Books: Visions Before Midnight — Preface to the Picador Edition |
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Visions Before Midnight — Preface to the Picador Edition

When the hardback edition of this book was published in 1977 I had only some of the courage of my convictions. Putting out a collection of weekly television columns still struck me as a pretty self-important thing to do. If television was a fleeting phenomenon, how much more fleeting must be the reviewing of it? In my preface I had enough nerve to say that television was so far from being fleeting that even its ephemera were of lasting interest. I can congratulate myself on getting that much said, but can’t be proud of my reticence in failing to add that I thought the business of reviewing television from week to week had its own importance which could not be gainsaid. Perhaps at the time I didn’t entirely think so. Anyway, now I do.

I take reviewing television seriously enough to treat each weekly column as a new obligation, not just as a new opportunity for cracking wise. The obligation is to reflect the tumultuous variety of experience that has spent the previous seven days fighting to get out of the set. During my near-decade as a reviewer the total amount of new material screened on British television in any given season has shrunk by something like a third, but it could shrink by a third again and still be more than enough for a critic to deal with. Any critic who complains about the monotony of what he is being paid to look at is really complaining about the condition of his own soul.

I am not a serious student of television, but I am a serious reviewer. There are plenty of serious students. They write books about trends, attend symposia at the Edinburgh Festival, and compose long profiles about key personalities in the Land of the Media. This is honest work but I do not regard it as a step up from weekly reviewing. Weekly reviewing, I have at last come to realise, is the guts of the matter. I have always behaved as if that were so but have only lately acquired the confidence to preach what I practice. I preach the issue less on my own behalf than for the benefit of anyone else coming along who might feel like turning his hand to this kind of work but doubts its legitimacy. Objections and protests from every channel and department will soon convince the tyro that he is engaged in unimpeachable labour.

He can also look forward to a steady landslide of thoughtful letters from readers, all of whom, it turns out, are television critics too. Practically everyone who watches television has a critical attitude to some extent. All the socio-political theories about how the masses would be drugged by television were exactly wrong. Those millions of people out there are individual and alive. Anyone on television who treats the watching audience like dummies will not get far. A television critic who patronizes the medium can rack up some mileage, especially if he adopts a solemn tone. But he will inevitably also patronize his readers, and will thus forfeit the immense pleasure and continuous education of being in contact with their views and enthusiasms. There is not a piece in this book (or in its successor The Crystal Bucket, also scheduled for paperback publication in due course) which did not lead to discussion, and sometimes heated argument, with friends, acquaintances or even complete strangers.

I won’t pretend that I always took immediate notice of what they said, but the steadily accumulating aggregate of their opinions could not help but be edifying, with the result that I have grown in the job — or anyway I feel that I have. Perhaps I have only grown over-confident. I would like to think that I have grown wise. Certainly I have not grown cynical. As a performer I would still rather flirt with television than appear on it regularly, but that is only another measure of how fascinating I find it — almost enough to tempt me away from reviewing it. Television has always thrilled me, and if some of that thrill is not in this book then I have failed as a critic, since while it is true that there can be no real criticism without seriousness, it is equally true that real seriousness is controlled excitement.