Flora Watkins

Didn’t have a Sky dish? You’re probably middle class too

It had nothing to do with cost

  • From Spectator Life
A rather smart looking roof with a satellite dish (iStock)

As any child of the 1980s could tell you, whether your house had a Sky dish had nothing to do with income. The launch of BSkyB in 1989 – when Rishi Sunak was eight and I was 10 – was greeted with horror by our middle-class professional parents, just as with their parent’s generation when that ghastly ITV began broadcasting. Crudely, Sky was common. It was council house – like single parents (still a rarity in my native Suffolk in the 1980s), fish fingers and the Sun. Our route to primary school took us through the council estate where satellite dishes sprouted as quickly as green wellies in the rain in the old part of the village. 

None of the pretty period houses in the village were sullied by a Sky dish

‘Why can’t we get one?’ my siblings and I would ask again and again, always receiving the same answer: ‘It’s too expensive’. This was most unsatisfactory; as unconvincing as the explanation my mother delivered when I demanded to know why Top of the Pops never played ‘Relax’ by Frankie Goes to Hollywood during the five weeks it was number one. Kids who didn’t have cars had Sky. Kids whose houses were devoid of books, who’d never even been to London on the train had Sky. None of the pretty period houses in the village were sullied by a Sky dish – or if they were, they were down a sufficiently long drive to get away with it. 

All we were allowed, as the children of two teachers, was half-an-hour of television when we got in from school – and even that was policed. Blue Peter or Record Breakers: OK. Grange Hill: definitely not OK. Grange Hill was banned in our house, as was Eastenders – for the same reasons, I suspect, that Sky wasn’t welcome. It was council house TV, with nasty, gritty storylines involving teenage pregnancy and alcoholism. Perhaps our mothers were concerned that we could, in some sort of osmotic way, get pregnant simply by hearing the DOOF DOOF drumbeats of the Eastenders theme tune.

The 1980s and its television was a country so foreign that L.P. Hartley would have struggled to locate it on a map. Telly, in middle class households, was something to be rationed (inversely, interestingly, to the amount of sugar we were allowed). The BBC children’s programme, Why Don’t You embodied this idea, rejoicing in the full title, Why Don’t You Switch Off Your TV And Go And Do Something Less Boring Instead

Breakfast telly was in relative infancy. The Test Card was still going strong and television shut down completely at night. It’s Awfully Bad for Your Eyes, Darling (the title of a 1970s BBC sitcom penned by Jilly Cooper) was something we heard a lot. There might be a bit of Bagpuss or Pigeon Street for the pre-schoolers and a couple of suitable programmes each afternoon for older children, who’d then have to switch the gogglebox off, lest they became square-eyed. Screens weren’t the panacea, the third parent that they are now. 

In the best Larkin tradition, I am deepening the coastal shelf with my own children. Their television consumption would appal my late mother, but I’ve told my sons that they can’t have a games console until they’ve passed their Grade 3 brass exams. Apart from The Simpsons, I don’t think we missed out on much, not having Sky. Most of the early programming (and I had to Google it, it was so unmemorable) was crap. WWF wrestling, The Sullivans or Falcon Crest, anyone? 

It was only when Sky started filching all the sports rights that the middle classes began to soften their stance. Curiously, once the rugby went to Sky, my father performed a U-turn so screeching as to rival anything Sir Keir Starmer has managed since becoming Labour leader. As the Wykehamist son of a GP who had to find the fees for Winchester in full (the young Rishi having failed to get a scholarship), he will need to do a lot better than missing out on Sky to best Keir ‘DID I MENTION MY DAD WAS A TOOL MAKER?’ Starmer in the sociological race-to-the-bottom.