Did any of you catch me being rubbish on BBC4 last week? I was one of the talking heads on a series called TV on Trial, where various critic types argued over which of the past six decades produced the best TV.
My job was to be rude about the Eighties, with David Aaronovitch defending them. Aaronovitch used to be on my death list because he always comes across as such a po-faced lefty bastard, but as it turned out he was really charming and I liked him a lot. Plus, he was way, way more fluent than me.
But, then, he had a much easier job. How do you plausibly argue that the decade which yielded Brideshead Revisited, The Singing Detective, Blackadder, Edge of Darkness and Countdown was TV’s darkest hour? You can’t, really, though I did point out that this was the period when TV first began surrendering Reithian values to the market (Roland Rat; wall-to-wall game shows and soaps), and when it replaced dignity and objectivity with a mix of hectoring piety (Live Aid; Comic Relief) and left-wing radicalism (Death on the Rock, Maggie’s Militant Tendency; virtually anything made for minorities on Channel 4).
What was even more difficult was that you were sat for three hours in front of four supposedly representative programmes from the era and were expected to produce pithy for-or-against commentary throughout. I felt a bit like a prosecution lawyer who is trying to send down a man he suspects is innocent: sure, Spitting Image could often be unfunny; and I had no problem slagging off Real Lives: At the Edge of Union, an irresponsible documentary which tacitly implied parity between its two subjects, Martin McGuinness and some harmless Unionist you’ve never heard of. But the EastEnders episode where we discover that Den is the father of Michelle’s baby was beautifully acted and very well written; and Blott on the Landscape was a perfectly decent Tom Sharpe adaptation. ‘What about its stereotypical portrait of women?’ prompted a voice in my earpiece as I floundered for nasty things to say. ‘Yeah, like I give a toss about that,’ I thought to myself. But I dutifully voiced the criticism anyway.
Then on Sunday night all the critics met for a live studio debate and I was so pitifully rabbit-caught-in-the-headlights and inarticulate that ever since I have wanted just to die. I’m not sure what went wrong exactly, but I think I might have been thrown by a very mild criticism nice Mark Lawson lobbed at me in the rehearsal, which brought back guilt-memories of the times I’ve slagged him off in print, and played terrible tricks with my brain. Apparently, this happens quite a lot on TV studio debate programmes.
I do half-hate doing TV, but I’d be bloody depressed if it hadn’t happened. I’m 40 in four months and I’m becoming increasingly aware that I’ve reached the age where all your friends have either made it or they haven’t. For example, Simon Thurley: he’s the chairman of English Heritage, for God’s sake. Boris, well, we know about him, and he was in the same year as me at Oxford. And so the list goes on. Rarely a day goes by without my not loathing myself for my contemptible lack of commercial success as a writer and my unforgiveable inability to afford an education for my daughter. But the great thing about TV is that it does at least give the illusion of success.
And it stops you being too jealous when you see other people doing TV, like my former boss on the Peterborough column Robert ‘Robweiler’ Hardman, who, even though he’s the same age as me, once had the gall to order me to get my fashionable late-Eighties bob cut shorter, for which I’ve never quite forgiven him.
Though he doesn’t actually appear on the screen, you can hear him asking questions just out of shot on the fascinating three-part documentary series he researched and scripted, The Queen’s Castle (BBC1, Sunday). Over the past ten years, Hardman has quietly, unfussily become one of Fleet Street’s greatest royal experts. Unusually, he’s neither a trouble-making republican nor an ‘intimate secrets of my mates the Royals’ cash-in merchant. And I suspect that the unusually wide access he has been granted for this behind-the-scenes look at Windsor Castle — lengthy interviews with the Duke of Edinburgh, for example — is his tacit reward.
If you’re of a pro-monarchical bent, you’ll have found it a great relief to see a programme which presents the royals with wry affection rather than in the more usual ‘Diana’s secret love child ate my hamster’ style of today. If you’re not, you’ll surely at least have been mildly diverted to learn of all the complications involved in running a modern working castle.
For example, there’s one man whose full-time job is to maintain the 450 clocks dotted all over the Windsor estate, from huge clanking ones in towers to priceless ones playing tunes expressly written for them by Handel to horrid black-and-white modern ones like we all have in our kitchens. Another seems to spend most of his time on the roof excitedly awaiting the moment when he spots the Queen’s car sweeping on to the courtyard’s freshly groomed gravel, giving him the cue to hoist the royal standard.
We also learned that at lunchtime banquets, Prince Philip is always served beer instead of wine and that Prince Charles has a little flask of olive oil instead of butter. The last damning indictment notwithstanding, this series is the greatest PR victory for the royal family since George II led our troops into battle at Dettingen. Hardman’s Order of the Garter will no doubt follow shortly.
Finally, just a quick word about Casanova (BBC1, Monday), written by the godlike Russell T. Davies and starring David Tennant and Peter O’Toole: it’s lively, sexy, funny and quite, quite brilliant.