Books: Visions Before Midnight — What is a television critic? |
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What is a television critic?

Having declined to appear on Don’t Quote Me (BBC2), I’m in no position to bitch about its summary treatment of a complicated topic such as the Critics. Perhaps more would have been achieved if the panel had been graced by my wise and eloquent self, but somehow I doubt it. The joint was already jammed with good men and true, tussling devoutly and getting nowhere.

Bryan Magee was chairman. As our chief lay expositor of Karl Popper’s philosophy he knows all about the high value to be placed on the activity of criticism, but dutifully stuck to questions instead of answers. The answers came from such as Michael Apted, Anthony Shaffer, Milton Shulman and Derek Malcolm: men of parts all (although Malcolm seems oblivious of the difference between one medium and two media), but scarcely in Popper’s league as rigorous intellects. Nevertheless Magee managed to look interested.

There was a good point from Shulman: to the public there is no such thing as the Critics, since the public mostly reads one paper at a time. Apted, in real life a drama director on screens both large and small, looked as if he wished he hadn’t come, but got in a subversive dig at television critics. There is no such thing as television criticism, he said: there are only essayists, of whom he reads the most entertaining. This statement contrived to patronise anybody it did not dismiss — a deft tactic.

It was generally agreed by the panel, or at any rate tacitly conceded, that television critics know nothing about the medium they criticise. Thus was confusion confounded. Most television critics know far too much about television: they are tube-struck in the way most drama critics are stage-struck, and capable of every discrimination except the vital one of telling live inspiration from dead. I am not defending ignorance — only saying that knowledge is no cure for lack of critical talent. And unless he likes jokes with no point, critical talent is what Apted appreciates in the essayists he finds entertaining. So he would be better off allowing that there is such a thing as television criticism, and then asking himself why it is different from other kinds.

The chief difference is that it can’t readily refer to the past. Criticism which does not reflect the medium’s ephemerality and multiplicity (which are aspects of each other) is lying. Apted’s part of television is only one part and by no means the characteristic part: in fact he would do it in the form of movies if he could. Television is a thousand different things happening behind a window. It is difficult to be sure what a serious critic of such a cataclysm of occurrences would sound like. It’s a safe bet, however, that he would not sound solemn.

Take The Girls of Slender Means (BBC2), as an example. At the time of writing I have seen two of its three episodes, each of them twice. It is a marvellous achievement on every level. The intelligent layman (which the good critic must never cease to be) can easily see how sensitively the tone of Muriel Spark’s novel has been taken over by the adaptor, Ken Taylor, and how the actors are thoroughly at home in their roles. The critic who has managed to pick up some inside knowledge can further see that Moira Armstrong’s handling of cameras is outstandingly sensitive to nuance and in certain scenes, such as the ones set in the dining room, a triumph of sustained virtuosity.

But already I have left out the contribution of the producer, who is quite likely to have been the driving force of the whole project. Or it might have been the script-editor. Even for the critic who has spent a good deal of his time working in television, it is difficult to sort out who did what just from looking at the screen. If he started talking about the accumulated achievement of Moira Armstrong he might be cultivating a myth as well as straining the reader’s patience. The auteurs who emerge from television — Russell, Gold, Loach, Apted — were never really in it, in the sense that a few score gifted, prolific but necessarily not very famous people are in it and of it. So long as television is various there will be room for what these latter people do, just as, so long as the Church was taken for granted, there was room for a Latin Mass. Television is for everybody. It follows that a television critic, at his best, is everybody too — he must enjoy diversity without being eclectic and stay receptive without being gulled.

The Male Menopause (BBC2) a sub-sociological drone-in fronted by Michael Parkinson, was the mental equivalent of navel-fluff. Nasty rumours have been circulating that I sent Parkinson a forgiving letter after he bored his audience by being rude about me on the air. A calumny. As I once explained to Alan Whicker, who wonderingly inquired why I always called him deplorable, one of the effects of television is to make front-men over-mighty. It follows that one of the tasks of television criticism should be to remind them they are mortal.

Here was a diaphanous topic being given substance by standing Michael Parkinson in front of it. The aim was seriousness plus humour, but the seriousness was not serious and the humour was not funny. A man dressed up to look like a doctor gave what was supposed to be the medical consensus on this subject. In fact, a medical consensus on this subject does not exist, and the doctor was an actor called Peter Howell, cast for the role because he used to be in Emergency—Ward 10. Actors are rarely in a position to refuse work. Frontmen like Parky are. Hence the flak.

18 May, 1975

[ The original unedited version of this piece can be found in our Observer TV column chapter ]