Let Me In*

Shortly after moving to London there was a knock at our door. It was a man with a clipboard. “Do you have a TV?” he asked. Why yes, we did. He asked to see it, showing me ID. Turns out he wasn’t just a nosy man with a clipboard, but an Enforcement Officer whose job it was to check if we had a licence for the telly sitting not-so-innocently on a stand in our living room.

Yes, a licence — as if we took it out for a drive every once in a while, bored that it sat there all day.

I showed the man in, whereupon he took notes, then issued me a warning that if I didn’t obtain said licence I would be fined; and if I didn’t pay the fine, I could be jailed. Call it a serious moving pictures violation.

It sounded like a bad joke, but I held my tongue, signed the form offered to me, and called my wife, whose job it generally is to make sure I haven’t done something stupid. To cut a long story short, a licence was quickly obtained and I didn’t end up behind the bars, where I could’ve watched TV for free but probably would’ve had to negotiate with large scary men for the remote.

Americans are often mystified if not appalled to learn the curious fact that in the UK you are required to pay an annual amount to watch television. Currently the licence fee is £145.50, though they cut you a break if it’s black & white, the younger clerks doubtless wondering what “black and white” even means.

It’s half price if you’re blind, perhaps from having watched too much of what the British call the goggle-box when they’re not calling it the telly, and free once you hit 75.

The licence covers any and all sets in a household, including computers used as one. Technically what you’re paying for is the right to watch or record live broadcasts. For a long time you could get take advantage of the BBC’s iPlayer service, whereby you could tune in after a programme had been aired, no charge, but they closed that loophole last year.

The money pays to run the British Broadcasting Service, which famously does not have commercials (except for itself, and they run plenty of those). And no, you can’t use not watching any of the BBC channels as an excuse. They’re quite firm on that point.

How do they know if you have a TV?

They don’t. They simply assume that everybody does, and employ a contractor to send thousands of men and women with clipboards across the land to check up on everybody. If their database shows an address without a licence, you’re automatically on their ‘naughty’ list.

Until recently the shop where you bought your set would file a report. Big Brother has since withdrawn that arm of enforcement.

The interesting thing is, Enforcement Officers do not have a right to go into your house. Like a vampire, they must be invited in.

After the watershed

Even then, they either have to catch you in the act of watching, say, EastEnders (a long-running soap opera notorious for being filled with miserable if fascinating characters), or get you to sign a document admitting the crime of watching EastEnders, to get you in hot water.

You’re then given the choice to pay up, or else. People really have gone to jail for choosing ‘or else’.

Most people let them in, because they think they have to. If, however, you are aware of your rights, you can — in the politest possible terms of course — tell them to get lost. It’s then their job to prove you’re watching.

Traditionally one of the great British bogeymen is the TV Van Man: hired by the company to silently prowl the neighbourhood using top secret technology, antenna tuned for lawbreakers. Though they exist, they are vastly outnumbered by glowing screens across the land, so chances of being caught have always been vanishingly small.

It’s said they’re now using more modern means of detection, particularly in this day of online viewing. Who knows. For the most part they rely on people incriminating themselves, and being persuaded by the countless stern letters serving dire notice about landing in court.

If I’ve painted the picture of a nation of us -vs- them, the viewing public trying mightily to evade the TV police, a correction is in order: most people pay up and don’t think twice, perhaps grumbling at yet another bill, but proud of the BBC, whose output includes some truly world class radio, along with all those great nature documentaries.

They’re counting on a feeling familiar to any fan of Star Trek: resistance is futile.

*Much as I dislike a title which requires an explanation…