A non-partisan journal of the left.

Bad Sight of the Week

Thu 28th Jun 2012

At the weekend, I sent a letter to The Observer via email. So sure am I that the paper will not run it this coming Sunday that I breathe life into it by reproducing it here below:

“Dear Sir,

It may be churlish to contest the consensual applause for Clive James as television reviewer, but it would be cowardly – which is worse – to delay until he has gone. For a year in the 1970s, I shared a page of The Observer with James, contributing previews alongside his review. I considered myself a champion of television practice, trying to mediate on the medium's behalf and to help build a valhalla of practitioners. I felt myself to be in an earlier tradition of Observer writing on television, that of the splendidly encouraging Cuthbert Worsley, now wholly forgotten.

I thought then and still believe that James led the opposite tendency, throwing rocks at the box (‘bad sight of the week’) to please the crowd. Donald Trelford declared last week that James ‘had almost the whole of modern life as his canvas’ and that was exactly what I deplored. It seemed to me that James was much more interested in developing a view of the world than of television. What's more, scoring his easy points inevitably led to a career as an on-screen pundit, phrasemaking about aspects of modern life that caught his eye.

I went (back) into television too, but as an unseen producer in drama. My kind of writing about television (also espoused by Peter Fiddick in The Guardian and Séan Day-Lewis in The Daily Telegraph was overwhelmed and killed off by those who preferred to follow James and use television as an aunt Sally: AA Gill, Charlie Brooker, Grace Dent. I suggest that it is no coincidence that British television's decline has marched in step with the rise of the telly reviewer as humorist.

Yours faithfully”

Why am I so convinced that the letter will not be published, or at best that it could only appear in a highly truncated form? Because, in my long experience of writing to the newspapers, letter editors carry correspondence critical of contributors and editorial policy relatively infrequently. And in this particular case I am having the temerity to demur at the canonisation of an Observer scribe who has passed into legend.

Donald Trelford was the editor who appointed me as television previewer on The Observer, which at the time (1977) was greatly expanding its coverage of television … to a whole broadsheet page! Clive James, already in place as reviewer, shared the page with my selection of programme previews, a news and comment column about the industry (also by me) and an opinion column that alternated between Melvyn Bragg and Russell Harty.

Trelford himself had no more interest in television than editors (including arts editors) generally do, which is to say that he was exercised by the politics of broadcasting (particularly as it impacted on Westminster) and by its structures, but only distracted by actual programmes when they made their presence felt on the news pages or through the enthusiasm of the chattering classes.

Clive James largely wrote about such programmes, so that Trelford found himself naturally on James’s wavelength. I was much more interested in the programmes that defined and extended the warp and woof of the output: single documentaries, one-off plays, strands about science and culture and history and witness. I wrote primarily about producers, writers and directors, seeking to describe how a programme-maker’s craft (in the architecture of the programme, the editing, the montage, the camerawork) shaped the impact of the ideas on the viewer.

Much influenced by the writing on cinema of the great American critic Andrew Sarris (who died last week), I aimed to contribute to an auteur theory of television, whereby a pantheon of practitioners – the likes of Denis Mitchell, Tony Garnett, Ken Russell, Grace Wyndham Goldie, James Cameron, Dennis Potter, Philip Donnellan, Rudolph Cartier, John Berger, Galton & Simpson, Verity Lambert, Alun Owen, Ken Loach, Antony Thomas, David Mercer, John Pilger and so on – might come to be recognised as such.

James had little time for such stuff or, I suspect, for me – I don’t recall him ever addressing more than a sentence to me during my time on the paper. He knew little about – and didn’t care to learn about – the techniques of live transmission, videotaping or film processing and editing. One time, he accused the documentarist Angela Pope of faking some footage in a film about schooling because he didn’t imagine she could have got such steady or concentrated shots of children in class. If he’d had the humility to ask what I thought, I could have warned him off such a charge in print. Pope duly issued a writ. James rampaged around the open-plan Observer office, denouncing this “c***” to anyone who would listen. To be fair, his use of the word was nothing special. I had learned that James’s generic term for women was “c***s”, used, he perhaps thought, with affection. Such was the charm of the man.

Admirers are writing about James now because he is terminally ill. I cannot deny that he has a great many admirers, including people of whom I expected more. The effect James seems to have reminds me of a remark by a much greater Observer critic than James, the late Ronald Bryden, whose theatre reviews were always pitched at the highest level of perception, generosity and wit. Bryden wrote that, while he could always engage critically with Shakespeare, he became helpless when confronted by a play of Ben Jonson’s and would find himself just rolling over and purring. James’s column seemed to have a similar effect on quite a lot of intelligent people.

The day after Trelford’s encomium in his old organ (http://bit.ly/Mr6rFj), Charlie Brooker wrote James a love letter in The Guardian http://bit.ly/OqxO6i) – the paper thought so well of it that it was flashed on the front-page strap. Brooker cites only one example of what he admires in James’s television reviewing. Here is how he introduces it: “He has a way of gliding through sentences, effortlessly ironing a series of complex points into a single easily-navigable line, illuminating here and cogitating there, before leading you face-first into an unexpected punchline that makes your brain yelp with delight. He can swallow images whole and regurgitate them later as hallucinogenic caricatures that somehow make more sense than the real thing. He famously described Arnold Schwarzenegger as looking like ‘a brown condom full of walnuts’. That's just brilliant. Every TV column I ever wrote consists of me trying and failing to write anything as explosively funny as that, for 650 words”.

This provokes me greatly. Leave aside the question of its “just brilliance” – if you laugh at that gag, then that is the sort of gag at which you laugh. But let’s look at the nature of the gag. It’s unarguably disobliging, personal, even unpleasant. I could say that Brooker’s face looks like a duck’s arse that has just farted what it thinks is a joke, but I don’t go in for that kind of material (even though the resemblance is unmissable).

The subject of the gag is someone whom a metropolitan smartie-pants would then have considered low-class; remember that, when James wrote this, Schwarzenegger had yet to marry into the Kennedys or embark on a a political career. He was just a small-time movie actor and – oh, my dear – a body-builder. In more recent times, James would certainly have been pleased to smarm up to him “in the library”. Besides his assumed insignificance, Schwarzenegger was never remotely likely to see the column, so he could be safely insulted from thousands of miles away. And finally – and this is the clincher for me – what the fuck has he got to do with a television review? Why is a London-based television reviewer straining to come up with a self-serving phrase about an Austrian muscleman who’s getting started in Hollywood?

Of course Brooker adores James. James gave Brooker the licence to write the same kind of scoffing, arrogant showing-off that James pioneered. The nascent attempt by serious critics to establish a tradition of respectable writing about television has been snuffed out by the howling mob. Another piece I submitted last weekend that has no hope of being published – this time to The Guardian – was in response to a feature in Saturday’s Guide section. The paper has a facility called Response that I used on this occasion for the first time. Sending one’s Response does not guarantee any response, I discover.

The original article may be read here http://bit.ly/OqJYvZ This is my response:

“One demurs at the sneering orthodoxies of Twitter at one’s peril, of course. I did have a Twitter account for six months last year but gave it up after a novelist accused me of ‘dig dig dig’. I had no wish for tweeting to turn me into that person. (That she had previously tweeted that I was ‘a moron’ rather reinforces my case, I venture).

According to The Five Rules of Hate Watching (Guide, June 23), the ‘dross’ that presently exercises the scorn of the twitterati is Theresa Rebeck’s television drama serial about the mounting of a Broadway musical entitled – rather hopefully, perhaps – Smash. This is screening here on Sky Atlantic, not, as the inattentive reporter had it, on Sky1.

Over some sixty years, I have seen several dozens of Broadway musicals and many hundreds of teledramas, yet I have failed to remark the present serial’s alleged but unspecified ‘missteps’. By any measure of realism, myth-making, stock characterization, plot contrivance and breezy over-confidence, Smash suffers comparatively little if set beside 42nd Street, Kiss me Kate, Top Hat, The Band Wagon, A Chorus Line, The Producers, There's No Business Like Show Business,Merrily We Roll Along or the Garland/Rooney puttin’-on-a-show movies.

It is arguable that the ingenue of Smash does not give the season’s most compelling performance – my own major misgiving about her is that her singing voice is of an inappropriate style – but only a cad retreats to disobliging and subjective remarks about the cast. In any case, after Ruby Keeler in the Busby Berkeley movies, every musical performer looks like the child of Apollo and Aphrodite.

But as a whole, Smash is smart and well-turned. Compared with the absurdly overpraised Glee, indeed, it is little short of a masterpiece. Nothing in Smash is as puerile as the token gay character in Glee suddenly revealing a hitherto undiscovered ability to kick a ball like a pro, a miraculous talent that allowed him to become acceptable to the other characters and, by inference, to the audience. This passing-for-jock moment was patently never to be called upon again, having served its purpose.

The Glee actor taking the gay role certainly has a lovely voice, but after he was not permitted to sing the whole of the exquisite Bacharach/David number ‘A House is Not a Home’, I gave up watching. Thus far, there are at least four gay characters in Smash, though even that is unrealistically restrained for the milieu of musical theatre.

Unlike Glee, Smash has a largely original score, written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman whose credits include Hairspray. Their new songs tread a deft line between pastiche and hommage and the scripts deploy them with considerable shrewdness – a number staged on the wing in Times Square at night was especially rousing.

That the reporter who drew my unwonted attention to the supposed phenomenon of ‘hatewatching’ is not a reliable guide was confirmed by his description of Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip as a ‘bloated one-season wonder’, as though network renewal is the only measure of worth. That serial was certainly a failure, but a considerably more interesting and chancy failure than many a safely conventional show that racks up multiple seasons. Better two runs of Better Off Ted than eleven of My Family, after all.

The larger point here is that conventional wisdom appears to dictate that Thumper’s time-honoured advice is turned on its head into: ‘if you can’t say something nasty, don’t say nothing at all’. Perhaps this is as it should be, as we prepare for the last hurrah of Clive James, the writer who pioneered scoffing at the box as a crowd-pleasing substitute for truly engaging with it as an art form”.

As you see, I was already primed to bite back at Clive James before our one-time employer went in to bat. I know of course that mine is a lone voice and an unregarded if gallant one. But that, I reckon, is just what permitting responses is designed for.
You must be logged in to post comments on the site or you can use Facebook above.