I want my BBC!
I t began with the all-too conventional knock at the door, the second time this morning I had been woken up. Earlier I had gone back to bed, musing on a culture that finds 8:00 a.m. a perfectly acceptable hour to come in and read the meter. (At least this month I knew where to find the meter, so I felt I'd made some progress.) I wasn't in the best of moods when I crawled out of the covers to answer this second knock. A grey-haired matron in a gray metallic jacket and gray pants: what's she collecting for? "Do you have a television license?" she asks. "Yes, thanks," I replied a bit groggily with a shrug and a wry I-gave-at-the-[post]-office smile. I started to shut the door, and it was then that she flashed her badge. The Television Licensing Bureau!
"I have to ask you a few questions," she said sternly, pulling out a pencil and some official-looking leaflets. "You do own a television set?" "Yes"--why does that answer make me feel a bit guilty? "When was the last time you watched it?" I wonder, Neilsen ratings with a badge? "About a week ago," I said. It hardly sounded convincing, even to me--in truth it had probably been closer to two weeks, but I didn't want to seem less than credible. She: "You're busy." It was an accusation. "Yes." (Honest, officer, those Nick-at-Nite binges were a thing of the past. I've been on the wagon ever since I've been in England. Honest.) She looks me in the eye, and I'm definitely beginning to wish I were wearing something other than sleepwear.
"So your TV set is working?" "Yes." "And it is hooked up?" "Yes." "You do know you're supposed to have a license?" Yes, I have one. Really. "And you're sure it's for this address?" Yes. "May I see it?" Yes, sure, it's right here, in with all these papers somewhere. I'm sorry, I thought it was in this stack. Gulp. "Would you like to come in?" I ask. I'm sorry, it may take me just a second to put my hands on it. She comes just inside the door as I'm shuffling through papers. Sorry, I seem to be a bit disorganized today. Sorry, I didn't realize I might have to show it to someone. Sorry, I think it may be in the other room. "You're supposed to have it ready to show," she says: another accusation. Sorry. With each "sorry" my anxiety level ratchets up a notch, till by now I know I'm looking very, very guilty. I know it's here somewhere!
She's looking around the little hall room, her eye traveling from stack of papers to stack of papers, from Coke can to Coke can. Do I sense a little relenting on her part? "Perhaps you'd just like to mail it in?" she asks; "I think that would save us both time." "Yes," much relieved, "yes, thanks," I'm home free. The good cop emerges. "I'll give you an envelope, and you don't even need a stamp." Yes, thanks. Thank you. I appreciated it. "I just have to fill in these forms, for you to mail in with the license. May I sit at your nice desk?" Sure. She had actually said "nice desk."
She fills in my name, address, then her initials under the phrase, "Enquiry Officer." "Now I just have to read you this statement, and you have to swear that you understand your rights: you realize that anything you say can be used against you in a court of law. . . . You are telling the truth, right?-- Then you have nothing to fear." She reads me the statement: "CAUTION: You do not have to say anything. But it may harm your defense if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely o in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence. Do you understand?"
I'm beginning to understand. Now we are back in the same litany of questions, only this time she's taking down my answers, and the tone turns to interrogation. Yes, I do have a TV set. Yes, it is in working order. Yes, I admit that I have watched as recently as a week ago. VCR? Yes. "But you don't use your set only for VCR?" No. "Then you have to have a license. If you said yes to that one we would have been okay. Now, color or black and white?" Color. "Cable?" No. "Satellite?" No. (For this they fear I will perjure myself?) How many channels? I pause, the pressure getting to me. She prompts: "Four?" Yes. "And when did you get your television license?" September. I clutch. What if it was not September, but late August? Can I really swear it was September? What if I say September, and then when I find the license it reads August? And what about the trash I took out last night? Could I possibly have thrown the license out? What if it accidentally fell from the pile of papers in the hall into the trash can by the kitchen sink? "It is your set?'' she asks. I pause, she probes: "You do own the television set?" Well, sort of. Well, it's kind of this loose arrangement, you see it kind of belongs to the program I work for, and people who are in charge of the program just kind of pass it down from year to year, so nobody really owns it, and I have it for the year, but I will pass it on to the next. . . . The interrogating voice hardens, sharpens, cuts through: "Now tell me, Ms. Davidson, when did you first start watching your TV?"
The interview is over. She hands me the forms to sign, and I'm surprised that everything she has written in her handwriting is in the first person as if I'd written it. "Yes, I bought a license in September, and I will mail it in. . . . I first watched television in September." I sign these words as mine. Under the category, occupation, she/I have written "employed." As I read over my confession, something jogs deep within me and I just can't help blurting out: "Diana's funeral! That's when it was. That was the first thing I watched." "I don't remember when that was," the officer replies, but she does take the sheet back and writes on it in big block letters, "DIANA'S FUNERAL." Suddenly she's gone, and I'm on my way to the post office with my TV license in my hand; of course it came out of hiding the moment she left, and, oh joy, it does read September. As I walk to the P.O., I read the huge black letters on the back of my copy of the confession: "PLEASE READ THESE NOTES, THEY ARE VERY IMPORTANT: You could not show us a valid TV license at the time of this visit and we warned you that you may be liable to prosecution under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949. . . . PLEASE NOTE: The Enquiry Officer who conducted this interview does not have the authority to give you time to pay. Even if you purchase the appropriate license, you may still be prosecuted for the offense."
Will the Television License Bureau accept my confession and spare me the thousand-pound fine? Will the Kenyon-Exeter Program avoid an international scandal? Have I managed to evade the television authorities? And will I get my papers in better order? "STAY TUNED."
Adele Davidson, associate professor of English, is this year's resident director of the Kenyon-Exeter Program.
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