After a miserable Christmas that saw the MD of Waterstone's lose his job, there has been a glimmer of new year cheer for high street booksellers – the return of that great engine of sales (for the lucky featured authors, at least), Richard and Judy's Book Club. Except it's no longer Richard and Judy's, but Jo, Gok, Laila, Dave and Nathaniel's Book Club. Actually, it was more like Jo and Dave's Book Club, as comedians Jo Brand and Dave Spikey seemed to be in charge of fellow "members", Laila Rouass, Gok Wan and Nathaniel Parker. And frankly Rouass struggled to get a word in edgeways; the former Footballers' Wives star needs to sharpen her elbows if she wants to contribute more than: "Did you really?"
Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan vanished from our screens last summer having made their lucrative but disastrous switch to UKTV channel Watch (which nobody did). But the sofa-bound couple were only ever the front for the book club; the real force behind it was Amanda Ross (Jonathan's sister-in-law), whose production company, Cactus TV, made Richard & Judy, and is now making The TV Book Club.
Three out of the five club members appeared wearing glasses but it wasn't clear whether this was because they wanted to look bookish or because the show was sponsored by Specsavers. They were joined by a fourth pair of specs in Chris Evans, in to promote his autobiography – a book that he said he researched by reading lots of other celebrity autobiographies. There was something rather fitting (or depressing) about the show opening with a bunch of celebrities discussing the art of the celebrity autobiography.
With Evans sitting in their midst, the club predictably "loved" his autobiography. Somewhat more surprisingly, the book of the week, Sarah Waters' ghost story, The Little Stranger, got less of an easy ride. Gok Wan said "the story didn't fascinate me", while an initially positive Nathaniel Parker agreed that it "floundered after a while", and the book's narrator was universally dismissed as a bore. Could this be a thumbs down for a novel that is currently riding high in the bestsellers chart? Could The TV Book Club actually have a negative impact on sales?
Jo Brand wrapped things up with: "Are we agreed it's a good read?" – manufacturing positive unanimity for what had actually been an equivocal discussion. This underlines an inherent problem with the Book Club format. If the selected tome is there simply to be puffed, what is the point of the critics? Couldn't they just phone in their approval from a beach somewhere?
On the other hand, if there is going to be genuine dissent, and the possibility that their top authors will be slagged off on primetime, will publishers continue to be so enamoured? That's unlikely to happen but on last night's showing, this book club may actually have teeth. It'll be interesting to see whether these teeth get pulled in weeks to come.
At the end of the day, any effect on sales will come from the size of the audience watching. More4 actually has a decent audience-share for a digital channel (twice as much as BBC4, for example), while the repeat on Channel 4 (today at 12.05pm) will also help. Ironically, this daytime repeat will see The TV Book Club up against This Morning, former long-term residence of, yes, Richard and Judy.