The critics don't get it

Television commentators in the quality press are out of touch with the programmes that Britain's viewing public like, says Simon Shaps
Click to follow

Clive James has a lot to answer for. Some 30 years ago, he became the acknowledged master of the knee-in-the-groin school of TV criticism. From his cushioned hideaway, on the back page of The Observer review section, he looked down on the world of mainstream television with a combination of sardonic humour laced with pity and the occasional burst of affection. During the 10 years he wrote for the paper, he built a cosy conspiracy with his readers; he lampooned popular TV, allowing readers to feel better about guilty pleasures of Dallas.

Today the heir apparent to James's crown is not writing for a broadsheet, but for The Sun. Ally Ross, the winner of the What the Papers Say TV critic of the year award for 2003, is cut from a very different cloth. After honing his prose on the Aberdeen FC fanzine and the News of the World, he finds himself writing for a paper that seems increasingly dependent on showbiz news and gossip, a large amount of it about television. His starting point is very different. For him television-watching is a full-time job. Unlike James, who combined watching Dallas or Training Dogs the Woodhouse Way with penning couplets and writing for The New York Review of Books, Ross puts in a full day and night in front of the small screen. He rarely misses a moment of GMTV, watches every episode of the major soaps and can probably recite Dale Winton's career credits without pausing for breath. He is encyclopaedic about popular TV, with perhaps only his predecessor on The Sun, Garry Bushell, to match him.

Like James, Ross uses TV-watching as a springboard for humour. Unlike James, his writing seems to come out of an understanding for the television most people watch.

It is curious how easy it seems to be to write about television, without the engagement felt by its millions of non-professional critics: the viewers. AA Gill, always spikely readable in The Sunday Times, wrote this about Martin Bashir's Tonight interview with Michael Jackson: "I now know less about Jackson and his life than I did this time last week."

Whatever else anybody thought about the programme, the notion that it contained nothing new, or surprising about Jackson, was a non-event, can only pop up in a supposedly sophisticated piece of TV criticism. The 15 million who stayed tuned for two hours must, in AA Gill's eyes, be gullible fools. So too must be the judges of the Royal Television Society's journalism awards who made it their programme of the year. Listen to this from the venerable Peter Paterson, writing about ITV's Life Begins for the Daily Mail: "I imagine many viewers must have switched off by the first commercial break."

Everybody can make mistakes. Nobody expects TV critics to write positively about all the shows that garner large audiences, and negatively about those that don't. Their writing, whether comic like James and Gill, or resolutely humourless like Paterson's, come out of a very particular view of television. This view goes something like this. Much of the television that is produced today is artless and opportunistic. Often, in the pursuit of the largest audience, television "dumbs down" and coarsens. The critics on the posh newspapers sometimes express this view, even when they appear to be praising individual shows.

Mike Bullen's Life Begins is an interesting case in point. It is a different show from his great creation Cold Feet. It doesn't have the verbal or visual pyrotechnics of that show, or a photogenic ensemble. Instead, it has a quieter naturalism and authenticity built out of Caroline Quentin's mesmeric performance, which managed to transfix nine million viewers over its six-week run. (That is nine million viewers, but not Paterson.) Because, at first glance, it doesn't look or feel smart - unlike Sex and The City, say, or 24 - critics mistake it for something that is somehow less good. And yet, Life Begins was watched by at least twice as many people as Sex and The City. Were they simply less discerning?

The answer to that question reveals the gaping hole in much TV criticism; the failure to appreciate the craft and endeavour that distinguishes popular quality television, whether on ITV or BBC.

Nobody would accuse Jaci Stephen of writing TV criticism that looks down, from what the John Birt era BBC used to call the "Himalayan peaks". Fortunately, there is no party line at Associated Newspapers, and this is her take on Life Begins in the Mail on Sunday. "Normally, if I want to see an overweight middle-aged woman, I look in the mirror, so it has been refreshing for once to see reality reflected on the screen."

Bingo. The endeavour that goes into creating "reality reflected on the screen" is no simple feat. In any definition of Public Service Broadcasting, the achievements of original production, in the heart of the most competitive channels, are too easily under-estimated. That goes for a range of shows, which do not normally fit in with definitions of PSB, including the soaps.

Ross began a recent piece about Coronation Street with a gag or two, then moved into comic overdrive. "Fred Elliott - a man who's heard the word "No!" more times than the celebrity booker on Patrick Kielty Live - proposes (yet again) to Penny." Finally, as he nears the end, he makes a serious point about the changes that turned the "humourless" and "plotless show" of three years ago (ouch!) into the success it is again today. He says the show got rid of "pamphleteering, right-on, issue-driven scripts and characters the viewers didn't care about" and rediscovered "Corrie's soul".

It is uncomfortable to be on the receiving end of Ross when he doesn't approve. Don't mention his name to the producers of Love on a Saturday Night or, for that matter, EastEnders. But unlike other critics, what he says matters because his starting point, like good criticism generally, is an instinctive understanding of the product, and the craft that produces it.

At a time when political and regulatory scrutiny is at its most intense, the TV critics' role in creating a climate of opinion about programmes and channels matters.

The writer is chief executive of Granada television