TV critics: Armchair assassins

Will TV critics still be able to fire cruel wit from the safety of the couch now that one of their number has been caught in a rare libel case?
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The Independent Online

Second to owning a sweetshop, being a television reviewer is widely accepted as the easiest, best and jammiest job in the world. For most adults, lounging in a darkened room with a bag of crisps and a remote control appears an enviable way to earn a crust.

Being a professional couch potato has also, for several decades, been an occupation with high intellectual status. Clive James's tenure at The Observer was followed by Martin Amis and Julian Barnes - a circle of witty, brilliant minds determined to apply high style to low culture. Professor John Carey, Howard Jacobson and Richard Ingrams have also done stints in the TV trenches.

But there are signs that television critics are now in the firing line. Last week the Evening Standard was obliged to pay out £75,000 in libel damages to Gordon Ramsay over claims by its television critic, Victor Lewis-Smith, that scenes in the Channel 4 series Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares were faked. With costs, the payout should rise to £100,000 for Ramsay and the programme's producer, Opto- men Television.

Aside from the danger of determining what is real on reality TV, today's critic faces a double whammy. Decades back in what is seen as the golden age of TV reviewing, pundits like Clive James could expect that the vast majority of his readers had watched the same show the previous week. Now, when few channels can expect more than a 10 per cent share of the audience, it's rare that the nation comes together for a programme and then turns to a review to have its prejudices confirmed.

Even when a programme does clock up enough ratings to become "water-cooler TV" - as with Big Brother and the World Cup coverage - the story is snatched by the general news pages. It is hard for the reviewer not to feel a little irrelevant.

"As a definition of futility, being a television critic is hard to beat," says John Preston of The Sunday Telegraph. "You perform no function of giving advice to consumers. Most of the programmes have already gone out and most of your audience haven't watched it. And yet it helps to set a benchmark to compare opinions. Your other function is to make it amusing and interesting."

Being funny remains the animating principle of most television critics. "The main function of a TV reviewer is to be a good read," agrees James Walton of The Daily Telegraph. Most trace this back to Clive James, who served as critic on The Observer between 1972 and 1982 and went so far as to compile books of his reviews, such as Visions Before Midnight, The Crystal Bucket and Glued to the Box.

"Clive James set the level. He did show off, and that sense of institutionalised flippancy remains," says John Preston. Matthew Norman, who reviewed for the Standard, agrees: "Given that there's so little chance of anything more than 10 per cent of the viewing population watching the same channel at the same time, the main point of it is just to shove in a few jokes and give the odd kicking."

Some critics feel uneasy with this role. In an essay about his former job as TV critic of The Observer, John Naughton wrote: "As a genre, television criticism seems to lean heavily in the direction of entertainment rather than ... serious appraisal ... The underlying model is that of the TV critic as a semi-literate performing seal. Jokesmiths and verbal exhibitionists are the ones in demand. No professional experience of, or sympathy towards, the actual medium is required. Indeed, the less the better on some publications."

Other reviewers retort that if flippancy and irreverence have become a default position, it is precisely because the standard of television itself has declined.

"I wouldn't want to do it now, simply because it's hard to find the material," says Richard Ingrams, who reviewed for The Spectator between 1975 and 1980. "The quality has gone down so much, and although you can always take the piss, I never liked doing that. I thought it was better to write about something worth considering."

Howard Jacobson, a critic at The Sunday Correspondent until 1990, believes the quality of television affects the nature of the job: "If I was doing it now I would be reviewing Big Brother a lot, even though I loathe and despise the people who make it. I think we have been betrayed in television and Big Brother is a good example of that, even though the people who take part are nowhere near as low as the makers want them to be.

"Being a reviewer now should mean slamming all those people with Oxford degrees who waste all their talent and loathe the people they use. I would fight for a return to educative TV and to some higher idea of the medium," says Jacobson.

According to James Walton, "one of the things that gets me angry is Channel 4's use of the mentally ill for entertainment - in shows like How Clean is Your House, where plainly some of the people have mental problems, or Fat Pets or Wife Swap. I get this recurring image of Channel 4 programme makers sitting round the Groucho saying, 'We've found this marvellous working class fat person for the show!'."

For others, the schedule has always contained a huge quantity of rubbish. John Carey, who was TV critic of The Listener in the 1970s, says: "I loved TV reviewing because there was so much trash on that you could always be funny as well as serious, and of course rude about various public spokesmen. It was great fun winding them up, and yes, they did write angry letters. Often they would point out what a waste of time TV reviewing was since no one read it (except them, presumably) and it could not affect readers' choice as book reviewing can. The point of it, I think, is that it stirs public debate and criticism in what is, after all, the major public medium."

The real news value of the Lewis-Smith/Kitchen Nightmares libel case is probably its rarity. When was the last time you heard of a television critic being sued? Given that they have qualified legal protection, reviewers rarely face legal threats for their comments, but even angry letters are thin on the ground. Gloomily, for some, this underlines their irrelevance in the eyes of the television industry and their status as parasites making cheap jokes for the sake of it.

"The TV makers don't get upset by reviews at all," says John Preston. "Vanity comes into it occasionally, but at the very most they regard reviewers as an irritant. The only thing they care about is ratings, not some cruel comments after the event."

"I once met a director who said, 'Do you want to make people laugh or do you actually care about TV?', " says Hermione Eyre, a columnist on this newspaper. "They see it as a straight choice but it's not as simple as that. You have to write about how a programme is made, but reviewing is for the reading public and you need a bit of entertainment too."

So does Victor Lewis-Smith have any need to worry? As Bernice Davison, his editor for six years at The Evening Standard, puts it: "Readers love his running gags and Victor regularly tops the readership popularity chart.

"There are very few reviewers who would put on readership, but Victor would certainly be one of them."

Victor Lewis-Smith

Originally a comedian, Lewis-Smith uses his TV column as a vehicle for jokes. He has the Marmite factor, though he is still viewed by the Evening Standard as a great asset. On the side, he produces television programmes - including BBC 2's '21st Century Bach' series - and is a master of spoof phone-calls.

Jim Shelley

Was "Tapehead" at The Guardian Guide before moving to the Daily Mirror in 2001 as "Shelleyvision". Richard E

Grant, after a bad review, left a message on his answer machine: "Hello c*** features, I hope you get some life-threatening disease very soon."

John Preston

The only Sunday critic not to cover Sven: the Coach, the Cash and his Lovers the other week - indicative of his reserved, highbrow approach. Very funny, he used to be arts editor at The Sunday Telegraph and Evening Standard. He writes film scripts and novels.

James Walton

In the job since 1998, Walton writes the witty Daily Telegraph reviews with a light touch and occasional flourishes of erudition. He also presents Radio 4's literary quiz The Write Stuff and its music quiz All the Way from Memphis.

He knows his onions.

Jaci Stephen

One of the first writers to regard soap operas as worthy of column inches. She began reviewing for the Evening Standard in 1984 and is now a regular on ITV'sThis Morning and Radio 4. Currently the TV critic for the Mail on Sunday.

Tom Sutcliffe

Urbane and well informed, Sutcliffe was editor of Radio 4's Kaleidoscope and joined The Independent on its launch as arts editor. He is also the presenter of Radio 4's arts discussion programme, Saturday Review.

He has written a book on cinema and says he has an autistic dog.

Hermione Eyre

The 26-year-old Eyre started as a television columnist in January. A little more "yoof" than her peers, but holds a strong anti-soaps and celeb line. She also co-wrote a savage anti-celebrity satire with William

Donaldson called The Dictionary of National Celebrity.


Stars in his eyes

There's life in the old dog yet. Former Mirror editor Piers Morgan's new show in the United States, America's Got Talent, aired its first episode on Wednesday on NBC. According to Nielsen audience figures, the talent show, produced by Simon Cowell, brought in an average of 12.4 million viewers, making it the top US show last week. It is particularly gratifying as its main rival, So You Think You Can Dance, is produced by Cowell's nemesis Simon Fuller on Murdoch's Fox network, and it had been number one until Cowell, Morgan and co-presenter David Hasselhoff rolled into town.

Morgan is tickled. "If someone said three months ago I would be living in Beverly Hills and being the cruel British judge in a new number one show, I would have thought they were barking mad," he chortles down the phone. "But I have learnt to expect the unexpected. It will be a huge blow to my many fans in the British press."

Little bird speaks out

Yet more amusement in Associated Newspapers' offices when a pigeon was spotted trapped in the atrium last week. It was too far away to tell whether it was one of the infamous "carrier pigeons" that the Daily Mail's parliamentary sketch-writer and theatre critic Quentin Letts dispatches, carrying poisonous diary stories about his colleagues. Nor indeed could spectators discern whether that whiff of incense and the glint of a twelve-bore from the vicinity of Peter McKay's office could be attributed to Daily Mail columnist Stephen Glover, who recently, and publicly, hauled Letts up for his indiscretions.

Revolving trap doors

*** Last spring The Sunday Telegraph's Tim Walker was given the job of theatre critic by Dominic Lawson. He was relieved of it - after barely a dozen first nights - by Lawson's replacement, Sarah Sands, who gave it to Rebecca Tyrrel. Now Tyrrel is exiting stage left and editor Patience Wheatcroft has given the job back to Walker again. "Trap doors are always opening unexpectedly in this business these days," squeals Walker, who will continue to edit the Mandrake column. "Goodness knows, I've fallen through enough of them in my time."

Talons contest

The exodus from She magazine continues. Deputy editor Charlotte Ross is upping sticks and moving to the Evening Standard. Ross, who used to be Saturday editor of The Independent, was at She for 18 months. After editor Matthew Line stepped down last month, she seemed a natural successor. But Lindsay Nicholson, NatMags' new editorial director, has her talons well into the editor's chair. Ross has no official title yet at the Evening Standard but Glenda Cooper is leaving and the long-planned reshuffle in the upper ranks may now go ahead.

Personal differences

The Daily Telegraph has given Simon Heffer permission to campaign for UKIP in the Bromley by-election tomorrow. "I am speaking in a personal capacity and I have told my paper," said Hefferlump. In a personal capacity, eh? That hasn't stopped UKIP proudly trumpeting him as "associate editor of The Daily Telegraph" on its leaflets.

Playing the field

After years of hostile coverage in his New York Post, Rupert Murdoch has put out the hand of friendship to Hillary Clinton, a boon to her presidential ambitions. Now number two son James, chief executive of BSkyB, has given her possible Democrat rival Al Gore a leg-up by sponsoring an event for the All Party Parliamentary Climate Change group at the Tate Britain on Wednesday. Just so Gore knew who was boss, James decided not to turn up, sending apologies instead.