Open Eye: First Thursday - TV Critic: work for those who can't do a proper job

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Indy Lifestyle Online
In more than 35 years hanging around newspapers I had my fill of specialist writers. I'd even had a teenage ambition to become one.

"What sort of a journalist do you intend to be, Barker?" Whispering Smith, the history master, had asked. "I rather thought I'd be a political correspondent," I replied. "That you may be," he said. "But, God knows, you'll never be a diplomatic one."

I thought of writing to him when I achieved the lofty height of foreign editor, but that was at the Mirror where we were not so much diplomatic as urging people to come off it, and when the Editor of the Sunday Mirror once donned his diplomatic hat, an unfortunate misprint meant that his open letter to a South American ambassador began, "We are appealing to you, toady..."

But to the point. Along the way I stumbled over a few television critics. These, I quickly discovered, were not as other men, not even the women. Mainly, they were journalists who weren't up to doing a proper job.

There was one who became so sozzled at previews that she would come back to the office to sleep it off and threatened that, should she ever be sufficiently sober to pen an autobiography, its title would come from the first words she heard every morning: "Shall We Just Hoover Round Her?"

Clive James memorably (well, I remember it) described J R Ewing's hat band as consisting of crushed budgies. While Nancy Banks Smith, on the advent of colour television, advised her readers to wear sunglasses to avoid getting black eyes from the panchromatic glare. I am not making this up.

Then there was Ken Irwin, who reviewed the first performances of Coronation Street and predicted that it would never catch on.

And recently A A Gill (it's a sad day when you're ashamed to admit to having a name like Adrian) criticised an Open University Romans in Britain presenter for wearing leathers. He was travelling around on a motorbike, for goodness' sake! What's he supposed to wear - polyester trousers with a crotch bulge?

He also said that real Roman history and archeology were about great cities, not about ordinary people. Well, that might have been the case at Ade's school, but down my way, where we thought (hoped) that The Lays Of Ancient Rome was the latest Harold Robbins, what fascinated us was Whispering Smith's revelation that the Romans used washable squares of worsted for toilet paper, and that, after marching to Tyneside from the Mediterranean (and just ponder on that) they wrote home that they were bloody freezing.

But er... that's it. Nearly 40 years of knowing and reading TV crits and that is all I can remember.

As I say, they are not real reporters. I was one, once (a real reporter I mean, not, heaven forfend, a TV crit), for a period during which I was spat upon, stoned, shot at, shelled, bitten by a snake and a poisonous spider and evacuated from a burning aeroplane. I was deported by a friendly nation, jailed by an unfriendly one, and threatened with jail by one that's never been sure. What does a TV critic do? He sits by his fireside and criticises Kate Adie, that's what.

The point is (you were wondering when I would get round to it) they are not even critics in the real sense.

They don't watch telly like you and I do. For the most part they watch only videos, or they go to preview cinemas for sandwiches and drinks. Unlike book or theatre critics, they don't advise you about what's available, or whether to save your money.

Although I have a pal who, as a theatre critic, once wrote: "Slick, sparkling, spectacular, and with some of the most brilliant dancing seen on the English stage, this colourful musical drama has a weakness - its songs. It has no songs to hum or remember."

And the dwindling band of News Chronicle readers woke one day in November 1958 to read about a humdinger - without a tune to hum across two columns of the front page. So much for the European premiere of West Side Story.

That theatre critic was to become a distinguished motoring correspondent. But I digress.

TV reviewers (as distinct from previewers, who are vital) tell you only about what has been on. And what, pray, is the benefit of that? You either saw it, or you missed it. Remember when at junior school you were told to write a composition on What I Did On My Holidays? That's it: your boss tells you to write about What I Saw On Telly Last Week - only you can cheat by getting the tapes of your choice biked round to your house. Possibly by somebody in leathers.

And then the TV companies read the stuff and say, Didn't we do well? or, He would say that, the pompous ass, wouldn't he?

Either way, the critics don't criticise TV in the way that real-time viewers would. They don't say the trouble with telly is that, apart from The Learning Zone, there's hardly ever any damn thing to watch. That the best programmes on a Saturday night are repeats from Friday night. They don't do that, because they are not watching the box.

They pick a subject that might show how clever they are or about which they'd like to carp, and they expound on it - meandering along the way, and telling you more about themselves than you want or need to know - until they've written the required number of words, and then they stop.

Which is an incredibly simple thing to do.

As, I hope, I have just proved.

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