An old love affair of mine is about to be re-ignited. The object of my dampened ardour is television, and the spark making that ardour blaze again is The Sopranos, David Chase's masterly drama about the lives, loves and psychoses of a mafia family in New Jersey. Series five begins on E4 at 10pm tonight, and on Channel 4 next Monday. For the next 13 weeks I will be in love with those cathode rays again, only to feel jilted when The Sopranos is over.
For 10 years I was a television critic, first for a local newspaper, then for two nationals. When people asked me what I did for a living and I said TV critic, I became used to a little recoil of distaste, the kind of response you might expect if you said you were a vivisectionist or a paparazzo. "I hardly ever watch television," those people said. "There's absolutely nothing worth watching." That used to rile me, not least because they seemed to be undermining my existence.
There were certainly some TV critics who appeared to hate television, but I wasn't one of them. I loved it. It was the Sven Goran Eriksson to my Faria Alam. While others struggled to comprehend the appeal, I couldn't get enough of it. "There's loads worth watching," I would respond, shirtily. "You're just not looking for it." Television, I often contended, was the 20th century's greatest invention, ahead even of penicillin, the jet aircraft, and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter.
I delighted in the news report that a Bedouin tribe had delayed the date of its annual migration across the Sahara in order to watch the last episode of Dallas; to me that seemed perfectly splendid. Besides, television was demonstrably a force for good. At one end of the spectrum, Live Aid couldn't have happened without it. At the other, there were lots of lonely old people whose lives would have been substantially poorer without Coronation Street or Countdown.
Those benefits still apply. I do not look at my old love and wonder what I ever saw in it. I know what I saw in it; I saw Middlemarch, The Fast Show, Prime Suspect, Alan Partridge, GBH, The Royle Family and Cracker, fantastic sports coverage, brilliant documentary-making and the world's best news and current affairs programmes.
Towards the end of my decade as a TV critic I saw the invention of the docu-soap, which at first I welcomed. At its best, it was compelling stuff. But it spawned a monster. That monster is reality television, which hardly anyone seems to have realised is an oxymoron. Where there are television cameras, there is no reality. The reality is an illusion, and the most powerful manifestation of the illusion is Big Brother.
I have watched no more than five minutes of Big Brother, and try not to wear my disdain as a badge of pride because I know how annoyed I was when dissenters knocked great television without even sampling it.
I don't mind acknowledging that Big Brother is great television, insofar as people pick it up and can't put it down. Jilly Cooper is a great novelist, too. But don't tell me that I am out of kilter with the times because the flowering of a Portuguese transsexual - Big Brother's latest winner, apparently - has passed me by.
It is largely because of Big Brother and all other so-called reality shows that I fell out of love with television. I hate I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here, too, for the ersatz emotion, the manipulative presentation, the way that even serious newspapers present the latest developments as hard news, while the downmarket press splash even the dreariest contestants over their front pages. I fear it is all turning me into Victor Meldrew. Now there was someone worth turning the telly on for.
It is stretching a point to say that I have become the kind of person I once despised. I know that there is still some fantastic stuff on television, that it's not all rubbish. But there's nowhere near enough fantastic stuff, and there's way too much rubbish, and consequently I hardly ever bother to reach for the remote control unit except to switch off, which for a former TV critic is like Sven turning celibate.
Once, during my telly-reviewing years, a man at a dinner party gave me the standard recoil of distaste, and said that he watched hardly any television, that he preferred to "get on with the business of living". At the time I thought it was the most pious claptrap I had ever heard, and told him so.
Yet now I find myself straying dangerously towards the same mindset. I haven't even watched The West Wing, or 24, or Six Feet Under, or Curb Your Enthusiasm, though I knew I would love them, because I felt so disillusioned with the business of watching.
All the above shows, incidentally, are American imports. Thirty years ago, American television was dismissed in this country as garbage. Which much of it was, and is, of course. But the best of it is miles better than anything we produce here, and that will remain the case while so much creative energy is expended on so many shows that are fundamentally worthless. But I don't care about all that. I'm lovestruck again: The Sopranos starts tonight.Reuse content