I was waiting to go on The Jeremy Vine Show to explain why it was I thought Dave Cameron had done the right thing by evading the drugs question when I got talking to the next guest, an American scientist who has just written a book on the biological effects of TV on the brain. ‘That’s biological,’ he stressed, in case I’d missed the point. ‘Not social.’
What this chap had to say was really quite extraordinary. Of course we all know instinctively that watching TV turns you into a moron. But this chap had the scientific evidence: TV literally makes you fat; it literally makes you stupid; it damages the frontal lobe, especially in young children, which is why no child under three should be allowed to watch any TV ever. Apparently, it’s all down to editing speeds. In the days of Muffin the Mule, TV was quite safe. It’s the advent of things like those souped-up Japanese cartoons such as Yu-Gi-Oh! that my seven-year-old loves to watch that has done the damage: kids’ brains just can’t cope with the sensory overload.
‘Love your Speccie column,’ said Jeremy Vine’s producer, as I was leaving. ‘Especially the ones where you don’t write about TV.’ Yeah, too right, I thought to myself. Not only am I doing all my fans a favour in those weeks when I can’t be arsed to get the tapes in; but I will be making my brain much sharper and wittier, thus ensuring that I delight them with copy far more amusing than if I had sullied my mind with moving pictures on a screen.
This week, though, the plan was almost scuppered by the veritable cornucopia of interesting things to watch: the new Jamie Oliver series; the one about the David Blunkett scandal (which obviously I would have slagged if I’d seen it, out of loyalty to the Dear Leader); the Israel and the Arabs documentary series from the ever-brilliant Brook Lapping team; a decent-sounding undercover report from the Dispatches team on life inside North Korea; the new Ray Winstone series Vincent, which I think — from the posters I’ve seen — is about a man who used to be a heavy, who buggered his junior cellmates in prison but has now turned into a private detective. And that’s just the stuff I didn’t watch.
The stuff I did watch included Jericho (ITV1, Sunday), another new detective series, this one set in the Fifties and starring Robert Lindsay as a man in a fedora and trenchcoat who smokes away his dawns in Soho nightclubs where jazz chanteuses sing wistfully, while a Pathé-news-type bulletin announces him as London’s top detective, and lovingly recreated Fifties shop fronts and interiors and carefully in-period motor vehicles flash by, and we are introduced to the full gamut of essential Fifties characters including: the gruff no-nonsense sergeant sidekick; the sneering, quiffed youth; the toff family which doesn’t yet understand that the war has irrevocably altered the social order; the whining, spivvy stoolpigeon.
My problem with it was that the harder it strove to convince me of its authenticity, the more it came across like yet another of those cosy, glossy, built-by-committee, star-vehicle period dramas they put out to give people’s brains a rest on Sunday nights. You could pass a perfectly agreeable two hours in its company. But afterwards you’d so hate yourself for the life wasted that suicide would be the only answer.
There is one very healthy new trend in TV, though, I’ve noticed: all these hybrid drama/documentaries they’ve started to do, like the one a few weeks ago on the history of the Beckford family and the slave trade; and now the BBC’s new two-parter about Catherine the Great (BBC2, Friday), whose unashamedly elitist ambitions extended even to having whole passages of French dialogue left untranslated, as if of course we’d all understand what Catherine the Great and Empress Elizabeth were chatting about.
Is an historical documentary not involving the Nazis or war something that one would normally care to watch on a Friday night? Why no, which made me admire all the more its cleverness for having kept me so gripped when my initial plan had been to give it just ten minutes then move on to something more fun. The drama bits were all very nicely done, obviously (carriages across the snow; winter palaces; dashing Russian guards officers at swordplay; and delightfully creepy performance by Danut Chiriac as the perpetually adolescent Peter III), but what I liked best were the good old-fashioned talking heads (Simon Sebag Montefiore; a splendid old biddy called Isabel De Madariaga, professor of Russian studies at London University) being allowed to tell us what happened as if dumbing-down had never been invented. I definitely mean to watch part two and not just because I want to see how exactly they deal with the horse-shagging.