Money Matters

The satellite dish, Britain’s class signifier, becomes obsolete

January 29, 2018
By Edwin Heathcote

The announcement by Sky that all its channels will soon be available online spells the beginning of the end for one of the most controversial architectural add-ons. The satellite dish has become a fixed feature of suburban streetscapes and urban tower blocks, a marker of multichannels and big tellies. And, like almost everything in Britain, it quickly became a cipher for class.

The announcement by Sky that all its channels will soon be available online spells the beginning of the end for one of the most controversial architectural add-ons. The satellite dish has become a fixed feature of suburban streetscapes and urban tower blocks, a marker of multichannels and big tellies. And, like almost everything in Britain, it quickly became a cipher for class.

The satellite dishes spread on walls and rooftops like a fungus, a plague of space-facing mushrooms. This proliferation quickly became synonymous with working class neighbourhoods, an identifier as apparently powerful as a St George’s flag draped in a window, plastic kids’ furniture fading in the front garden and lacy net curtains. The comfortably-off dwelling in conservation areas disdained these plastic pimples and a raft of regulation emerged outlining exactly how, where and under what conditions satellite dishes in genteel areas might be installed.

The middle classes aspired instead to blue heritage plaques, they craved authenticity and history while the working classes just wanted to be entertained. There were compromises and attempts at drag for dishes. New models appeared in a range of camouflage colours, from brick patterns to brutalist concrete beige. Artists began creating concentrations of decorated dishes to express something or other about contemporary society. Czech artist Jakub Geltner’s installations of flocks of dishes on historic buildings proved almost magically jarring, assigning them a virtually organic quality.

The condemnation of satellite dishes by aesthetes, Nimbys and heritage bodies revealed another curious condition, a very British distrust of modernity. Just as Brexit can look like a vote to return to a non-existent golden age sometime in the 1950s, when Britain hadn’t quite completed its decline, the desire to make streets look like the 20th century had never happened remains a particularly British aspiration.

The middle classes have historically attempted to hide their TVs. First in cabinets, then in bedrooms (so the front room can look ascetic), more recently, behind sliding panels in minimal apartments or, in the case of Samsung’s The Frame, disguising itself as an artwork when not in use. The working classes are, meanwhile, perceived to revel in the size of their widescreens. It is a familiar sniping tabloid critique of low-income families that they waste their benefits on massive televisions. Well, what else provides such value and comfort?

There is no pretence here; the TV takes the place of the middle-class fireplace as focus. A family watching TV together is a happy family — one that has spawned a whole culture of British television in itself, from “The Royle Family” to “Gogglebox”. The warmth of these sofa-dwellers basking in the glow of the telly makes the minimal interiors of the middle classes look frigid.

The satellite dish became the external expression of that culture and now it is obsolete. Coming together in front of the telly has been superseded by the age of atomised entertainment, in which we sit in the individual glow of our own tiny devices. Sky will become just another one of those millions of options. But, interestingly, the architectural excrescences are moving from the private home to the public sphere. The plan to make London Europe’s “gigabit city” by installing half a million mini-masts on to the sides of street furniture, lamp posts and buildings to become 5G-ready promises to become the new frontline in urban aesthetics.

Perhaps, however, the new class marker will be the digital detox, the pretence that shunning digital devices induces wellbeing and mindfulness. But a few dishes will remain, defunct disks forlorn in their obsolescence like phone boxes or bootscrapers. The fading plastic legacy of the last golden age of family TV.