’t really come from the many things we’ve invented: by the time advertising became an artform, too many of our discoveries had become generic. Our big brands have never really played on their roots: unlike the way Apple uses California you can’t exactly see Birmingham used as a stamp of quality or cool. Cadbury’s honourable exception is the Bournville brand of plain chocolate, but you don’t see Newey and Eyre using ‘designed in Marston Green’ on the packaging of lightbulbs. Even Baguette Du Monde pretends to be French.
No, we’re more usually used to convey a particular type of enthusiastic gaucheness: “anything for you cupcake” says some chap in a hotel advert, “we wanna be tugethur” says Mark Williams. This would be worth further investigation were we not flummoxed by the appearance of Williams (also the ‘running Brummie dad’ in the Fast Show) into spending all of our time wondering why the main ginger kid in Harry Potter has a London accent when all the rest of his family are clearly from Great Barr.
No, our main contribution to advertising seems to be dyslexic rude words, or other methods to get your attention by shock. Many tried to make punk work in advertising, but it took Balsall Heath’s own hirsute Don Draper, Trevor Beattie to invent the FCUK T-shirt, and also the ironic sexism of the ‘Hello Boys’ Wonderbra ads.
Before the break we were about to find out how Birmingham had invented the broadcast silence – the dramatic pause – and so changed the way we watch TV forever.
Well, you see it was Who Wants To Be a Millionaire that brought the silence to your television, and that international format comes from round here (not London as you might have thought). Produced by Celador, a company which had previously produced star vehicles for its Acock’s Green-born founder Jasper Carrott, Millionaire was created by the current Don of the Shelbies: Peaky Blinders show-runner and Small Heathen, Steven Knight.
We should also mention that Chris Tarrant, the show’s UK presenter, and the format’s original and template host, is a powerhouse of Midlands broadcasting. After being educated at the University of Birmingham, Tarrant fronted local TV news here in the Second City before he found his true calling as a broadcasting innovator, a test pilot for his craft. Firstly he pushed the boundaries of children’s television on Birmingham based Tiswas, then he moved on to front an adaptation of top Brummie board game Cluedo before finally realising his destiny as the strong silent type, the quizmaster of Millionaire.
Who Wants To Be a Millionaire set the tone for most post-millennial game shows: swooshing lights, chrome sets, but most of all the idea of a sadistic yet avuncular host who will just suddenly freeze and stare at contestants, unblinking, unmoving, and unspeaking leaving them to sweat in the stew of their own answers, their own fate, before leaping up to bear-hug them when the victory music sting crashes in and the lighting mood changes up to success. Then presumably it’s all down to The Garrison Tavern for a pint.
And we owe it all to Birmingham.
(Commercial break by Jon Bounds)
You can order the full 101 Things Birmingham Gave The World Book a wonderful tome that will sit alongside Joseph Priestley’s 1782 An History of the Corruptions of Christianity, Eddie Fewtrell’s King of Clubs or some of Alton Douglas’s books of photocopied 50s bus tickets. Buy now, online, or at Newman Bros Coffin Works, BMAG, mac, Town Hall etc.