Stooky Bill and the Invention of Television
On this day in 1924, “Stooky Bill” became a sort of star of a sort of version of television.
Transmitted as an image from John Logie Baird’s laboratory in Hastings, “Stooky Bill” was chosen for TV stardom because real human beings were too nuanced in their features and did not (as yet) translate as recognisable characters when broadcast. Stooky on the other hand was garishly painted and crudely defined and therefore did very nicely.
The chain of command was quite simple and straightforward in Stooky’s day. There weren’t the focus groups, the casting directors, the call backs, the legal team, the various drafters and enforcers of contracts. There was just Stooky and his boss – Mr Baird. According to those who knew (or rather recognised and avoided) John Logie Baird during his time in Hastings, Baird seemed himself far less a real person than a walking talking cartoon of a mad scientist, a lonely mad-haired wierdo from whose basement emerges loud noises and unappetising smells. Yet Stooky worked well with Baird and apparently there was never a cross word between them. In light of what Baird ended up doing to Stooky, this seems all the more remarkable and impressive.
For the original Stooky is no longer with us. The extreme heat involved in lighting Stooky Bill resulted in the rapid destruction of his face. This image is but a replica of the character who was televised on October 2nd 1924. Stooky Bill is a sense, therefore, a martyr to television. The first person to undergo trial by television. The first person to perish on behalf of this particular medium.
Stooky’s most impressive televisual skill (according to those who worked with him) was his sheer crass awfulness – his glaring obviousness. His rejection of nuanced expression and emotional ambiguity and his full throated embrace of the most basic forms of expression made him the ideal representative of television. The only important thing about Stooky is that when he was on television – everybody knew it was Stooky.
His was one of the most fundamental and yet flimsy forms of entertainment – the entertainment of unalloyed recognition. Now a very pompous cultural reactionary would use poor Stooky to make a depressing judgement on the medium of television as a whole. Sub-Adorno inflected misanthropy is a register that comes all too easily and (oddly enough) happily to me – so I’d better stop now.