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

To Pete Atkin

Dreams out of the ivory gate, and visions before midnight.

— Sir Thomas Browne

This book is the incidental result of my first four years as the Observer’s television critic. I say ‘incidental’ because when I began writing the column I had only fleeting notions of preserving any of it for posterity. Before coming to the Observer I had been one of a quartet of writers who did the occasional stint — each of us contributing one piece per month, turn and turn about — for the Listener, whose then editor, Karl Miller, was gratifyingly insistent that literary journalism ought to be written from deep personal commitment and to the highest standards of cogency the writer could attain. Quite apart from the eternal debt I owe him for allowing me to review television after having failed so conspicuously to become interested in reviewing radio, I shall always be grateful that his belief in the importance of what we were all up to took the tangible form of a severe discipline when it came to editing copy — which he preferred to do with the author present, so that obscurities could be explained to him by their perpetrators. The obscurities usually turned out to be solecisms.

Having your thousand words scrutinised by Karl Miller could be an experience either hilarious or scarifying, but it was rarely anything in between. I once came into the office to find him sitting behind his desk with an umbrella up, ‘to ward off my troubles’. When he was in the mood to scorn the follies of the day, his invective would have me aching with laughter, and the morning flew. But when he was in the mood to be bloody, I found it intolerable to stay in the same building, and I flew instead. If I had got him carpeted before the BBC hierarchs by attacking some politician or academic for striking on the box, Miller would defend me without even telling me about it; his Calvinistic moral strength needed no bolstering from approval. On the other hand, if he suspected me of professional dereliction, however minor, his wrath shook the walls. Since I suffer from an unduly thin skin, my days with the Listener were consequently numbered from the beginning, but I will always look back on them with fondness. It was Karl Miller who gave me the courage of my apparent lack of convictions — or, to put it less sententiously, who let me write a column with eschewed solemnity so thoroughly that it courted the frivolous. ‘And I suppose’, he would say, holding his blue pencil like a blunt hypodermic about to be thrown into my upper arm, ‘you’ve done another cabaret turn.’ But like Lichtenberg he appreciated the kind of joke that unveils a problem: if your gags had a serious reason for being there, they stayed in. On the other hand any platitude, no matter how gravely expressed, was ruthlessly extirpated. It meant a lot to me to be able to make him laugh, because he never laughed at anybody who was merely trying to be funny.

Unfortunately as a television critic for the Listener I could hope to net only about £7 a week. As the television critic for the Observer I would do a bit better than that, with four times as many chances per month to instruct the world. There was my family to feed, not to mention my ambition. So there could be no doubt about whether or not to take up the Observer’s offer when it came, even though the editor of the Listener — more Calvinistic than ever when it came to matters of loyalty — would undoubtedly never forgive me for betraying his trust. Under a cloud was the only way anyone left him. When I turned up on jelly legs to inform him of my decision, the news had already reached him on the tom-toms. He tried to fire me as I walked through the door, but my letter of resignation was in my pocket. I left it with his secretary and high-tailed it out of the blast area. We have never spoken since, but if this book has any virtues they owe a lot to his influence.

And so my career as a weekly television columnist began. It felt straight away, and still feels now, almost illegal to be paid for having such a good time. As happens so often when your life takes a serendipitous course, the reasons arrive after the event. In retrospect it might seem as if you thought everything out but if you remember a bit harder you can usually recollect being impelled by nothing more exalted than a vague feeling of ‘why not?’ There were (there still are) plenty of wiser heads to tell me I should avoid lavishing my attention on lowly ephemera, but I couldn’t see why I shouldn’t, if I felt like it. It wasn’t that I didn’t rate my attention that high — just that I didn’t rate the ephemera that low. Television was a natural part of my life. I loved watching it and I loved being on it. The second passion has since somewhat faded, but the first remains strong, and was very powerful at the time. I watched just about everything, including the junk, which was often as edifying as the quality material and sometimes more so. The screen teemed with unsummable activity. It was full of visions, legends, myths, fables. And the most fabulous characters of all were those fictional ones who thought that they were factual.

Around and beyond its drama programmes, television itself was one huge drama with a cast of millions, a feature list of thousands, and starring (in no order, not even alphabetical) hundreds upon hundreds of people whose regular prominence conferred on their every peculiarity and mannerism an almost numinous ontological definition. Nobody, not even Dickens, could invent a character like Joseph Cooper and his silent piano. Patrick Moore! Esther Rantzen putting the emphasis on every second word! Bob McKenzie and his psensational psephological machines! And somehow the cast was never diminished, only augmented. Out of the Women’s Lib upheaval came the BBC’s token lady newsreader, Angela Rippon, for ever afterwards to be cherished as Angie Cool. Out of a nightmare by Bram Stoker came the incredible Magnus Pyke, coiling and uncoiling around the studio like one of those wire toys that walk down stairs.

On top of all the stuff on television that it was my duty to talk about — plays, documentaries, series, variety shows, news — there was all this other stuff begging to be talked about as well. Raymond Williams, the most responsible of television critics, objected to what he called the ‘flow’ of television: the way its different component parts allegedly became stylistically homogenised into a stream of uniform unmeaning. To me, perhaps because I was an irresponsible critic, it didn’t look like that. Television, in Britain at any rate, was scarcely something you could feel superior to. It was too various.

If I thought at all about my aims, it was the variety of television — the multiplicity of ways in which it engaged your interest — that I was concerned to reflect. What I had to offer was negative capability, a capacity for submission to the medium. True, other critics before me had submitted themselves to Coronation Street and found it instructive. But I was the first to submit myself to Alastair Burnet and find him fascinating. No critic before me had ever regarded David Vine as a reason for switching the set on.

Not much of a claim to individuality perhaps, but there it is. And anyway, a lot of readers seemed to feel the same. No sooner had I reviewed the performance of the BBC sports commentators at the Munich Olympics than letters started arriving to prove that David Coleman aroused the same kind of perturbed reverence in other people as he did in me. Television columnists get bigger mail-bags than other critics for the simple reason that nearly everybody watches television and has opinions about it. Whatever kind of aesthetic event television might be, it was certainly a universal one. That, at any rate, was my defence when called upon to justify my activities — which I frequently was, and never more searchingly than by Kenneth Tynan.

The scene switches to the Garrick Club. Not long after Princess Anne’s wedding the Observer’s editor, David Astor, threw a reception there for his journalists and critics. I remember the occasion for two main reasons. The first was sartorial. Benny Green and I, raffish dressers both, turned up in an electric blue pullover and a Hawaiian shirt respectively.  Faced with the spectacle we presented, a quiet voice in the lobby said, ‘Mmm. Unusual.’ If the voice had belonged to a venerable member I would soon have forgotten my embarrassment. But it belonged to a cleaner.

 The second reason was weightier. After David Astor and I had exchanged mutually indecipherable pleasantries (his shyness taking the form of pregnant pauses and mine of hollow volubility), I found myself talking to Tynan, resplendent in a leaf-green shantung Dr No jacket and full of encouragement for my efforts. When, he asked, would I be turning my critical gaze away from television and towards its proper object, the theatre? Never, was my reply. (I wish it had been firmly expressed, but I was in some awe of Tynan and tended to produce a stammer that matched this.) Tynan was thunderstruck: surely I didn’t pretend that television could equal the theatre for immediacy, the feeling of occasion, the tang of life lived? ‘I still get a thrill every time the curtain goes up,’ he said. ‘I get a thrill every time it goes down,’ I replied. Those were our exact words. If the two speeches had not been separated by five minutes of random conversation they might have counted as epigrammatic dialogue. As it was, though, our different viewpoints were clearly enough expressed. I thought very highly of Tynan’s theatre criticism, especially his earlier work: He That Plays the King I had always regarded as a magic book. But I couldn’t stand the theatre. Conversely Tynan thought little of television, but was generous enough to be interested in what I had to say about it. He said he hoped that I would be publishing a selection of my pieces when the time came.

From then on the idea was in my mind. But I never let it affect the way I wrote the column, which after four years amounted to something like a quarter of a million words. Trimming such a heap of verbiage down to publishable length has entailed leaving out a good number of would-be substantial pieces along with nearly all the trivia. In some ways it is the trivia which I most regret having to sacrifice, since it was through them that I came nearest to celebrating the multifariousness of what was permanently on offer for the price of a licence fee. Here and there through the book I have left a column intact, complete with its tail-end one-liners about Harry Hawkins opening and closing doors, or what the Pakenham clan got up to that week. But on the whole I have had to accept that a book which contained all my favourite paragraphs would make no sense.

For a while I toyed with the notion of transferring what I fancied to be golden phrases from columns marked for the chop to columns I proposed to keep, but to do too much of that would have been cheating. That bit about the Osmond fans using the tops of Minis as trampolines to bounce over the riot-fences into Television Centre and run wild through the corridors covering everything with regurgitated Farex — couldn’t I get that bit in somewhere? But no: out it went. And bigger things went out along with it, for different reasons. There is not much left in about Ireland or Vietnam or the Middle East - not because television seldom treated them, or because I seldom wrote about the resulting programmes, but because I seldom managed to say anything particularly illuminating. It isn’t enough for criticism to prove itself concerned. I admired the Jack Gold production of Arturo Ui and wrote a whole column about it, but now I see that I was too eager to grind an axe about Brecht: to preserve the piece I would have to rewrite it. The same applies to a rave review of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, produced by Michael Blakemore and starring Laurence Olivier. If I cut out the superlatives, there would be nothing left: I had been so eager to transmit my enthusiasm that I never got down to brass tacks.

But if some of the big themes are gone, others remain. I have conferred a specious neatness to the book’s outer boundaries by beginning with the Olympic Games at Munich and ending with them again at Montreal, so that the ineffable BBC sports commentators are there at the finish as well as at the start. Through the period of the Olympiad bulk some grand events, real and imagined: War and Peace, the Royal Wedding, Nixon’s fall, the General Election, Margaret Thatcher’s rise, The Glittering Prizes, Solzhenitsyn’s expulsion. Since the book can’t pretend to contain the whole of its parent column, and since the book can’t pretend to contain the whole of television, and since television can’t pretend to contain the whole of life, there is no question of chronicling everything that has happened in the world over the last four years. Nor, however, does one forgo all claims to pertinence.

Most of the blockbuster programmes get a mention, even if only a short mention. Sometimes a short mention was all they deserved. As for current events, it all depended where you looked. In twenty minutes of being interviewed by Robin Day, General Haig told you all you needed to know about the Nixon administration, simply by the havoc he wreaked on the English language. For that matter, a cameo appearance by Pierre Salinger told you most of what you needed to know about the Kennedy era. Every viewer is an amateur television critic and can judge how well he is being told something directly. What a professional television critic ought to be able to contribute is the ability to assess what he is being told indirectly. He ought to know when a blurred message about something is really a clear message about something else. Television can never give you a programme on, say, Israel which would be a tenth as informative as Saul Bellow’s magnificent New Yorker articles on the same subject. It hasn’t the time and probably it hasn’t the brains: only a copiously reflective mind wielding a scrupulous prose style can take so profound a view. But television will give you a programme like QB VII, which in its very mediocrity tells you exactly what happens when a historical tragedy is popularised. Reviewing QB VII seemed to me just as worthwhile a critical task as reviewing Thames Television’s special two-part programme on the Final Solution, and a considerably more difficult one.

Only once in the four years did I get around to pronouncing on the television critic’s Function. The piece is included here under the title ‘What is a television critic?’ It includes most of the points I am able to make explicitly about that subject. Other and more important points are, I hope, made implicitly in all the other columns, but it is perhaps worthwhile to say one or two additional things here, although the risk of sounding pompous is great. One of the chief functions of a television critic is to stay at home and watch the programmes on an ordinary domestic receiver, just as his readers do. If he goes to official previews, he will meet producers and directors, start understanding their problems, and find himself paying the inevitable price for free sandwiches. A critic who does not keep well clear of the World of the Media will soon lose his sting. He might also begin harbouring delusions about his capacity to modify official policy. In reality, even the most trenchant critic can hope to have very little effect at executive level.  On the other hand, even the mildest critic is likely to have more effect than he realises at the level of programme-making, where the creative personnel are inordinately dependent on written evidence of intelligent appreciation. If you say that there ought to be more programmes like such and such, you will rarely change the mind of a senior executive who has already decided that there ought to be fewer. But you might help give the people who made the programme the courage to persist in their course.

The critic should never imagine that he is powerful, but it would be culpable of him not to realize that he is bound to be influential. There is no reason, however, to be crushed flat by the responsibility of the job. It is, after all, a wonderfully enjoyable one, even at its most onerous.  The onerousness, incidentally, springs more from the fatigue of trying to respond intelligently than from the necessary curtailment of one’s night-life. Any television critic soon gets used to being asked about how he supports the loss of all those dinner parties. Doesn’t he pine for intelligent conversation? The real answers to such questions are usually too rude to give, unless the interrogator is a friend. Formal dinner parties are an overrated pastime, barely serving their nominal function of introducing people to one another, and nearly always lamentably devoid of the intelligent conversation they are supposed to promote. Most people severely overestimate their powers as conversationalists, while even the few genuinely gifted chatterers tend not to flourish when hemmed about by bad listeners. The talk on the little screen is nearly always better than the talk around a dinner table. For my own part, I hear all the good conversation I need when lunching on a Friday with drunken literary acquaintances in scruffy restaurants.  In London, the early afternoon is the time for wit’s free play. At night, it chokes in its collar.

What I miss in the evenings is not dinner parties but the opera house. When I finally give up reporting the tube, it will probably be because the lure of the opera house has become too strong to resist. But sitting down to be bored while eating is an activity I would willingly go on forgoing. The box is so much more entertaining — a fact which even the most dedicated diners-out occasionally admit, since from time to time it becomes accepted in polite society that the long-drawn-out gustatory proceedings may be interrupted in order to watch certain programmes. It was recognised, for example, that The Glittering Prizes might legitimately entail a concerted rush from the dinner table to the television set, although I confess that in this one case my own inclination was to rush from the television to the dinner table. Perhaps I had just had enough of Cambridge while I was a student.

As I compose this introduction, the future shape of television in Britain is in some doubt. I have my own opinions about what needs to be done. Some of them are strong opinions and when my turn comes to be interviewed by Lord Annan I hope I will voice them strongly enough to make them heard. But arguing about policy is something apart from the week-to-week business of criticizing what comes out of the box.

One way or another, when the high matters have been discussed and settled, television in this country will go on being an enchanted window in which everything from the squint of Hughie Green to the smile of Lord Longford will suddenly appear and demand to be interpreted. The Brothers will return. The Hawk will walk. Pundits will pronounce. Literary riches will be transmuted into dross and trash will become established as myth. ‘A television critic would have to know everything,’ Tynan objected, ‘and who knows everything?’ I was lost for an answer at the time, but have found one since. It isn’t necessary to know everything - just to remember that nobody else does either.

I would like to thank David Astor for having brought me to the Observer; Donald Trelford for having put up with me subsequently; Richard Findlater for his supervision early on; John Lucas for his scrupulous copy-editing; and above all Terry Kilmartin, éminence grise of the arts pages, for his wise counsel. Finally I would like to thank my wife for her invaluable criticisms of the finished text, especially the crucial suggestion that beyond a certain point it is counter-productive to go on being bad-tempered about James Burke.