Critics are ignorant - and I should know


Television criticism has always been a pleasant fraud. Ballet critics can be relied upon to know a pas de deux from a glissade; those who write on opera have ears attuned to whether a difficult aria has been done justice by this or that up-and- coming Romanian diva.

But your TV critic sets himself up as an expert on everything. He too knows about ballet - if it happens on the box - or drama, or current affairs, or daytime sofa schlock, or cookery, or anything else. The possession of a TV and a word processor is all the qualification necessary, and - too often - some of my fellow crits' TV expertise does not even run to distinguishing between a panning and a zooming camera.

Lacking understanding of the process itself, we often fall back on the simple expedient of telling the reader whether we enjoyed the programme or not. Or - worse - whether we agreed with it. A fellow critic damned a recent, expensive series on the 1914-18 war on the basis that (a) he couldn't get a tape of the BBC's original Great War series, which pissed him off, and (b) that - despite his lack of qualifications in the area of history - he felt that the emphasis on women's suffrage was wrong.

Usually we get away with it. But one genus of TV is likely to reveal our shortcomings to the public - and that is niche TV, TV for the already interested and slightly knowledgeable. Usually dealing with what personnel departments call "leisure pursuits", these are much more difficult to endorse or dismiss on the simple basis of "I was bored" or "I was enthralled". For this is chacun a son gout telly, specifically not made for all of us - but for some of us.

Take Time Team (C4, Sunday), the archaeology show fronted by actor Tony (Baldrick) Robinson. This week Tone and the Time Team spent three days in high summer trying to locate and uncover a Roman villa from underneath the impacted concrete of the MoD Support Weapons Wing at Netheravon in Wiltshire.

The team itself is a strange assortment of folk. There is Phil, a fortysomething with a pony-tail and a West Country burr, and academic Mick Aston with his frizzy white hair and sweatshirt of many colours (all of them garish), swishing around the site in an electric wheelchair, his (presumably broken) leg sticking out in front like a human dowsing rod. Then there's a plump, pink pukka man with a boater and bow tie, who does the cooking, and a young woman with clean hair and a Barbour, all topped off with a handful of young, earnest volunteers.

This collection of determined individualists reminded me of a local government workshop at a Liberal Democrat conference. We followed them from one part of the site to another, digging test holes and having lunch alfresco. At first they found nothing. Then (intake of breath) two bits of tessellated pavement. Now (look over here!) a roof tile. Later, heaven be praised, two Roman roof nails. We were getting warmer and Tony's pieces to camera were becoming more animated and balletic, as he danced around indicating the fallen tower, the broken roof and Agamemnon dead. By the end of day three (and 50 minutes) I had shared in the achievements of the dig, without myself having dug. It was a jolly good show.

So later I am discussing this with my partner and tell her what I have been watching. "Tssk," she sympathises, "I caught a bit of that by accident. Some woman having an orgasm because she'd found a couple of rusty nails! Boring, or what?" No, no, no; a good programme - if you have any interest in the subject.

I contrasted this with my reaction to the first lines of narration in Classic Trains (C4, Monday). "This is Towton," said John Peel. "It covers two square miles of Nottinghamshire. In the Fifties it was the busiest railway marshalling yard in the world." Was it, by Jiminy! And is this indeed a 9F steam loco, with its 10 driving wheels? (Is that a lot of driving wheels?) As Old Cyril or Bert reminisced about bringing the 8.45 over from Ais Gill, downhill all the way to Appleby, supplemented by mouth- organy music and Fifties newsreel, I began to drop off.

This may well be a good series if you care about old trains (which many do). But I don't. I had only the most general idea, as I fast-forwarded through the rest of the show, about how it stacked up as a piece of TV (pretty standard, as far as I could tell). The topic itself had defeated me - yet here I am reviewing it. Frankly, if you want to know whether it hit the spot, you'd do better to flick through the pages of Hot Gauges, or whatever steam enthusiasts call their trade mag.

The same glaze came over my eyes during the traction-engines section of Top Gear (BBC2, Thursday). But, in general, this is the leisure prog that has acted as the standard for all the others. With its Seventies soundtracks it is Formula One TV-making: walk to car, talking; talk to camera, driving; walk round car on location, talking; walk - talking - away from car. Much car, much talk, not much else.

This makes the talk all-important, and created a new folk hero: Jeremy Clarkson, the turbo-charged Mick Jagger for Men Only. Clarkson is the master of the hanging punch-word. Here he is on the Camry (or was it the Legend?): "Buying a car like this is like going on holiday ... to Belgium." And: "There was even a gold motif down here in the centre console. It was very ... toilet." Such lofty disdain wrapped up in great men's magazine writing is proof that a man can be intelligent, funny and sexist.

Sadly, there is only one Clarkson. All the others are cheap imitations - and they're all on the show. Steve Berry on bikes yells at the camera: "This is a Baywatch beach babe ... a curvaceous cutie." Or Jon Bentley, a plum-in-gob silver-hair who rattles off cliches at an industrial rate. "It's tough at the top ... the greasy pole ... the real world ... racking our brains ... whetted your appetite." Or Andy Wilson in a super-mini: "I'm so small I've even been out with girls who are taller than me!" Well Andy, if it bothers you so much, go out with men from now on.

Still, it works. I'm not car-mad, but this was accessible.

More oddly, so was Wilderness Walks (BBC2, Friday), in which Cameron McNeish journeyed into Knoydart (West Scotland) with historian David Craig. Craig himself looked like a refugee from Time Team, in his cherry-red tracksuit bottoms, but he proved an indefatigable walker and talker. He explained the tragic landscape of the Highland Clearances, with its fallen walls and landscape so beautiful it hurts. I am distinctly fatigable, but I badly wanted to go with them. More, please.

Mind you, Craig and McNeish would have puzzled Howard Jacobson. They walked all the way from Barrisdale to Inverie (via Leadhar Bheinn) without once making a dick joke. In the second part of Seriously Funny (C4, Tuesday), his illustrated, rambling, wonderfully written and presented monologue, Jacobson (a man with a talent for placing the viewer in the camera, and speaking directly to him or her) put the phallus at the heart of all comedy and most human activity.

"The penis," he told us, "is the patron saint of comedy." To convince us of this he had enlisted the help of a Winnebago Indian joke-teller telling Shaggy Phallus stories to five-year- olds, and a rude character at the Venice carnival mortifying a beautiful Japanese woman by forcing her to grasp his prosthetic manhood.

But I think Jacobson had confused the fact that the penis is almost always funny with the idea that comedy is always about the penis. "Free the phallus and you free the comedy," he says, showing a man trying to light his cigar from a drooping candle. Yes, but kids find this funny long before they are aware that there is such a thing as an erection for some men (comically) not to attain. It isn't the faulty phallus that is funny, but the man's denied expectation.

Anyway - as far as your critic is concerned - this was a crap programme, because the vagina is much funnier.

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