The fall and rise of the TV critic

When the BBC’s high-fidelity television service began in November 1936, L. Marsland Gander, the Daily Telegraph’s newly appointed television critic, was unimpressed. He complained that too much of the schedules – all two hours a day of them – 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 pre-war 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.” “Does sheep dipping make good television entertainment?”, 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. She concluded it with an affirmative.

In these earliest days of television, the critic’s main role was to express excitement at the new technology. Indeed, many of the earliest writers about television were science correspondents – like 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 schedule for the benefit of people who had already seen it or would never see it. They had to phone in their copy late at night from their living rooms, having watched it 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, like the FT‘s T.C. Worsley, the Daily Mail‘s Peter Black and the Sunday Telegraph‘s Philip Purser, all started out as theatre critics, and they tended to focus on prestige programmes like plays and documentaries, looking down on the American imports, light entertainment shows and soap operas that most viewers watched.

By the early 1960s, however, as television emerged definitively as Britain’s dominant mass medium, 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 Daily Herald reporter 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 be already an addict of the television western, “the most productive folklore of all time”. And 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, Potter suggested, television could point to “at least the possibility of a common culture”.

Another TV critic, the 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: he had listened to the first experimental television broadcasts, on a self-built radio, from his Manchester bedroom as a schoolboy in the early 1930s. “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 television critic in May 1963, “I groan my way towards palliation of the guilt – the penance of dredging words out of my eyeballs.” In fact, Burgess felt little guilt. As Listener 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 20 million viewers, TV critics also grew in status. As most television was now recorded, writing about it was less of a seat-of-your-pants profession. Assiduous lobbying by the Sunday Times critic Elkan Allan, and the desire of television producers to have their work given more serious attention, meant that critics were increasingly provided with previews of programmes – the BBC’s preview day, usually a Friday, came to be known as Elkan’s Day – and they could now 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 now requisitioned as TV viewing theatres was the Guardian’s Nancy Banks-Smith. Philip Purser later remembered her as “always encumbered with shopping bags spilling packets of fish fingers and corn flakes”. She 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. Crossroads was “a cheap, under-rehearsed, highly coloured cough drop”. Miss World was “the last refuge of the elbow-length glove”. Harlech Television’s Mr and Mrs was “a telling argument for Welsh Home Rule”. And yet she was never cruel, plainly loving television and taking it seriously enough to craft elegant jokes about it. She had sharp antennae for absurd dialogue and daft detail, and would often ask the projectionist to re-run 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 this newspaper as Kenneth Tynan had been as its theatre critic a generation earlier. He avoided the viewing theatres, preferring to watch on a domestic television as his readers did. But writing for a Sunday paper, he 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 the seventeenth-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. Without a video recorder, like most viewers at the time, James often had two sets running at once so as not to miss anything. He felt that, in all its chaotic diversity, British TV was “an expanding labyrinth which Daedalus has long since forgotten he ever designed”.

Believing that, since watching television was now a near universal experience, he could dispense with plot summary, James packed in esoteric cultural references, quoting Rilke or 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 James’s tenure at the Observer ended 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 television had never before been such a subject of public discussion. For as newspapers competed amongst themselves for a declining readership, they clung parasitically to the younger medium as a source of material. The arrival of the VHS tape having enabled bulk copying, one of the familiar features of the London streetscape in the 1980s was the number of motorcycle couriers weaving between cars, racing to send 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 the Evening Standard and Jim Shelley in the Guardian, emerged to satirise the trashily attention-seeking programmes of the multichannel era. In 1999, TVGoHome, a website of mock TV schedules which 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, Elimidate and Touch the Truck were a simple by-product 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 television as enlightened common culture seemingly dead, many thought the TV critic was also a dying species. A column headed “last night’s television” seemed to make less sense in an era when viewers watched different things at different times. When the Daily Mail’s longrunning TV critic Peter Paterson retired in 2006, the newspaper did not replace him, and the following year Jaci Stephen’s TV column in the Mail on Sunday was also dropped. The FT ended its regular TV review without fanfare in March 2012, although the international nature of this newspaper perhaps made its focus on British TV anomalous anyway. Charlie Brooker made a similar career shift to his hero Clive James, ending his Screen Burn column in the Guardian in 2010 and moving on to make TV shows that themselves critiqued the style and grammar of television.

But the death-knell of the critic turned out to be premature, and in fact both the Mail newspapers 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, the habit of communal viewing has proved surprisingly resilient. As with video in the 1980s, catch-up sites and digital recorders have encouraged more time-shifting TV watching but have not destroyed 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 like Netflix’s Breaking Bad can generate collective excitement and be reviewed in newspapers as “last night’s TV”.

And while there is much evidence of untertainment on the ever-expanding number of digital channels, there is also plenty of good television that cries out for intelligent criticism. As the 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 television 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 again for the Telegraph – thus tend to have an eclectic range: they need to be witty about the absurdities of the polyfilla television that clogs up the schedules, attuned to the addictive tackiness of reality TV and able to give serious attention to those multi-stranded narratives like Broadchurch or Top of the Lake that demand great intellectual and emotional investment from viewers. These critics reflect the evolving landscape of television, and our changing ideas about it, just as surely as did L. Marsland Gander, complaining about that broken-window repairer.

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