I caught an intriguing session at the Cheltenham literary festival, titled ‘Secrets of the TV Critics’. As it happened, the main secret seemed to be that some of them liked a drink while they watched the box. In the distant days before advance DVDs and internet previews, one critic of the Daily Express used to sit in front of an entire evening’s television with a bottle of whisky. At 10.45 he would phone the copytakers and dictate what he thought. At least he was duplicating the experience of most viewers, which is more than we critics do now.
Kate Harwood, the BBC’s ‘drama head of series and serials’, revealed what everyone suspected, which is that television reviewers are far less important than previewers — the people who write about what’s coming up. (In the US, all reviews are actually previews, for good reason. Who would want to read the critique of a play only after they had been to see it?) My guess is that word of mouth is far more influential than both. When it comes to hits such as The Killing and The Great British Bake-Off, what’s said over coffee or at work counts more than anything in print.
Twitter is increasingly crucial. My colleague Grace Dent of the Guardian cheerfully admitted to letting a show run on while she did the housework, breaking off only when she hears something interesting. She scours Twitter to find what people are talking about, and if a show reaches critical mass, she’ll make sure she’s got an opinion. Alison Graham, the chief previewer for Radio Times, spends five days a week, eight hours a day, sitting with headphones in a cubicle (‘too hot in summer, too cold in winter’) doing nothing but watch TV. It would drive me demented. As Andrew Billen of the Times pointed out, ‘The distinction between TV reviewing and mental illness is a thin one.’
Kate Harwood felt that the industry was not well served. ‘Some of our finest writers do TV reviews, but the downside is that they are mostly there to amuse.’ Everyone, including Clive James, blames Clive James, who was very funny, but also serious. People just copy the funny.
‘Film,’ said Ms Harwood with a touch of bitterness, ‘gets Philip French; we get A.A. Gill.’ Actually, I think Adrian Gill — who I don’t know — is more serious than television people might wish to believe. And whereas a film critic will deal with four or five pictures a week, a TV critic should have an overview of literally thousands of hours in the same period. It can’t be done.
And should we cover an earnest BBC2 drama about somebody’s relentlessly bleak life, watched by a handful of people, or a hit show with an audience of millions? This week I planted myself, with friends, in front of Strictly Come Dancing (BBC1, Saturday). We opened the Guardian’s running blog on the show, updated every few minutes, so we could compare those opinions with our own. These days even our leisure involves multi-tasking.
The show is kitsch beyond imagination. Everything about it — the frocks, the judges who seem a few inches away from lunacy (being criticised by Bruno must resemble being attacked by a giant fluffy pink windmill). Almost nothing is real. One of the slebs (I had actually heard of half of them) was called Alex Jones, and the joke is that she can’t dance. So her professional partner had hooked her up to a battery so that he could send a shock into whichever arm she was supposed to deploy. Who were they fooling? Some producer had come up with this bonkers idea. No doubt Health and Safety wanted an announcement at the end: ‘No celebrities were hurt in the making of this programme.’
Bruce Forsyth — his catchphrases are dredged up time and again, no doubt to remind us of his glorious past — tells appallingly bad jokes, based largely on the presumed views of the audience. Many of these concern the judges, who all have strict roles: Craig is horrid, Len is your dear old uncle, Alesha a sweet-natured airhead, and Bruno is beyond camp. So Craig, we learned, had just got British citizenship. Brucie: ‘Can we appeal?’
And John Prescott was in the front row of the audience, with his wife Pauline. Perhaps this was on the advice of a PR man: ‘John, sweetheart, we’re turning you into a national treasure. Getting a lipstick smacker on your face during Strictly is vital! Be an angel and do what you’re told...’ Edwina Currie (cue a hundred jokes about Indian food)! Rory Bremner! Some retired footballer! The whole thing is like some bizarre dream you faintly recall just after waking, and in the end just as easily forgotten. So it’s an enormous hit.