Peter Black : OBITUARIES

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The Independent Online
In his 21 years as television critic of the Daily Mail, from 1952 to 1973, Peter Black transformed the once mundane business of television reviewing into a finely wrought and searching critical form. Until his time it had been the relaxed fiefdom of sharp young reporters who, after a minimum of viewing, mostly used the evening's programmes as the loosest of pegs on which to hang a string of jokes and cheerfully aimed brickbats. This was in the expectation that they were delivering the entertainin g columns which their editors required.

Black challenged those careless attitudes by doing television the signal honour of taking it seriously. He recognised the potential of the medium as a huge and fast-growing part of people's lives, its effectiveness as a means of mass entertainment, its latent ability to educate and inform and its still unfathomed influence for good or evil. But while Black accepted the creation of television's global village he took a detached and sceptical view of television's power to change things and came gradually to perceive that it was less a window on the world than simply a reflection of it.

"Belief in television's influence," he wrote, "is rather like the belief in life after death. Most of us would like to be able to prove it, but the evidence is inconclusive."

In turn it could be said that Black influenced not only the course of television commentary but of the medium itself. His approach was informed, civilised and deeply knowledgeable. He recognised the dedication of many broadcasters and he took care to learn the techniques of the trade he wrote about. His style was beautifully lucid and fluent, never lost its popular touch and was lit throughout with that essential ingredient of his own character - an unfailing and delightful sense of irony.

The timing of his appointment as the Mail's television critic could not have been more propitious. He arrived when television was still transmitted live, a single-channel black-and-white flickering image in the corner and he chronicled not only its leaping technical advances but also the arrival of ITV, the coming of colour and television's great golden age when the BBC became an extraordinary fountainhead of innovation, excellence and daring and the everyday fare of ITV included Maupassant, Saki, D.H. Lawrence, Harold Pinter, Joe Orton and Disraeli. It was not inappropriate that Black's farewell dinner party at the BBC should have included Sir Hugh Greene, Sir Huw Weldon, Sir David Attenborough and Paul Fox and that Lord Bernstein and Sir Denis Formanshould have hosted an equally nostalgic farewell luncheon at the Ritz.

Peter Black was born in Thames Ditton and began his career in journalism on the Letchworth Citizen. After serving in the Observer Corps during the war because of a disability (he had only one arm) he joined the Brighton Evening Argus in 1946. There he became that paper's chief feature writer and quickly made a mark as a perceptive and incisive critic of films and theatre.

After a brief period working for the Evening Standard as a special Brighton correspondent he joined the Mail as a diarist in 1950 and two years later took on his pioneering role writing about television.

Black always wrote with absolute integrity and he had the great critic's gift of writing deeply from within himself. The fact that television presented him with a range of subject matter from pop to high culture, from journalism to drama, enabled him to reflect in his own lively and idiosyncratic way as much on life itself as on the medium. Besides his daily television criticism and latterly travel articles for the Daily Telegraph and occasional pieces for the Oldie he wrote three books - The Biggest Aspidistra in the World: a personal history of the BBC; The Mirror in the Corner, a thoughtful analysis of television's growth in Britain and its likely effects; and Poms in the Sun, an endearing study of Australian urban popular culture, which both enthralled and appalled him and which, in terms of the big cities, he likened to being in Wolverhampton on the equator.

With the bucolic appearance of a kindly and rueful Provencal farmer, he was always a hugely entertaining companion and while his manner was deliberately low-key he had a splendid deep-throated chuckle which perfectly expressed his wry displeasure for allpeople and objects which he found ugly, boorish or vulgar. Though one- armed, he was unusually dextrous. He played a keen game of golf, learnt to drive a car in late middle age, and would carefully prepare and cook elaborate meals with the same deft andnimble skill.

Over a masterly Caesar salad in his flat in Henfield, West Sussex, only a few months ago, we talked about the many things he had relished in his life - the Mediterranean, his successive and beloved families of cats, his love of good food and wine and thefavourite books which he constantly re-read; the last was Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. But he reserved his deepest, most sardonic chortles to regale me with the life in store - the totally surprising and unwelcome hazards of age which, typically, he made hilarious.

n Peter Black, journalist, television critic, writer: born Long Ditton, Surrey 11 November 1913; married 1946 Joan Charlton (died 1992); died Brighton 26 January 1995.