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When the BBC’s high-fidelity television service began in November 1936, the Daily Telegraph’s newly appointed television critic L Marsland Gander was unimpressed. He complained that too much of the schedule – all two hours a day of it – was filled with dreary lantern lectures on radio transmitter valves or the new arterial road system. “I find that next Saturday a Mr J T Baily is to demonstrate on the television screen how to repair a broken window,” he wrote. “Probably at some future time, when we have television all day long, it will be legitimate to cater for a minority of potential window repairers. Out of two hours, however, the allocation of 30 minutes to such a subject seems disproportionate.”
Other prewar television critics, though, were more forgiving. “It has seldom been possible to watch the progress of the ball itself,” conceded one reviewer of the first broadcast from Wimbledon in June 1937. “But the strokes and the movements about the court have all been so clearly visible that the absence of the ball has hardly seemed to trouble the viewer.”
The Listener’s new television critic Grace Wyndham Goldie – later a pioneering BBC current affairs producer and loose model for the character of Bel Rowley in The Hour – opened her review of the programme Down on the Farm in May 1939 with the question: “Does sheep dipping make good television entertainment?” She concluded it with an affirmative.
In those earliest days of television, the critic’s main role was to express excitement at the new technology. Indeed, many of the first writers about television were science correspondents – among them J Stubbs Walker, who began reviewing TV for the Daily Mail in 1950 and who, according to his fellow TV critic Philip Purser, “enthused about signal strength and picture hold and even looked the part of a cranky boffin, with a red beard and glasses and a slide-rule in his pocket”.
It took years for newspapers to take TV reviewing seriously – the Times did not even have a dedicated TV critic until 1966 – because they were naturally suspicious of a new, rival medium. Another problem was that until the 1960s almost all television was live and unrecorded so, while film and theatre reviewers addressed a potential audience, TV critics reheated last night’s viewing for the benefit of people who either had already seen it or would never see it. They had to phone in their copy late at night, having watched at the same time as other viewers, which did not inspire careful reflection on the programmes.
Even among TV critics themselves, there was a sense that the majority of television’s output was unworthy of serious attention. The more thoughtful reviewers who emerged as newspapers gave serious space to TV in the 1950s, such as the Daily Mail’s Peter Black, the Sunday Telegraph’s Philip Purser and the FT’s TC Worsley, all started out as theatre critics, and they tended to focus on prestige programmes such as plays and documentaries, looking down on the American imports, game shows and soap operas that most viewers watched.
By the early 1960s, however, as television emerged definitively as Britain’s dominant mass entertainment, a small number of critics were prepared to take it seriously as a popular medium in its own right. One of these, the soon-to-be television playwright Dennis Potter, got his reviewing job by accident. After being hired as a reporter by the Daily Herald in 1961, his knees became painfully swollen, the early stages of the psoriatic arthropathy that afflicted him for the rest of his life, and he began to work from home as the paper’s TV critic. His first column, in May 1962, a review of Wagon Train, revealed him to already be an addict of the television western, “the most productive folklore of all time”. In his second, he confessed to being hooked on the medical soap Emergency – Ward 10.
“In the abuse we need to throw back at the little grey-faced monster squatting in our living rooms”, Potter wrote in a piece titled “Hurrah for the Gogglebox”, “we sometimes fail to notice the growth of the medium into something which attracts and holds creative writers and talented performers …who do not get enough credit for what could yet turn out to be the most significant cultural revolution of our times.” Unlike the middle-class medium of the theatre, television could, suggested Potter, point to “at least the possibility of a common culture”.
Another TV critic, novelist Anthony Burgess, was highbrow in his other tastes but unafflicted by snobbery about television, perhaps because he had been excited about it in its embryonic form: as a schoolboy in the early 1930s he had listened, on a self-built radio in his Manchester bedroom, to the first experimental TV broadcasts.
“A compulsive viewer who will sit guiltily in front of test-cards and even This Is Your Life,” he wrote on taking over as the Listener’s TV critic in May 1963, “I groan my way towards palliation of the guilt – the penance of dredging words out of my eyeballs.” Burgess appears, though, to have felt little guilt. As the Listener’s critic, he simply watched the same amount of television as he did normally – lots – and stayed up all Friday night to write his column. He became a particular fan of Benny Hill, calling him “one of the great artists of our age”, and he spoke the eulogy at Hill’s memorial service in 1992.
In the halcyon era of three-channel terrestrial television in the 1970s, when primetime programmes routinely drew over 20m viewers, TV critics grew in status. As most television was now pre-recorded, writing about it was less of a seat-of-your-pants profession. Assiduous lobbying by Sunday Times critic Elkan Allan, along with the desire of TV producers to have their work given more serious attention, meant that critics were increasingly provided with previews – the BBC’s weekly preview day, usually a Friday, came to be known as Elkan’s Day – and they could be more considered in their responses.
One of the critics who became a regular in the small, dingy cinemas in and around London’s Wardour Street that were requisitioned as TV viewing theatres was Nancy Banks-Smith, who joined the Guardian from the Sun in 1969. Purser later remembered her as “always encumbered with shopping bags spilling packets of fish fingers and cornflakes”.
Banks-Smith was a master of the wisdom-laden aphorism, of bite-sized pieces of shrewdness that seemed to fit our fragmentary, channel-hopping consumption of television. The soap opera Crossroads was “a cheap, under-rehearsed, highly coloured cough drop”. Miss World was “the last refuge of the elbow-length glove”. Harlech Television’s marital quiz show Mr and Mrs was “a telling argument for Welsh Home Rule”. And yet she was never cruel, plainly loving TV and taking it seriously enough to craft elegant jokes about it. She had sharp antennas for absurd dialogue and daft detail, and would often ask the projectionist to rerun a bit of film so she could note something down properly.
If Banks-Smith established the witty, epigrammatic television column as a genre, Clive James, who began writing one for the Observer in 1972, gave it literary kudos. James’s column was said to be worth an extra 10,000 on the Observer’s circulation, and he became as important to that newspaper as Kenneth Tynan had been as its theatre critic a generation earlier. He avoided the viewing theatres, preferring to watch on a domestic set as his readers did. But writing for a Sunday paper, James had more time to hone his rococo style, which made his reviews creative works in themselves, usually more artful than the programmes he wrote about. Borrowing a line from 17th-century writer Sir Thomas Browne, James called his first book-length collection of TV criticism Visions Before Midnight, an inspired title in an era when television finished before the witching hour and was a fleeting apparition that had to be written about from memory.
James, like most viewers at the time, was without a video recorder, He often had two sets running at once so as not to miss anything. He felt that British television, in all its chaotic diversity, was “an expanding labyrinth which Daedalus has long since forgotten he ever designed”.
Believing that he could dispense with plot summary – since watching television was now a near-universal experience – James packed in esoteric cultural references, quoting the poet Rainer Maria Rilke or the Victorian essayist Walter Pater while reviewing Charlie’s Angels or The Incredible Hulk. If the word had been in wide currency then, this stylistic promiscuity might have been called “postmodern”. James preferred to cite John Keats’s notion of negative capability, a way of being receptive to the multifarious nature of the world without bounding it with categories or judgments – a useful mindset, had Keats but known it, for the TV critic.
After the end of James’s tenure at the Observer in 1982, other poets and novelists – Julian Barnes, William Boyd, Hugo Williams, Peter Ackroyd, Adam Mars-Jones – began to be employed as TV critics. Dissecting popular culture was now a serious activity, and TV had never before been such a subject of public discussion. For as newspapers competed among themselves for a declining readership, they clung parasitically to the younger medium as a source of material.
When the advent of videotape enabled bulk copying, a familiar feature of the London streetscape in the 1980s became the number of motorcycle couriers weaving between cars, racing to deliver preview tapes to TV critics. James’s professionally flippant voice, accepting of kitsch and impatient of divisions between high and low culture, was now widely imitated. “The least good thing about Clive James,” wrote the old-school Philip Purser in his 1992 memoir Done Viewing, “was the troop of jokers – or ‘wankers’, as Dennis Potter classifies them less politely – who followed him.”
Once again, changing styles of television demanded changing styles of criticism. In the 1990s, a new type of scabrous, surreal TV review, pioneered by Victor Lewis-Smith in London’s Evening Standard and Jim Shelley in the Guardian, emerged to satirise the trashily attention-seeking programmes of the multi-channel era. In 1999, TVGoHome, a website of mock TV schedules that parodied the listings style of the Radio Times, acquired a cult following. The site’s founder, Charlie Brooker, began a TV column for the Guardian in 2000, with a much-imitated scatological style that focused on the factory-made television he called “untertainment”.
For Brooker, malignantly trite shows such as So You Think You Want Bigger Boobs?, Celebrity Wife Swap and Touch the Truck were a simple byproduct of market conditions. “Hundreds of channels, filling hundreds of hours,” he wrote. “No wonder the majority of programmes are churned out like sausage meat: unloved swathes of videotape whose sole purpose is to bung up the schedule …Most modern TV is uniformly nondescript, the equivalent of oxygen-flavoured gum.”
In the 2000s, with Potter’s vision of enlightened common culture seemingly dead, many thought the TV critic was a dying species too. A column headed “Last night’s TV” made less sense in an era when viewers watched different things at different times. When the Daily Mail’s long-running TV critic Peter Paterson retired in 2006, he was not replaced, and the following year Jaci Stephen’s TV column in the Mail on Sunday was also dropped. The FT ended its weekly TV review without fanfare in March 2012. Like his hero Clive James, Brooker made a similar career shift to making TV shows that themselves critiqued the style and grammar of television.
But sounding the death-knell of the critic turned out to be premature, and in fact both the Mail titles have since re-employed TV reviewers. For, despite confident predictions at the start of the digital era that we would all turn into atomised, individual consumers of TV, communal viewing has proved surprisingly resilient. As with video in the 1980s, catch-up sites and digital recorders have encouraged more time-shifting but have not killed off primetime viewing. Twitter, with its improvised invention of the identifying hashtag, has also allowed vast virtual communities to meet to discuss shows while they are being broadcast – which means that even internet-streamed shows such as Breaking Bad can generate collective excitement.
And while there is much “untertainment” on the ever-expanding number of digital channels, there is also plenty of good television that cries out for intelligent criticism. As American critic Steven Johnson argued in his 2005 book Everything Bad Is Good for You, the multiplication of channels created a new kind of quality TV that needed to be complex enough to stand up to repeated viewing, from first showing to DVD box set.
Today’s critics – such as A A Gill, Caitlin Moran, Sam Wollaston and Clive James, now reviewing for the Telegraph – thus tend to have an eclectic range: they need to be witty about the absurdities of much of the television that clogs up the schedules, attuned to the addictive tackiness of reality TV, and able to give serious attention to multi-stranded narratives such as Broadchurch or Top of the Lake that demand intellectual and emotional investment from viewers. These critics reflect the evolving landscape of television, just as surely as did L Marsland Gander complaining about that broken window repairer.
Joe Moran’s ‘Armchair Nation: An Intimate History of Britain in Front of the TV’ (Profile), is published on Sept 5