Rest easy on your deckchair, Delingpole, for I come in peace. Your column is safe — from me, at least — because this week I have made an unpleasant discovery: your job is really hard, and I don’t know how to do it.
It’s not the watching that’s so hellish, it’s deciding what to watch. It took me two days just to plough through the listings, for Pete’s sake, with a sense of panic rising in my bosom. What sort of locum would I be if I missed the week’s televisual pearl? What if the hours, days and nights I spent in front of the box were wasted on the wrong programmes?
The responsibility that comes with this position is fearsome and, what’s worse, unending. As long as the sun never sets on television — as long as that particular factory whistle never blows — the television critic’s work is never done. Square-eyed, waxy-faced and sleepless, I am going to need a sabbatical as soon as this page is written.
You might think that a documentary called The Plot to Bring Down Britain’s Planes (Thursday, Channel 4) could convey a sense of threat and seriousness with factual content alone; that a not-so-distant reality (i.e., the liquid bomb plot of June 2006) would not need to be souped up to hold our interest, but here was a programme in which fact had been restyled until it looked and felt like fiction — a sort of reverse of the making of Spooks. Actual interviews, voice recordings and snatched CCTV footage were, when they came, chilling and fascinating, but the parts that had been reconstructed as mini-dramas — complete with edge-of-the-seat music and jumpy camerawork — gave the whole film the feel of a made-up drama. It is a curious anti-achievement, to rinse a real and frightening history of all its pungent credibility.
If only someone could put the Seventies through a hot wash. I was hoping it might be Dominic Sandbrook — that the ‘radical new vision’ he promised (Monday, BBC2) might rid me of the nagging feeling that I was born into a soiled and synthetic decade — but what he has unveiled so far (in the first two of four programmes) seems quite familiar. Talking to us from a crowded shopping street or a period interior Mr Sandbrook can hold our interest, but as for bathing the Seventies in a new light? Not yet.
(What is it, by the way, about a busy pavement that is so irresistible to historians? They never seem happier than when addressing the camera from the centre of a bustling throng of pedestrians.)
Sandbrook is serious but a little too keen to make friends, as if he were a new schoolmaster and we a class of rowdy boys. His tone is more chuckling and indulgent — ‘What silly-billies we were back then!’ — than sermonising, which I suppose is a good thing. In the Seventies, he muses, we began to expect what we dared to imagine in the Sixties (and demanded outright in the Eighties) but if he is thinking, ‘And we haven’t learned a damn thing in 40 years,’ he is much too nice to say so — and perhaps we don’t deserve to be told; perhaps the years since have been punishment enough for the aspirations that were hatched then.
But what is he revealing that I would not find in his book? What am I being shown that I can only learn by watching? I switched on for a radical new vision, not an illustrated audio guide. If all I’m doing is watching a learned gentleman give me his opinion then I might as well turn off the telly, pick up his book and listen to T-Rex on my iPod.
Extreme Love — Dementia (Thursday, BBC2) showed us how a relationship might survive when words fail. In this painful, dignified and moving film there was not much said, but an awful lot revealed.
The camera did most of the work, with Louis Theroux keeping pretty quiet. (It is his talent to speak volumes with a long pause, or an awkward silence.) The dementia sufferers spoke either in whirling drifts or not at all, but their carers (whom the programme was really about) gave everything away. They might have struggled to articulate what they felt, but they revealed it nonetheless: we saw loss, sadness, fear, sympathy, frustration, loyalty — every light and shade imaginable — in their faces. The film made no announcements, but it was revelatory.
And now, after three meat courses, a delicious soufflé: Two Greedy Italians (Thursday, BBC2). Who could resist this? Antonio Carluccio and Gennaro Contaldo returning to eat, drink, weep, laugh and bicker their way around Italy. It was just the sort of programme I might have enjoyed, with a clear conscience, before my relationship with TV turned so serious. Enjoyment? Now? It’s a fading memory, and a vanished prospect.