On Saturday I had a go at a widely reviled piece of television anti-criticism from the Guardian‘s Sam Wollaston. It was venting more than anything else, but a lot of people seemed to agree. I thought that would be an end to it but, like a neural 10 O’Clock Live, the debate about what TV criticism is keeps being recommissioned in my mind for no readily apparent reason. So here’s some more of it.
Landing the TV hack’s plum role and then flagrantly taking the piss is nothing new. Richard Ingrams did the first anti-critic stint for the Spectator in 1980s. Armed with only a malfunctioning black-and-white portable and a dogged refusal to accept the medium’s legitimacy on any terms, he delighted reactionaries with his un-reviews, doing for last night’s Antiques Roadshow what Hunter S Thompson did for the Mint 400 desert motorbike race, with a robust ruby port instead of mescalin. His apotheosis was a review of a documentary solely via what he could make out of the muffled soundtrack emanating from the telly in the room next door to him in a Welsh motel. He made his point, but once he’d made it, it stayed made. This sort of thing wasn’t a going concern.
Very much a going concern today is the live blog. Brought into the TV sphere four years ago by the Guardian to cover The Apprentice, this as-it-happens rolling wall of first-person point and ponder has been hailed as the internet’s own, unique critical format. It certainly gets the page impressions in, but its other merits are harder to spot.
It mimics the way “ordinary folk” discuss telly on the net, of course, so that off-putting air of superiority that we’re told hangs over conventional TV criticism is dispersed from the start. But it’s expected that ordinary folk will choose the Guardian‘s blog over those of other ordinary folk, and the imprimatur of the trained journalist must be that deciding factor. That person you see making dodgy fat jokes, being distracted by the cat and overdoing the Lidl Sancerre isn’t some line manager thinking of pulling a sickie tomorrow, but one of Fleet Street’s finest. Therefore their half-formed thoughts, though they may be indistinguishable from the line manager’s, are inherently more worthy of your attention, just because. It’s an exercise in pulling rank.
The live blog’s chief and only virtue is instantaneousness. (I’ll admit I’m a little in awe of the prodigious feats of touch typing involved, leaving my Jeff-Goldblum-in-The-Fly freestyle technique for dead.) It purports to tackle modern TV on its own frenetic terms, but the live blog’s ostentatious lack of polish, and sometimes effort, belies a low opinion of its quarry that may have journeyed further than Ingrams’ Spectator stunts, but has arrived at what looks like the same supercilious motel.
Well, it’s easy to itemise the bad, but what’s a “good” TV review? It’s not easy to say for sure, and this difficulty makes defence of the bad stuff easier. Surely, the line goes, you’re not advocating some sort of quasi-academic elitist approach? TV’s a populist affair, it connects with people, so it’s only right that a critic should talk and think like your average bloke, with your average bloke’s vocab and your average bloke’s complete lack of interest in the mechanics of the 1982 ITV franchise renewal. Suddenly it’s a snobbery issue, and you need to choose sides fast. Are you an unconscionably humourless egghead mired in abstruse theory or a chucklesome man of the people launching earthy bon mots from the settee? Leavis or Butthead? It would be a cheap trick even if it was honestly meant. The smart reviewer starts wondering why he bothers.
Possibly the smartest reviewer of the lot was the Financial Times‘ TC Worsley, who built intricate 1,000-word mini-lectures around the week’s viewing in the 1960s, creating a themed critique of the medium and its future as a whole. A theatre man, Worsley was happiest when sizing up a BBC adaptation of Murder in the Cathedral, but he gave equal time and consideration to the medium’s popular heft, like the small screen career of Roy Kinnear (he rightly felt the BBC was wringing a good man dry).
Worsley wouldn’t sit right these days – TV’s far too sprawling and has too much history for a critic to get usefully hung up on its direction as a whole, and the subs would have a word about his fondness of the term “banausic”. But he was part of a television landscape that also featured Double Your Money, Opportunity Knocks and Noele Gordon’s Lunch Box. If the FT of then operated on today’s principles it would take one look at the ITV schedules and send for Arthur Mullard.
On a 1967 Late Night Line-Up, Arthur Askey blithely wondered out loud what function TV reviews performed. Unlike their film and music counterparts, they couldn’t act as barometers enabling the punter to choose whether to sample the work under examination or not, as the reviews appeared the day after the programme had gone out. And assuming the viewer’s memory worked reasonably well, who wanted an opinionated reminder of some entertainment they were (in those days) most likely never to see again? It was a dismissal comfortably nestling in the practical, down-to-Earth camp, painting the critic as an irrelevant hanger-on with pretensions to expertise.
A few days later, Observer critic George Melly refuted it thus:
“What I think to be our serious purpose is to map out the currents under the surface of the medium. To watch for exploitation, talking down, cretinisation, hidden pressures, convenient censorship, and to praise any signs of courage, imagination, or vision to the best of our ability. I believe that TV as a medium is of great importance. It has influenced almost everybody already, and it has hardly started yet. The TV critic, far and above his efforts to communicate his pleasure in this play or dislike of that documentary is, or should be, a kind of watchdog. The medium, in both senses of the word, needs watching. I thang yew!”
That’ll do for me, I think. Now, what’s the deal with Greg Wallace’s nostrils?